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The ghost toilet on Pittsburgh’s South Side offers lessons for Downtown's new public bathrooms

Vines grow over an iron fence in front of a nonfunctional public toilet.
Jakob Lazzaro
90.5 WESA
The automated public toilet, located on the corner of East Carson and 18th streets in the South Side Flats, opened in 2003 but closed sometime between 2008 and 2011.

Last week, city officials announced the installation of two new public bathrooms in downtown Pittsburgh. Two multi-stalled trailers — one just outside the Gateway T station, and the other on the corner of Smithfield Street and Strawberry Way — will be open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Both have running water, sinks and heat, and are staffed 16 hours a day by ambassadors with the Downtown Partnership program.

Officials say the goal of the 6-month pilot program, funded as part of a $2 million private investment in Downtown improvement projects, is to scout out locations and funding to install permanent public restrooms. The work is based, in part, on two separate Point Park University studies that called for more facilities Downtown, both to help improve hygiene among those experiencing homelessness and increase the (currently scant) options for visitors.

But this isn’t the first time Pittsburgh has brought new bathrooms to a neighborhood in need. In 2003, the city staked a claim on the frontiers of technology with its first automated public toilet, which opened on the corner of East Carson and 18th streets in the South Side Flats.

For 25 cents, patrons got 20 minutes inside the handicap-accessible, self-cleaning commode — one of only 19 in the world at the time, according to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article hailing its arrival.

The high-tech bathroom’s floor rotated like a conveyor belt between users, with it and the toilet getting washed out and sprayed with disinfectant during a 40-second process. The facility normally cost $250,000, but the city got it for free through a larger contract with Clear Channel Adshel to install bus shelters, trash cans and other street furniture in exchange for the rights to sell advertising on it.

The city expected to rake in $2 million annually for its share of the 10-year deal, and the toilet was remotely monitored and maintained by Clear Channel’s Pittsburgh division offices on Saw Mill Run Boulevard.

A second toilet (possibly the 20th in the world?), was slated to come soon. But it never materialized, and all that fanfare has since been flushed away.

Instead, the East Carson Street toilet closed sometime between 2008 and 2011 and has remained closed since, the wrought-iron gate padlocked shut.

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What happened to the South Side toilet?

City communications director Maria Montaño says the East Carson Street bathroom was pitched as the “toilet of the future,” but that expectation didn’t live up to reality.

“It was supposed to be sort of autonomous,” Montaño said. “It was going to staff itself, it was going to clean itself. It was supposed to do all of these things. And the reality is the technology wasn't really there to make it work in the way it was supposed to.”

Unfortunately, she says all that technology means reopening the bathroom is out of the question — the company that manufactured it no longer exists, and that means the ability to repair it is likely lost.

“That is a nonfunctional piece of city infrastructure, for lack of a better term,” Montaño said. “It would require basically starting over from scratch and building out something completely new there.”

The access panel for the closed toilet.
Jakob Lazzaro
90.5 WESA
The access panel for the closed toilet.

And that lack of access is a problem. As a major bar district, East Carson Street draws people late at night, and they sometimes leave certain traces.

“Very, very often if you talk to residents who live around East Carson Street, they will share that there's a lot of public urination going on,” South Side Community Council president Barbara Rudiak said.

Rudiak was born and raised on the South Side, and spent much of her career working there as principal of a local elementary school. She says that during major drinking holidays like St. Patrick’s Day, the city brings in temporary portable toilets paid for by local parking enhancement district funds — and they make a difference.

“They do measure the amount of urine that is collected in these public toilets, and it's considerable,” Rudiak said. “So it's doing a service to those of us who live down here.”

But the East Carson Street toilet is doing the opposite.

“People who may have lived here for a long time, seeing that public toilet is an irritant because it can't be used,” Rudiak said. “And more often than not, people say there could be parking spaces there.”

Rudiak says replacing the toilet is not a top priority for residents, as they’re focused on other issues first like improving public safety late at night on East Carson, trash and litter cleanup, and reviving the business district. Still, she says they would be happy to see more bathroom access in the area — because everyone needs to go.

Lessons for Downtown

At the moment, Montaño says the city is focused on improving the situation Downtown, and based the pilot program on a 2022 Point Park University study on how to increase bathroom access in the neighborhood. And while that study focuses on Downtown, it does offer insights as to what a new facility on the South Side could look like.

Co-authors Heather Starr Fiedler, chair of the school’s Department of Community Engagement and Leadership, and Dorene Ciletti, an associate professor and program director of the Marketing and Sales program, outline three options, although the cost varies depending on the type.

The cheapest and quickest is what city officials chose for the pilot program — mobile bathroom trailers on wheels, complete with flush toilets and sinks.

According to the study, Denver operates two such trailers that feature heating and air conditioning, a baby changing table, a sharps container for injection needles, and an attendant. They take up around three parking spaces each, at a cost of $34,000 per month, and have the advantage of being able to be moved as needed.

The most expensive choice, of course, is building a permanent bathroom in a single location. According to estimates provided to the researchers by Public Restroom Company, a basic two commode gender-neutral toilet build starts around $200,000 for installation. But costs vary widely, and units that are larger or have more amenities can easily hit the lower millions.

And in the middle, prefabricated semi-permanent bathrooms such as the Portland Loo that are constructed off-site and then shipped in, assembled and connected to city water and sewer lines can cost around $140,000 annually. However, they usually are more of a spartan affair — think an all-steel toilet bowl, graffiti-resistant paint, vented slats at the top and bottom, and a cold water spigot on the outside instead of a sink, to prevent people from washing clothes.

Ciletti says the biggest issue with improving bathroom access is maintenance and funding, whether it’s from city tax dollars or a public-private partnership, and keeping that funding going in perpetuity. This is where the South Side toilet failed.

“You know, we can install something, but if 5 or 10 years down the road we don't really have a good plan for maintenance, safety, security, supplies and cleaning, then it's going to fail,” Ciletti said.

Montaño says that’s why the city's starting with the Downtown pilot program.

“One of the things that we're trying to learn from this pilot project Downtown is what does it actually take to keep a public restroom clean and safe?” Montaño said. “And what does that mean in terms of operational costs either to partners, or foundations, or to the city itself?”

And if things go well, Montaño says they will consider expanding to other areas.

But for now, if you’ve got to go on East Carson, you’re out of luck.

Jakob Lazzaro is a digital producer at WESA and WYEP. He comes to Pittsburgh from South Bend, Ind., where he worked as the senior reporter and assignment editor at WVPE and had fun on-air hosting local All Things Considered two days a week, but he first got to know this area in 2018 as an intern at WESA (and is excited to be back). He graduated from Northwestern University in 2020 and has also previously reported for CalMatters and written NPR's Source of the Week email newsletter.