It's no surprise to anyone familiar with Pioneer Square that the neighborhood has a piss problem. And, depending on who you talk to, it's getting worse. "It's like a yellow tide that washes over the neighborhood during game days at the stadiums," says resident Richard Todd, "or leaves its high-water mark under the viaduct on rainy days. It's definitely smelly and definitely a growing problem."
While it's impossible to measure the exact trend of public urination, some neighbors say it has increased due to Sounders games gaining popularity, and they fear more game fans will bring more piss now that the Huskies are using CenturyLink Field.
But it's a problem not easily solved, residents say, thanks to a lack of obvious public restrooms and an ever-changing influx of tailgating sports fans, tourists, weekend clubgoers, bar patrons, and homeless people lining up for the area's soup kitchens and other social services.
"There's been a perception that the problem is only with low-income people, but the larger issue is with people who don't live here," explains Anne Fennessy, a public affairs consultant who's lived in Pioneer Square on and off for the last 15 years. "I've seen men in business suits, people of all socioeconomic circumstances, doing bad things in the square. The bottom line is people don't know where to go and they think [public urination] is tolerated. So we, as a neighborhood, have to say that's not okay."
Which is why Fennessy has teamed up with a small group of like-minded property and business owners to Febreze the shit out of Pioneer Square's piss-logged image.
So far, their solutions have been simple but effective: Last summer, the group released an updated tourist map identifying the few public restrooms in the neighborhood's train and ferry terminals and City Hall. Other residents have reclaimed alleys like Nord Alley to use for public art and social spaces, which keeps them from becoming impromptu restrooms. And last fall, the group contacted the Seattle Seahawks to ask the team to provide 15 porta-potties outside the stadium on game days for tailgaters.
"Once they brought those porta-potties in, it reduced human waste in the square by a third," Fennessy says. But the problem persists.
Workers for the Metropolitan Improvement District, which tracks human waste (among other factors) in the downtown area, report that deposits of human waste are still an ongoing issue in Pioneer Square, downtown, and Belltown. They reported seeing 36 acts of public urination and cleaning up 1,211 piles of human waste in the last few months. (Obviously, downtown and Belltown have "high tides" of their own.)
Already, pissing and shitting in public is a ticketable offense; however, neighbors say police resources are spread thin in Pioneer Square, and cops are reluctant to crack down on public evacuators when restrooms are spread few and far between.
"We need more public restrooms," Todd says, stating the obvious. He jokes: "One every five feet or so would do the trick. Maybe with neon arrows pointing the way—real flashy, Vegas shit."
And it might finally happen (minus the neon lights). Thanks to the neighborhood group's diligent groundwork, "the city is listening," says Fennessy. They're currently exploring a number of options with city officials, including opening up another set of public restrooms in nearby Fire Station 10, following Portland's lead and installing a few of its patented Portland Loos, or even building a concierge facility in the square "with boccie balls and public restrooms—the works," she says.
In addition, the city is exploring an idea that would allow cops to ticket public pissers with a more socially equitable, fine-free consequence, like community service. Aaron Pickus, a spokesman for Mayor Mike McGinn, phrases the solution in bureaucratic terms to avoid uttering the word "piss," saying: "The city is in the very early stages of a restorative justice pilot that would work with neighborhood stakeholders on supporting Pioneer Square."
It can't come soon enough.
"Living downtown, you have to love people, but you don't have to lower your standards on what's acceptable," Fennessy says. "We always ask police and fire department people, 'Would you accept this in Wallingford?' And they say, 'No!' Then why is it acceptable here?"