Pissed On and Pissed Off
In keeping with downtown advocates' desires to make the East Sixth Street entertainment district a more "user-friendly" environment (see "Who Owns Sixth Street?," May 4), the Austin Police Department has joined with the Downtown Austin Alliance and the Friends of Sixth Street to create a place for public restrooms on the popular street.
The idea, of course, is that creating public facilities might curb the number of people who now relieve themselves in the alleys to the south and north sides of the street. The long-term goal is to create permanent public facilities -- possibly in the new parking garage the city hopes to build to accommodate Convention Center expansion. In the meantime, APD Cmndr. Harold Piatt (who oversees the officers who work Sixth Street) said, the police -- with support from the DAA and FOSS -- plan to put in a portable toilet "corral" at the corner of Sixth and Trinity Streets that would be in operation as a test project for the next six months.
At least that was the plan until two weeks ago, when the six residents of the apartment above the Paradise Cafe, on the corner of Sixth and Trinity, got a whiff of the plans. Khy Chapman, who lives in the loft apartment at 507 Trinity, said none of the six residents of the apartment had heard anything about the plans until they saw city workers drilling holes for a fence that will surround the corral, not 15 feet from their front door.
"We put up with a lot to live here, but up until now it's all been white noise and no smells," he said. But all that would change, he said, once the potties arrive. With no air conditioning, the residents of the apartment rely on the cross-breeze created by the seven doors and large windows to cool the apartment. Unfortunately, the windows and doors flank the western wall of the apartment, which faces Trinity and directly overlooks the proposed toilet site. With the installation of the portable toilets, Chapman said, the residents are not only facing smells, but also a surge of pedestrian traffic late into the night. Quite frankly, they're pissed. "We don't even have any smokers in our house," he said. "Not to mention how those doors slam -- they're spring-loaded -- wham-wham-wham."
It turns out that the six roomies aren't the only ones who hadn't been told of the plan. "They did not involve everybody that should've been involved in making this decision," said Chris Riley, head of the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association. Riley said his group hadn't heard anything about the project until Chapman and his roommates contacted him. "The sad part is, we're all in favor of public restrooms in the Sixth Street area, but this location is unfortunate."
DANA wasn't the only group the APD failed to consult. They also forgot to notify the city's preservation office, which must sign off on all projects that will effect the historic street. "We're working under the assumption that a review is needed," said Barbara Stocklin with the preservation office. Stocklin said the city's historic landmark commission is scheduled to address the toilet-corral issue at their July 23 meeting. Until then, construction of the facilities has been halted. But whether the office has the power to stop the project is unknown, she said. "The thing is, it's not a normal, routine thing. Normally you get a temporary right-of-way use permit when you're doing rehab on a building, or putting up scaffolding to paint," Stocklin said. "For something like this, we really don't know. That's why we're asking the police to come and show us, what are you proposing?"
Whether the preservation office has any jurisdiction over the proposed potties, City Council Member Will Wynn (a Sixth Street property owner and arguably downtown Austin residents' biggest council ally) said he does not endorse placing the facilities on that corner. "I would not support putting it at that location," he said. Wynn said he was under the impression that APD had already received approval from the preservation office and had contacted all the neighborhood groups about their plans. "So, we'll have to find a more suitable location, and we will get this up and running."
In the meantime, the six Trinity roommates have been doing a little research on their own and have found that the state health code prohibits constructing a "privy" within 75 feet of any residence, if the facilities are not intended for use by that residence. At this point it is unclear whether the APD has gotten the approval of the health department to put the potties at the site. Nonetheless, APD Cmdr. Piatt said he does not want to see this project go by the wayside. "Quite frankly, I'm not going to let them stop this project," he said.