Some city leaders hope to flush out downtown Dallas' void of pedestrian activity and tourist facilities by installing a very non-Dallas innovation throughout the central business district: European-style, self-cleaning public toilets.
Councilwomen Veletta Lill and Lois Finkelman, Mayor Pro Tem Mary Poss, the Central Dallas Association, and city staff members met late last month with a representative of Adshel, a London-based media company that offers cities stylish street furniture and public restrooms free of charge in exchange for lucrative advertising rights at bus shelters.
The hope of downtown boosters is that new potties will make for a more people-friendly central business district by benefiting West End revelers and tourists milling about. The proposal dovetails with calls for incentives to lure boutique retail businesses--such as the Gap, Banana Republic, and Pier One--to downtown's nearly deserted environs.
"We need to start thinking of ourselves as a pedestrian city," says Lill, an outspoken advocate of urban renewal and historic preservation efforts. "That means there will be people walking around who need to use a restroom."
Lill, who represents Uptown and Oak Lawn, faults a downtown she says is socially stratified: Whereas office workers dine in underground tunnels and use sky bridges to get around, the remaining folks use all-but-abandoned streets.
Indeed, Lill says when she walks on downtown sidewalks, passersby often ask if something is wrong. "I frequently have people stop me and say, 'Excuse me, do you need a ride?' I say, 'No, I'm doing this because I like to walk.'"
Lill hopes to make downtown a more inviting place for regular folk by pushing for better lighting, wider sidewalks, street furniture, and the vaunted restrooms. "We have to push people to come back on the street," she says, before amending her position somewhat. "Encourage," Lill corrects.
The Downtown Homeless Committee--a city-appointed panel of 25 merchants and social service providers convened under pressure from newly arrived loft dwellers upset over rampant homelessness--broached the public-toilet idea in an August presentation to the City Council. But they stopped short of recommending such a move.
Instead of marketing the new commodes as relief for the homeless, advocates now bill downtown toilets as an amenity primarily for tourists and pedestrians but also for the homeless. Adshel officials agree with that strategy. "They should not make it only a homeless device, because other people may get turned off to using it," says Martina Schmidt, a New York-based vice president for business development working with Dallas officials.
Still, even that reformulation sparks skepticism from business owners who worry that any new amenities available to the homeless will become staging points for crime and vagrancy.
"If it's going to be left alone with no supervision, it's going to be a mess," says Mehdi Aboodi, owner of the Farmer's Grill. The restaurant is near a church-sponsored soup kitchen, the inhabitants of which he claims are responsible for vandalism and burglaries at his property. "If it's serviced and not a nuisance, that's fine."
He adds: "Do I want it in front of my business? No."
Bathroom backers seek to allay such concerns by pointing out several technical features of the restrooms, including time limits, a rotating floor for cleaning, regular maintenance, and off-site security to prevent squatters from taking over or causing disorder.
"You can't get in there and keep it locked," says councilwoman Finkelman of North Dallas. "It opens up every 20 minutes and you have to keep putting money in."
A brochure from Adshel, a subsidiary of San Antonio-based Clear Channel Communications that claims more than 3,000 contracts in 20 nations, details the functionality of the APT, or Automatic Public Toilet. The toilet facilities have a stone-clad appearance and a rounded, vaguely traditional look.
"Every APT has its own fresh air supply which is deodorized and thermostatically controlled," says the brochure, which displays snazzy APTs throughout London's Westminster neighborhood. "...Inside, visitors will find the quality and hygiene they would expect of a hotel toilet--complete with soap dispensers, waste chute, mirror, and coat hooks."
Schmidt said that although Dallas' car culture differentiates the city from London or New York, restrooms and engaging street furniture could aid in revitalizing downtown. "When I came to Dallas the first time, I really missed that public space," says Schmidt, a native Berliner. "Our company together with other initiatives can help bring people downtown."
The company, which currently is conducting a potential-use study of Dallas, commissions internationally recognized architects to design its facilities, including modernist architect Richard Meier, who designed the Getty Center in Los Angeles and recently designed bus shelters for Adshel in Washington, D.C.
"What appeals to them is they realize they can make a difference throughout an entire city," Schmidt explains. "It's something that becomes part of everyday life." The company also has a presence in New York, Chicago, and Miami Beach.
Lill is intrigued by other Adshel services, including "cute" bike rental equipment for possible use on the Katy Trail and shared newspaper racks to lessen what she sees as unkempt clutter downtown. In other cities, that concept has garnered opposition from publishers citing freedom of speech concerns, but Schmidt says Adshel will work with publishers to set reasonable terms if council members go forward with the plan.
Backers don't think Dallas has a need for hundreds of toilets like London but see potential nonetheless. The proposed Victory development near the new American Airlines Center, White Rock Lake, Pegasus Plaza, the West End, along the Trinity River, and the Old Red Courthouse have been suggested as locations for public toilets.
But the trade-off--public facilities in exchange for prime advertising space in bus shelters across the city--opens an assortment of problems that council members may not be eager to revisit. Namely, that outdoor advertising always seems to spark controversy in Dallas. Last April, the city council approved a ban on new billboard construction, citing the unsightliness and unchecked proliferation of Dallas billboards.
"For us to do it, we would need an amendment" to the interlocal agreement with DART, which forbids bus-shelter advertising, says Lill, who plans to push the issue during the next few months.
One council member is already skeptical, if undecided. Sandy Greyson of Far North Dallas, vice chair of the council's transportation committee and critic of outdoor advertising, remembers a failed Dallas Area Rapid Transit plan to build more bus shelters using advertising revenue.
"As the proposal got further along, the advertising got bigger and bigger and I got more reluctant," she recalls.
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The subject matter of advertising is also an issue. While local billboards often feature ribald themes, Adshel insists its bus shelter advertising would meet "community standards," with no tobacco advertising.
To bring in public toilets, the city would have to issue a formal request for proposals. Companies other than Adshel could apply for the contract, but so far Adshel is the only company that has made a presentation to city and civic leaders.
Meanwhile, the potty proposal is building steam among city leaders eager to bring relief to Dallas' beleaguered downtown. "If we're going to have more of a 24-7 downtown, then we're going to need restrooms," says councilman Alan Walne, who's undecided but open to the idea. "What I'd have to hear is the perspective of other cities."
Finkelman sees an immediate practical impact for the concept. "Maybe it's ahead of its time, and we need to wait a few years until downtown retail is established," she says. "But there are areas of the city where it may make good sense."