Additional reporting by With additional reporting by Suhail Bhat

Nearly four years after floating the possibility, the city Department of Parks and Recreation is preparing for a trial run of prefabricated, kiosk-like bathrooms that cost a fraction of the multimillion-dollar price tag for building traditional restrooms. 

The five Portland Loo toilets, made by an Oregon-based metal firm, cost roughly $185,000 each, according to a Parks Department spokesperson. 

But the overall budget to buy and install five Portland Loos, in one pilot location in each borough, starting as early as summer 2024, could reach as much as $5.3 million. 

And strict New York City building code restrictions on prefabricated construction have dragged out getting potties to parks, a Parks spokesperson acknowledged. A sales manager for Portland Loo’s manufacturer, Madden Fabrication, told THE CITY that securing approval in New York was more difficult than in any other location the company has worked in.

“I built 180 of these, from Portland to Alaska to Miami, and I’ve never had this certification problem,” Evan Madden told THE CITY. “New York City has been the most difficult to have a permit approved for.”

A former parks commissioner first proposed the prefab potties in 2019 as a cost-saving measure after THE CITY highlighted the shocking $4.7 million cost of building a single comfort station in The Bronx.

Parks Department spokesperson Meghan Lalor said the budgeted Portland Loo price tag included costs for running new electric and water lines to the units, along with prep work, foundation work and other construction needs.

The modular bathrooms resemble curved newspaper kiosks, with slatted sides that are intended to provide needed privacy, but also enough sightlines to dissuade illicit behavior. They include a baby-changing table and a separate hand-washing station, documents show.

The proposed sites for the trial run are Irving Square Park in Bushwick, Brooklyn; Thomas Jefferson Park in East Harlem, Manhattan; Hoyt Playground in Astoria, Queens; Father Macris Park in Graniteville, Staten Island; and Joyce Kilmer Park near Yankee Stadium in The Bronx.

Lalor said the agency is still finalizing the site design while getting required approvals from community boards and the Public Design Commission before moving to procure the units. 

“We are installing Portland Loos in one park in each borough, in areas specifically chosen because they did not previously have bathrooms,” said Lalor. “This is a pilot to determine the feasibility of using this model in the future as an economical solution to building bathrooms in parks.”

Building Barriers

In East Harlem, Manhattan Community Board 11 wrote a letter supporting Thomas Jefferson Park’s inclusion in the pilot. Even so, a number of its members questioned why the long-underserved neighborhood wasn’t getting a traditionally built comfort station, as the board had requested.

“While Community Board 11 supports this restroom, the implementation of the ‘Portland Loo’ should not serve as a permanent alternative to a full comfort station structure as requested in the CB11 Statement of District Needs,” board chair Xavier Santiago wrote last week in a letter to the Parks Department. “It is important that historically disadvantaged communities like East Harlem receive equitable resources in the implementation of these initiatives such that the quality and quantity of resources provided are commensurate with other Manhattan districts.”

Presenting the project at a recent online CB11 meeting, a Parks project manager and designer, Chad McNeil, informed members that even the prefab units are not as affordable as they might at first appear. “We have funding available — about a million dollars per site — which might be shocking to some, but utility connections are what drive the costs of these,” McNeil said.

The Parks Department released a rendering of a planned Portland Loo public restroom in East Harlem’s Thomas Jefferson Park. Credit: Rendering/NYC Parks

Former Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver said in November 2019, following a City Council hearing, that the agency was exploring the idea of installing smaller, stand-alone bathrooms. THE CITY had called attention to the spiraling cost of comfort station construction earlier that year.

Cities across North America have turned to the Portland Loo as a cheaper alternative to new bathroom construction. The units have been installed in about 90 locations in the U.S. and Canada, according to a website marketing the units, including in nearby Hoboken, N.J., and Shelter Island, Long Island.

Madden, the loo fabricator, told THE CITY he didn’t hear a peep from New York City officials until February 2022, when one of them angrily called and asked why the firm wasn’t providing the potties.

The short answer: Nobody had ordered them.

Madden said NYC Department of Buildings (DOB) rules require that a pre-approved fabricator assemble the units — or that they be inspected by a special inspector registered with the agency — but that he couldn’t find any manufacturers on the list provided by the city willing to do so. He ended up having to get a fabricator certified by DOB, which took some time.

Buildings officials said the use of a pre-approved fabricator or special inspector is a requirement for any structure that’s assembled outside of the five boroughs and shipped here, in order to ensure it complies with city codes and regulations.

The list of approved fabricators currently contains 125 firms, but is divided into four specialties: Metal buildings, steel, modular and precast.

Lalor acknowledged that challenges in finding a fabricator caused the delay — an issue she said wasn’t resolved until September.

She also said the Parks Department has been exploring other faster and cheaper restroom options. Those include piloting a modular comfort station in Staten Island that was constructed completely indoors — avoiding weather delays — as well as a composting toilet that’s been installed in Fresh Kills Park.

Rising Costs

As THE CITY has reported, the cost of installing what are known as “comfort stations” in city parks ballooned before the pandemic — from an average cost of $1.3 million in 2011 to $3.6 million as of 2018. 

Currently five comfort stations in the construction pipeline carry estimated costs between $5 million and $10 million. And one planned for the velodrome in Kissena Park in Queens has an estimated cost of more than $10 million. 

Then-Mayor Bill de Blasio said in response to the reporting that the procurement rules and red tape that bog down the process for building parks projects would have to change.

Lalor said the agency has since taken a number of steps to cut costs — including standardizing designs, eliminating pricey or custom items, and limiting the length of utility runs that connect comfort stations to water and electric lines.

However, she said, the Kissena Park comfort station would require a long utility line because of a lack of suitable areas to install the restroom, which is contributing an estimated $5 million to the overall cost.

These public restroom challenges aren’t limited to parks, however.

Last year, THE CITY reported that just five of 20 automatic sidewalks toilets purchased under the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2006 had been installed.

Officials at the city’s Department of Transportation, which is responsible for the sidewalk toilets, didn’t respond to a request for an update.