[Hpn] SF Media Pissing Match pt 1 -- Vandalism plagues S.F. street toilets

coh coh@sfo.com
Wed, 11 Jul 2001 10:53:32 -0700

Chronicle staffer Ilene Lelchuk has been distinguishing herself lately
through her regular attacks on homeless people. This spring and summer she's
penned a series of articles to manufacture public consent for some of SF's
most savage homeless sweeps ever. Unsurprisingly, the story lines are fed to
her by the Mayor's office, and by business groups eager to profit by
gentrifying the mid-Market Street area.

Also unsurprisingly, the Chron's parent company, the Hearst Corporation, has
extensive real estate holdings in the mid-Market Street area, and their
profit motive is pretty transparent for anyone savvy enough to go to City
Hall and do a property title search.

Ms. Lelchuk's latest focus has been on SF's public toilets (an appropriate
beat). Any critical reader can easily point to the obvious bias in her
stories. I won't begin to describe here all the years of struggle by the
disability and homeless advocates to get these pricey French-made,
malfunctioning monstrosities in the first place.

Happily, the inevitable backlash finally made print today in the SF
Guardian. Adam Thompson's story, which is the third post in this trio. Even
if you skim the first two, you should take the time to read the third, if
for no other reason than how rarely common sense makes print.

Yes, I'm afraid this is what passes for news here in the big city.



Vandalism plagues S.F. street toilets
Commodes that work receive high marks

Ilene Lelchuk, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, July 9, 2001
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle


The sleek green pay toilet in San Francisco's Civic Center Plaza, next to a
children's playground and across from the main library, wasn't working last

The digital readout on the high-tech, self-cleaning commode said "Occupied.
" But it wasn't. 

"You want to get in? I can get you in," shouted a hefty woman walking toward
one of the 23 French-made pay toilets sprinkled throughout the city.

She body slammed it. With a single heave from her left shoulder, the shining
silver door slid wide open.

"It never works. But if you hit the door, it always opens," said the 49-
year-old woman, who declined to give her name but announced that she was a
crack addict and needed the rest room right then for a fix.

Six years after then-Mayor Frank Jordan sat inside the city's first JCDecaux
Co. toilet for its debut, about 25 percent of the new street toilets have
become major problems for maintenance crews, police and tourists who try to
use them. 

Three toilets are so bad the Police Department asked JCDecaux to close them
at night starting this spring, according to company officials, despite their
contract with the city to keep the toilets open 24 hours a day.

Company representatives consider vandalism and illegal activity the price of
doing business. They anticipated these problems, especially in San
Francisco's neighborhoods where the homeless traditionally congregate.

"Anything that has contact with the public is going to have maintenance,"
said the company's local general manager, Stephen Whitlock.

Whitlock added: "We're not the police force. We are a maintenance company.
We maintain the toilets to the best of our ability."

The city, too, believes the free toilet program generally is positive for
residents and tourists alike despite the problems.

"The bottom line is we couldn't control the elements," said Jake Szeto of
the Department of Public Works who manages the JCDecaux contract for the

The roomy 84-square-foot rest rooms, costing about $150,000 each, were
provided without cost to the city in 1995 in exchange for the right to sell
advertising space on 90 matching JCDecaux kiosks.

San Francisco was the first city in the United States to install these
automated facilities. The city now has 23 with two more under construction.
Palo Alto has two, San Jose has seven, and Los Angeles is considering
installing them. 

For 25 cents (or a free token that San Francisco distributes to the
homeless), the bathroom door slides open and shut automatically, the toilet
cleans and disinfects itself after each use, and the sink senses the
presence of a customer's hands and dispenses soap, warm water and hot air.

JCDecaux technicians visit all the toilets at least once a day and file
maintenance records with the city.

Those records reveal the best and the worst of the public lavatories.

The best, generally, are in tourist areas, such as Union Street at Columbus
Avenue and along the Embarcadero, where the concrete walls and floors are
clean and fresh smelling.

The worst are in Civic Center Plaza and outside the Mission Street BART
stations at 16th and 24th streets, areas known as hangouts for the homeless,
drug dealers and prostitutes.

