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Freestanding toilet planned for Begbie Street in downtown New West

Is the future $650,000 freestanding toilet in downtown New Westminster suffering from an identity crisis?
Rendering showing a permanent free-standing toilet planned for Begbie Street. That's it on the left, beside the tree and greenery.

A new freestanding public washroom will be installed on Begbie Street – not Hyack Square, as had originally been envisioned.

At a June 17 workshop, staff updated council about the plan to install a permanent free-standing (PFT) toilet in downtown New Westminster. The Urbaloo toilet unit will be located on Begbie Street, between Columbia and Front streets, on the sidewalk on the west side of the street (next to the Interurban condo).

“This project first was initiated over two years ago, in an interest to provide more access to toilets in the downtown realm,” said Tobi May, the city’s senior manager of civic buildings and properties. “We've undergone extensive technical research on appropriate sites in the area.”

May said “every sidewalk, every corner, and every piece of property that was adjacent to city-owned property” was considered for the permanent toilet facility.

“A lot of thought has gone into the location and the proximity, and lots of consideration given to the residents in the area, businesses in the area,” she said. “Everybody wants a toilet in the downtown, but it's really hard to be the one who says, ‘Yes, put the toilet next to our building.’ And so, we want to be really sensitive to that.”

May said the toilet is considered to be an amenity and a piece of infrastructure that will help make the downtown function better.

According to staff, the project has a $650,000 budget, which includes the cost of the toilet unit (about $200,000), construction and site works ($185,000), design consultants’ fees ($60,000), and other costs, as well as a contingency.

Karen Campbell, project manager in civic buildings and properties, said “it’s been challenging” to find a location for the PFT because of the downtown’s extensive network of existing services (including a Metro Vancouver sewer line) and its sloping topography.  She said Hyack Square was studied and deemed to be technically unfeasible.

Enough toilets downtown?

Coun. Paul Minhas said he recognizes the importance of having toilets downtown, noting people are “coming in left, right and centre” to try and use the washrooms in his Columbia Street business. He did, however, express concern that residents in the building next to the toilet’s location have not been contacted by the city.

“They probably don’t even know what’s happening and what we’re talking about right now,” he said.

May said the “extreme constraints” of downtown sites meant this was the “one feasible location” for a toilet in the downtown core. She said staff now have an opportunity to consult with the neighbouring residents on further design considerations that could mitigate any potential impacts.

Minhas said there may be a perception that there’s a shortage of toilets in the downtown, but he said washrooms are located in Anvil Centre, Fraser River Discovery Centre, the New Westminster police station, Westminster Pier Park, Quayside Park, the nightly shelter behind the former Army & Navy, and New Westminster City Hall.

May said that inventory of washrooms was known at the time when council directed staff to pursue plans for a permanent freestanding toilet for the downtown.

John Stark, the city’s senior social planner, said some people who are unhoused have said they don’t feel comfortable using bathrooms in some locations and feel they are being judged.

“While there may be washrooms available, it may mean that they may not feel necessarily comfortable using them, or there may be concerns among those who actually have the washrooms as to the individuals accessing them,” he said. “So, it's not so easy as just to say, there are washrooms available; you have to look at the circumstances and the conversations with the unhoused.”

Hours of operation

Staff recommended the unit’s operating hours be aligned with park washroom hours, which is generally sunrise to sunset.

At the June 17 workshop, some council members expressed surprise that the facility would not be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“I'm a big fan of public washrooms. I think we need more washrooms; that's what makes cities walkable and livable, and pedestrian-friendly, which are all the things that we want in our downtown core,” said Coun. Tasha Henderson. “I am under the impression, maybe I misinterpreted, but I assumed this was going to be a 24-hour toilet. …  I think we want something that's really adding to the needs of residents.”

May said 24/7 services were contemplated when the project was first discussed, but that changed because the project wasn’t costed or imagined in a way that would allow for an attendant. She said there’s “some connectivity” between having an attendant and being able to offer 24/7 access to the toilet.

“We do have the ability to adjust the hours of this Urbaloo,” she added. “We could have it available 24/7, but it wouldn't be staffed 24/7. So that's kind of an opportunity that we could explore through the pilot project.”

While she supports the idea of 24/7 public toilets, Coun. Nadine Nakagawa said cleanliness and maintenance is important.

“The use of these toilets for the whole community will be predicated on that cleanliness and maintenance of them, and I think that will be the big metric to watch,” she said. “If they're clean and nice, people will use them. If they're not, people will not use them.”

