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NYC’s Promised Public Bathrooms Still Doing the Waiting Dance

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A public restroom in Washington Square Park, Jan. 24, 2020.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

As public bathrooms continue to be one of the rarest commodities in the city, the Adams administration has not provided a timeline or any details for the installation of 15 automatic sidewalk toilets unused for more than a decade. 

In 2006, the Bloomberg administration announced a 20-year franchise agreement with Cemusa, later bought by JC Decaux, to put in 20 automatic public toilets and 3,500 bus stop shelters and at least 330 newsstands in New York City.

But only five of the toilets have been installed and the city has struggled to find suitable new spots. For years, the others remained mothballed in a Queens warehouse but city officials declined to detail where they are currently located. 

“It’s quite disheartening to see the city just basically back out on its obligation to ensure people can relieve themselves, which is a basic human need,” said Karim Walker, who was formerly homeless. 

The stalled bathrooms come as the Adams administration has decided that a recent change to the Building Code does not mean the city can force restaurants to open their bathrooms to the public, according to a report in Crain’s New York Business

As for the sidewalk bathrooms, in August 2020 Scott Gastel, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Transportation blamed the pandemic for the slow roll out and told THE CITY two new restrooms “will be installed soon.” 

That never happened. 

The Adams administration declined to discuss what has led to the delay or divulge a new timeline. 

Time is running out: the city’s contract with JC Decaux expires in 2026

George Arzt, a spokesperson for JC Decaux, said “next up” are two toilets for Brooklyn, one in Red Hook and another in Williamsburg. 

But Arzt and city officials declined to detail exactly where in those neighborhoods or when they’d be put in place. They cited technical issues like the need for electricity, sewage, and water access as challenges for finding suitable areas.  

There is also a prohibition in flood zones, where many good spots exist, Arzt said, noting that some targeted neighborhoods have opposed the installation of the sidewalk toilets. 

A Dire Need

Meanwhile, an estimated 2,376 individuals who are experiencing unsheltered homelessness on the streets of New York struggle to find bathrooms each day. 

On Tuesday, several told THE CITY they primarily rely on public bathrooms in train stations or ask friendly restaurant managers. Some sneak onto LIRR trains before they leave the station to use bathrooms on board. 

A public street option would help alleviate the constant search for a restroom, said Keith Miller as he stood on 35th Street and 7th Avenue in Manhattan. 

“They’ll let you in nine out of 10 times,” he said of a nearby McDonald’s restaurant. 

The five street bathrooms installed so far are popular, according to the company. 

Keith Miller said he uses bathrooms around Penn Station while dealing with homelessness, March 29, 2022.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

There were more than 3600 flushes for all the facilities in December, the latest month available, according to Arzt. They each have varying hours of availability. 

One new city lawmaker who has been outspoken on the issue urged the Adams administration to install more public bathrooms. 

“It is truly baffling that New York City refuses to build more public bathrooms despite a $100 billion budget,” Councilmember Sandy Nurse (D-Brooklyn) told THE CITY. “It is not only a sanitation issue, but also a public safety and civil rights issue.”

She said the lack of public bathrooms means the city continues to “criminalize” homelessness and maintains an “inhospitable city for menstruating, pregnant, disabled folks and delivery workers.”

Last September, de Blasio signed landmark legislation granting app-based food deliverers access to restaurant bathrooms and a host of other protections. 

Lack of bathroom access had become a rallying cry for Los Deliveristas Unidos — a grassroots collective of mostly immigrant food delivery workers that began organizing in 2020 after pandemic rules shuttered restaurants to indoor dining and closed other bathroom options.

New York City and much of the rest of the country have long struggled to provide bathroom access to people on the streets, especially in lower-income neighborhoods.

In the 1970s, activists pushed to ban public bathrooms that charged a fee. Many states ended up making pay public toilets illegal but alternative solutions for public bathrooms did not arise.

In the German city of Bremen, the government has given incentives of 50 to 100 euros a month to restaurants and other businesses that open their bathrooms to the public.

An umbrella group representing city restaurants said it supports tax breaks for eateries to help them bounce back from the pandemic as well as more public bathrooms. 

But the two issues should not be “contingent on each other … because they’re both the right thing to do,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York Hospitality Alliance.

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