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Daniel Rubin | City's pay-potty has few takers

It's been nearly half a year since a shiny, European-style toilet showed up on the north side of the City Hall apron and started accepting quarters.

It's been nearly half a year since a shiny, European-style toilet showed up on the north side of the City Hall apron and started accepting quarters.

So far, the pay-potty hasn't heralded the end of civilization as we know it - although some civic types are wary.

In Boston, junkies discovered that the sleek kiosks were perfect for shooting up. In Seattle, hookers found them nicer - and cleaner - than no-tell motels.

Yet in Philadelphia, the public convenience has stayed out of that sort of limelight.

"Tell you the truth, I didn't even know it was out there," says a supervisor at the Ninth Police District when I ask if there have been any arrests.

In fact, since its arrival in November, the self-cleaning kiosk has been hiding in plain sight - used only 14 times a day, its Boston owners say.

Here, the trouble with toilets seems to be all about signs.

Some fans of blight-free streets fret that the high-tech potties are really Trojan horses that could lead to the papering of the city with unsightly advertisements.

The Public Property Department is to close bids May 11 for the right to install as many as 35 toilets around town. The winning firm would donate each $250,000 contraption to the city, and profit through the sale of ads slapped on them as well as on hundreds of other pieces of "street furniture" - newsstands, pillars, trash cans and benches.

The city would get a cut of the profits.

Boston sees about $1.3 million a year from a similar arrangement, says Martin McDonough, president of Wall USA.

A Trojan toilet

Mary Tracy, director of SCRUB, Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight, calls the city's proposal "a massive plan for advertising on any kind of surface."

Not so, answers Public Property Commissioner Joan Schlotterbeck, who contends that the plan will allow the city to coordinate ads on public spaces, not let them proliferate.

She credits Mayor Street with revisiting the pay-to-go concept, which the Rendell administration first considered.

(As a man of the people, Street grasps the need: Former City Hall reporter Clea Benson tells how after finishing the Broad Street Run in 1999, she pointed out the then-mayoral candidate to her sister, only to watch in horror as Street veered off into the bushes for a call of nature.)

The toilets, Schlotterbeck said, will be a big hit with the public. But we didn't just take her word for it.

One recent weekday, the gleaming kiosk door slid open and a middle-aged woman stepped out and into the mid-morning sun.

It takes years of reporting experience to know the right opening question in such a situation.

"How was it?" she repeated. "I think it's good."

She said her name is Patty, and she'd been living on the streets for a month. The Reading Terminal's facilities are too busy. McDonald's makes you buy something.

"When I first walked into it, it didn't smell real sweet. But there's privacy. It's clean. Usually. There's no one bugging me. When there's five minutes left, it warns you. It even plays music - or Muzak. This is my favorite bathroom."

A professional opinion

Wanting another expert, I called Pam Dalton, a cognitive psychologist from the Monell Chemical Sense Center in West Philly. Dalton studies the aromas of hog farms, compost pits and restaurant dumpsters.

I spotted her the quarter.

Using a trick she learned from a perfumier, she cleared her nose by sniffing the inside of her forearm as she entered the gleaming head.

Her report: "It has a mild, very weak, I'd say fruity scent, but not so that you'd say, 'I'm smelling bananas.' " She sounded disappointed.

"My guess is there's the potential for odors if it's July 4th and people are lined up, but right now it's beautiful. Coming here on the El, I walked through the City Hall courtyard. That smelled far worse than the inside of this bathroom."