A recent peek inside the 16th Street rest room revealed a floor littered
with orange plastic caps from hypodermic needles and condom wrappers.
Another problem toilet at Larkin and Myrtle streets just spit out coins and
refused to open. 

The toilets, which are usually sparkling clean from the outside, win marks
at least for appearances from the San Francisco Convention and Visitors

"I think they are better looking than your average public facility," said
Laurie Armstrong, the bureau's vice president of public relations.

Tourists Gary and Millie Hendrix, visiting last week from Arizona, found the
toilets quite convenient.

"I've never seen anything like this," Gary Hendrix, 55, said as he stepped
out of a clean commode at Fisherman's Wharf.

"I think they are kind of neat," said Millie Hendrix, 51.

Still, tourists can bump up against the seedy side of San Francisco at the
pay facilities. Records show JCDecaux technicians shoo sleeping homeless men
many mornings out of the toilets at Fisherman's Wharf and at the cable car
turnaround on Market at Powell streets.

They manage to spend the night inside even though one quarter supposedly
gives you only 20 minutes of privacy before the door slides open. If the
door is jammed closed, or any other problem is detected by the computerized
bathroom, a red light flashes at JCDecaux's San Francisco office.

But JCDecaux technicians go off duty at 9 p.m., Whitlock said.


At Justin Herman Plaza, a popular tourist spot across from the historic
Ferry Building, even the homeless who occasionally camp there complain the
toilet frequently breaks down.

"Most of the time, they don't work," said Tad Sky, who has been selling
jewelry at the open-air market at the plaza for nearly 20 years.

Sometimes the door is stuck open or shut or the display simply says out of
service, Sky said. He has found needles and bloody rags inside.

"It's much better to have a public toilet than not, but when it's not
working, I have to send people into the hotel," he said, pointing to the
nearby Hyatt Regency. "It's just not right for all the tourists."

Szeto of the Public Works Department said he expected maintenance problems,
but was surprised to learn some toilets were closed at night.

"It's better than nothing there at all, but it bothers me that a lot of
these may not be working," said Szeto, who plans now to take a closer look
at JCDecaux's maintenance.

The police are not surprised by the problems surrounding the toilets.
Officers in the Tenderloin District are even trained how to break in if they
need to. 

In 1999, the toilets were unwitting co-stars in an HBO documentary about
heroin use in San Francisco. A Berkeley filmmaker followed a group of
strung- out junkies into the pay toilets, where they used their 20 minutes
to shoot up. 


"We predicted there would be some problems," said police spokesman Sherman
Ackerson. "But we're sort of between a rock and a hard spot. San Francisco
needs these public toilets. A lot of street people were not using facilities

As for the criminal elements surrounding certain toilets, Ackerson said,
"It's something people should be aware of."
Self-cleaning public pay toilet locations

1. Fisherman's Wharf: Embarcadero & Powell sts.

2. Fisherman's Wharf: Jefferson & Powell sts.

3. Bay & Taylor sts.

4. Coit Tower (Under Construction)

5. Washington Square: Union St. & Columbus Ave.

6. Pier 7 

7. Drumm & Clay sts. (Under Construction)

8. Justin Herman Plaza

9. Market & Spear sts. 10. St. Mary's Square: Pine & Quincy sts. 11.
Transbay Terminal: Mission & 1st. sts. 12. Union Square: Geary & Powell sts.
13. Macauley Park: Larkin & O'Farrell sts. 14. Boeddeker Park: Eddy & Jones
sts. 15. Market & Powell sts. 16. Civic Center: Grove & Larkin sts. 17. U.N.
Plaza: Market & 7th sts. 18. Mission & 6th sts. 19. Stanyan & Waller sts.
20. Market & Church sts. 21. Market & Castro sts. 22. Mission & 16th sts.
23. Twin Peaks 24. Mission & 24th sts. 25. South Van Ness Ave. & Cesar
Chavez St. Chronicle Graphic

E-mail Ilene Lelchuk at ilelchuk@sfchronicle.com.

©2001 San Francisco Chronicle   Page A - 1

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