Who’s it for?

A reoccurring theme during Monday’s discussion about the toilet revolved around who it’s intended to serve.

May said access to public washrooms is an issue for many people in New West and elsewhere, including parents with children, individuals with health issues, and seniors.

“I wouldn't say that we're in a state of having enough washrooms to serve the public,” she said.

May said there’s an identified need for a toilet, extending beyond the known need of vulnerable individuals who need access to washrooms in the evening hours.

“It has not been proposed as addressing a specific niche issue,” she said. “It is meant to be accessible and available to all people.”

During Monday’s discussion, staff stressed that the new permanent free-standing toilet is seen as a benefit to all community members. (In past discussions about downtown livability, council members had discussed providing toilets to address concerns raised by businesses and residents about public urination and defecation on.)

Stark said conversations about human waste dominate discussions in many cities when they’re addressing the needs of people who are unhoused. He said city officials are trying to figure out how they can deal with this human rights and dignity issue, while at the same time providing safe and equitable access.

Nakagawa reminded council the conversation about public toilets began during the height of the COVID pandemic, when people couldn't go into businesses to use the washroom.

“We realized what bathroom deserts we have in the city and how much they impacted people,” she said.

Nakagawa said some people can’t use bathrooms in businesses – and it’s not the role of businesses to provide that service. She said the toilet unit will be a piece of city infrastructure and will address an infrastructure deficit.

“It’s not always possible to go a great distance to find a washroom,” she added. “They do need to be quick and accessible for people.”

Coun. Daniel Fontaine said the unit isn’t just a piece of infrastructure, it’s a public toilet.

“If this was plunked down in Queen's Park or the West End or in front of people’s single- family homes, there likely would be a lot of concern and interest on it,” he said. “And I know that there's a lot of people that are living right adjacent to the building. … Those people in that building need to know that this is coming and that they need to feel like they've been involved somehow in the awareness of this. Because it is their home and the door for their entrance is literally just feet from the new proposed public restroom.”

Fontaine expressed concern that “this toilet … is suffering from a bit of an identity crisis,” as he wasn’t clear if it’s intended for seniors, the general public or people who are unhoused.

“Staff has made it quite clear that the washroom is for everyone,” said Jackie Teed, director of planning. “So, I think that we need to proceed on the basis that the washroom is for everyone.”

Mayor Patrick Johnstone said cities have downloaded the responsibility of providing public washrooms onto private business for decades, something that was highlighted during the pandemic. He sees public restrooms as a very basic service that should be provided by local governments.

Johnstone said he doesn’t “feel the identity crisis” regarding this project.

“I think this is for everyone,” he said. “And I think that there are needs for everyone who occasionally needs to go to the bathroom. …  I think it disproportionately impacts older people.”

Approved 4-2

Following a 90-minute discussion about the project at Monday’s workshop, council voted 4-2 in support of a recommendation to directing staff to proceed with the installation of a permanent free-standing toilet as outlined in the June 17 report.

Johnstone and councillors Ruby Campbell, Henderson and Nakagawa supported the project. Councillors Fontaine and Minhas opposed the plan.

“What we're talking about is an investment of $650,000 tax dollars to build a free-standing toilet in amongst a whole bunch of other public toilets and also private toilets that many people can access,” Fontaine said. “And for that I look at our taxpayers and the rate of taxation we've had; I look at the costs that have been escalating in the city and for that reason, plus a number of others, I will not be supporting this motion that's been the table.”

Karen Campbell said staff will be doing further consultation with municipalities that have installed PFTs to hear about lessons learned. They’ll also be developing an operational strategy (before moving into tender and construction) and developing pilot project criteria success metrics on which to evaluate the pilot project.

“The next steps are anticipated to take about seven to 12 months,” she said, adding the timeline is subject to weather, external resource availabilities and market conditions.

Johnstone said he’d like council and staff to have a conversation about how they could move to a 24/7 model, so it’s as accessible as possible.

“And yeah, problematic things happen in public bathrooms, and that sometimes actually creates barriers for other people to use them, and that's something we have to work through operationally,” he said. “That's something that I think would be easier operationally work through once we have a place that's operating, and we actually understand the parameters and how to operate it.”

Most council members expressed support for more signage directing people to bathrooms that are currently available downtown, including Anvil Centre and Westminster Pier Park.