Self-cleaning toilets sink in New York Access for disabled, cost to users debated

July 14, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

NEW YORK -- Ah, New York, New York. The city with everything for everyone, all the time, any time. Everything except . . . enough public toilets.

Thus, Joan Davidson, president of the J. M. Kaplan Fund, philanthropic foundation, and a few other public-spirited citizens recently embraced an idea that seemed to offer a solution to New York's shortage of safe, clean restrooms -- a space-age, coin-operated sidewalk toilet that hoses itself down with disinfectant after each use.

The toilet's manufacturer, a French concern, seemed to take every urban peril into account in designing the outhouse. It's built of vandal-resistant concrete and stainless steel. The door opens automatically after 15 minutes to prevent the homeless from camping out. The compartment is so small that prostitutes can't use it for work. The seat is heated to prevent frigid winter encounters.

But the JCDecaux Co. of Paris appears to have underestimated one peril in its attempt to gain a beachhead in the American market: the contentiousness of New Yorkers.

The issue is no longer just toilets; it is such things as whether some, all or none will be accessible to people in wheelchairs; whether people should be given special cards to gain access to the toilets; and whether the state should relax its opposition to coin-operated toilets.

"This is like a lesson in civics class," said Douglas H. Lasdon, an advocate for the homeless who championed the French toilet. "We have a problem. We propose a great solution. Let's watch it fail."

All this started last fall when Mr. Lasdon's organization, the Legal Action Center for the Homeless, sued New York City under the state's public nuisance law to reopen and maintain hundreds of public washrooms, most of which are padlocked, filthy, inhabited by dangerous people or lacking in toilet paper, soap and towels.

In a report accompanying the lawsuit, the legal organization suggested the JCDecaux toilets as a solution. The kiosks, which are about 4 feet wide, are mounted permanently to the sidewalk, where they are connected to underground sewer, water and electrical lines.

"This is the ultimate public toilet," Jean Francois Decaux, the vice president of the company, said. "We have 10 years' experience, so this is the third generation of automatic public toilets that we are offering to New York City."

JCDecaux has installed 4,000 of its patented "public conveniences" in 700 European cities, including London and Paris. The self-cleaning process operates after the user leaves the compartment. The bowl retracts into the wall and is rinsed with high-pressure water and then dried. Likewise, the floor is flushed with jets of water. The process takes about 45 seconds.

The company offered to put five toilets in New York for free. After that, the firm hoped to lease 100 toilets to the city.

Amid the chorus of positive responses, the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities chimed in with a major complication. The advocates for the handicapped stated that city law and a 1990 federal law require each stand-alone unit to be large enough for a wheelchair.

City officials are studying the laws to determine how far they can go. Some argue that Mayor David N. Dinkins should simply tell disabled people to accept that only a percentage of the toilets can be wheelchair-accessible.

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