Downtown Albany is on the rise. We’ve got a magnificent carousel, great new cafés, and classic city blocks complete with catenary lights. Only one thing is missing:
A place to go the bathroom.
Everyone does it. Young folks, old folks, poor folks, rich folks, and everyone in between — we all need a place to go to the bathroom.
So if you visit downtown Albany on a Saturday morning and walk along the waterfront with coffee from the Little Wuesten Cafe, where can you make the inevitable pit stop? Depending on the season, the answer is: there’s nowhere to go.
Restrooms are important to all kinds of people who visit downtown. They welcome out-of-town visitors to stay and shop. They encourage people to walk our paths and pedal to work. The convenience of a nearby bathroom is essential for older folks.
A safe and private place also provides dignity. Without a clean place to go, it’s hard to feel like you belong. Untreated waste leads to disease, which impacts folks with and without homes. This is why the U.N. considers sanitation as a human right.
Everybody needs a place to go to the bathroom.
Since the City of Albany does not make restrooms available throughout the year, folks from First Christian Church and United Presbyterian Church got together to offer a portable toilet for anyone with an urgent need.
This was an obvious solution after staff noticed that the churches’ landscaping had become a de facto public restroom. Since the toilet’s installation, neighbors have noticed less waste. The churches have receive no complaints of vandalism or misuse.
The only challenge has come from city staff, who communicated through the newspaper that permission was needed. Consistent with the Municipal Code, and within 90 days of installation, the churches wrote to the city to ask for a permit for the toilet.
City code allows for properly maintained chemical toilets for up to 90 days without permission, and for longer periods with approval from Public Works. For this reason, the churches were surprised by city staff’s decision to deny the both the original request for permission and a request to appeal.
The issue is now before the City Council. While city staff has yet to issue any citation for unsanitary conditions — unsanitary conditions do exist — that is exactly the problem that the churches are proactively trying to solve. It makes sense to work together.
The simple fix is to amend the Municipal Code. An ordinance would provide city staff with objective criteria to approve or deny permits that are already allowed under the code. An ordinance would also allow the city’s own portable toilets to come into compliance. This solution would cost the city nothing.
A longer-term solution would be to form a small team to take a deeper look at the restroom issue. Consistent with the Health and Sanitation section of the code, the council may appoint a panel of citizens, including a doctor, to develop solutions.
While four of our six City Councilors expressed support for the churches, others raised an objection that the toilet may encourage homelessness. They cite Seattle, which has struggled with unsanitary conditions. This is exactly the problem that the churches are trying to solve, on their own property and at their own expense. Contrary to some perceptions, the churches have consistently complied with the city.
This is an opportunity for councilors to work together ahead of a challenging and divisive budget conversation. If the city does not have the will to provide this essential service, it should not obstruct the efforts of faith-based organizations to meet the community’s basic needs.