Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Public 'Pittsburgh potties': First of two new bathrooms opens Downtown

A blue public bathroom trailer reading "The Pittsburgh Potty" with three doors and a handicap accessible ramp.
Patrick Doyle
90.5 WESA
A new "Pittsburgh potty" public bathroom trailer downtown, located near the Gateway T station, on Sept. 14, 2023.

Vaughan Parker lives in a tent on the North Side. When he’s Downtown, he finds that restaurants don’t always let him use their restrooms if he doesn’t buy something, he said. So he’ll often take a free ride on the T train to the North Side, where there are port-a-potties near the baseball and football stadiums.

But on Friday, Parker bumped into a new temporary public restroom in the parklet next to the Gateway T station while Pittsburgh city workers were putting final touches on it. Parker asked when it would open. “I’ll be the first one in here,” he said.

Pittsburgh officials hope many more people like Parker take advantage of two new temporary restrooms Downtown. The second location — on Smithfield Street at Strawberry Way, near the Downtown branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh — is set to open next week. They’re both part of a six-month experiment by city and downtown leaders to improve the cleanliness of the neighborhood and give people more options.

Downtown already offers a few public toilet options inside the City-County building, the Allegheny County Courthouse, the Carnegie Library branch and near the fountain at Point State Park. But the facilities Downtown are not evenly distributed, and businesses have complained about public defecation. Homeless people say it’s difficult to find a restroom Downtown that doesn’t require making a purchase.

The new restrooms will be open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day and will be staffed by an attendant.

WESA Inbox Edition Newsletter

Start your morning with today's news on Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

“These new facilities are a step in addressing a key public health and hygiene issue and will help drive longer-term solutions that make Downtown a more inviting place for visitors, workers and residents,” said Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership President and CEO Jeremy Waldrup.

Funding for the six-month “Pittsburgh Potty Initiative” is being provided by corporate donors, according to the PDP, with additional support from the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.

Chase Archer Evans, a member of the Downtown Homeless Advisory Board, said the new restrooms would be a big help, not just for the homeless but anyone traveling to the city center. But he said the unhoused will still struggle to find restrooms overnight when public restrooms are closed.

The Gateway restroom, which was formally unveiled Friday, has a floral design on the outside and says “The Pittsburgh potty.” It will contain three toilets, one of which is ADA-accessible, and the Smithfield restroom will have two toilets. Both restrooms will have running water, electricity, lighting, and adjustable heating and cooling. They will be cleaned daily and monitored by the PDP.

A study by Point Park University last year recommended installing public restrooms Downtown, similar to facilities found in Portland, Oregon, as part of an effort to make the neighborhood cleaner and more welcoming.

Vaughan Parker waits to use the new public restroom in downtown Pittsburgh.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Vaughan Parker waits to use the new public restroom in downtown Pittsburgh.

Georgina Meyer travels from Homestead to Downtown Pittsburgh every day on public transportation. The trip can take two hours, she said. When she finally arrives, it’s difficult to find anywhere to use a bathroom. This is a problem for everyone, especially the vulnerable, she said.

“These homeless people down here can't go to the bathroom anywhere,” she said. “I understand people are overdosing and dying, and the places don't want to keep coming in and finding people dead. But people still need to go to the bathroom.”

Meyer attends a methadone clinic everyday to help her manage addiction. But the new restrooms will help everyone, no matter their circumstances, she said.

There are special boxes in the restrooms for people to dispose of needles. Attendants outside are trained in the use of naloxone, an overdose reversal drug, and they will pay attention if people seem to have been in the restroom for too long, Waldrup said.

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey said there would be security to ensure the bathrooms are part of a safe Downtown.

“We can't have people decide they're going anywhere. So we have to create places for them to go,”Gainey said. “If not, then what we're saying is that we just want to get rid of the unsheltered.”

This new initiative is meant to be temporary while the Building Owners & Managers Association works with the city to create more permanent facilities Downtown.

“We believe adding facilities like these and other permanent accommodations in the future is important to ensure a clean and enjoyable experience for our residents and visitors,” said Lynette Stevens Smyth, the association’s executive director.

Updated: September 15, 2023 at 5:45 PM EDT
This story has been updated to add additional comments from city and Downtown leaders and others.
Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.