In the News

Seattle’s University District may at last get public restrooms

Seattle’s University District may at last get public restrooms

Wednesday, April 17, 2024 community toilet

By Daniel Beekman and Anna Patrick, Seattle Times staff reporters

View article in The Seattle Times

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is supported by BECU, Campion Foundation, Raikes Foundation and Seattle Foundation. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

People who live, work and pass through Seattle’s busy University District may at last get access to public restrooms near light rail.

The Low Income Housing Institute plans to build street-facing public restrooms into a new apartment complex at Northeast 45th Street and Roosevelt Way Northeast, the nonprofit announced Monday. The complex will also include a nonprofit-operated Urban Rest Stop hygiene center.

The housing project could take years to complete, and details related to the restrooms still need to be hammered out, including how the stalls will be funded and staffed, said the nonprofit’s executive director, Sharon Lee. But the news matters because the densifying U District is one of many Seattle neighborhoods where safe and convenient restrooms are scarce.

“If you have a restroom, that’s well lit, fast and clean, people will use it,” Lee said on a call Tuesday. “We think we’re providing a public health service.”

Local leaders made no immediate new moves to solve Seattle’s toilet crisis last year after a Seattle Times series highlighted the city’s inadequate supply of restrooms. But residents who voted in a “participatory budgeting” process took action, allocating $7.2 million in November for 24-hour options.

Mayor Bruce Harrell’s administration hasn’t spent the money yet; a city-community team is working on implementation, a Harrell spokesperson said Tuesday.

Cory Crocker, president of the U District Community Council, called the Low Income Housing Institute’s plan a “fantastic” step, especially if the new restrooms have attendants.

U District advocates have long campaigned to secure public toilets for students, residents, shoppers and commuters, and the area’s homeless residents have gone without an Urban Rest Stop since the housing institute’s lease at a church expired in 2020. The new building will be a few blocks away from the light rail station at Brooklyn Avenue Northeast. Restrooms right by the station would be ideal, but the new complex’s location also makes sense, Crocker said.

“This is an exciting development for the U District,” Don Blakeney, executive director of The U District Partnership, said in a statement Monday.

“For years the community has identified affordable housing and public restrooms as top priorities for the neighborhood. This project will deliver both, in addition to an Urban Rest Stop, which will meet many of the needs of our unhoused population in Northeast Seattle,” added Blakeney, whose organization does street cleaning and marketing for the area.

Sound Transit, which owns the property at 45th and Roosevelt, will sell the land to the Low Income Housing Institute at a discount, according to a news release from the nonprofit. The nonprofit, which currently operates a tiny house village on the land, was selected to develop the site via a competitive process. The city will contribute $15 million to help construct the new housing complex, the news release said, with Harrell hailing the project’s partnership as innovative.

The project will have 160 low-income apartments, plus street-level retail spaces, according to a housing institute news release. The Urban Rest Stop will offer free showers, laundry machines and other hygiene services to people living outside and in shelters. Separately, the public restrooms will serve anyone. They’ll face Roosevelt Way Northeast, which includes a bike lane.

One of the biggest challenges for public restrooms is providing enough regular oversight to keep them clean and usable. In the U District, Lee hopes the Urban Rest Stop staffers will be able to help watch the restrooms, too. The Low Income Housing Institute plans to hold community meetings to help design the project.

“We really want to be an asset to the businesses” in the area, Lee said.

Blakeney’s group is open to collaborating with the nonprofit and the city to make sure the restrooms are staffed, maintained and “work just as well for a 3-year-old, or an 83-year-old, or a person experiencing homelessness,” he said.

As Sound Transit reviewed development proposals for the property, The U District Partnership pressed for street-level amenities, Blakeney said Tuesday. Sound Transit didn’t request restrooms specifically but asked for proposals with public benefits. Lee said that spurred the restrooms idea.

Neighborhood advocates will continue to campaign for additional public restrooms even closer to the U District light rail station, Blakeney said.