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Porcelain New York

Lincoln Center Has a Great Public Bathroom—Why Aren’t There More Like It?

"It's low-hanging fruit where these buildings already have an existing bathroom, and they could just open it up to the public."

(Erin Durkin / Hell Gate)

Lincoln Center's redesigned David Geffen Hall has gotten raves for its architecture and acoustics. But forget all that—let’s talk about the bathrooms. 

It's not immediately obvious from the outside, where passersby might be deterred by security scanners in place at certain times (the same weapons detectors Eric Adams is trying to install in the subway), but the building's sprawling lobby is open to the public, with chairs and couches and free WiFi—and at the back lies sweet relief. 

There are a dozen gender neutral stalls with nearly floor to ceiling doors, stainless steel fixtures, a trough-style sink with well-stocked soap dispensers, and a separate counter with a large mirror for your grooming needs. (The whole shebang is open on performance days; one side was closed off on a return visit, but even cut in half, it's pretty spacious.) 

Just outside the bathroom, there's a water fountain and bottle filling station, and even a supply of little paper cups if you forgot to bring a vessel. A separate, wheelchair accessible single-stall companion restroom offers a changing table. 

The bathroom is a personal favorite of Julie Chou, an architect and community board member who is something of an expert on the topic.

"It's beautifully designed. It has a full-time attendant, which is really nice. It feels safe," she told Hell Gate. "It's just a really nice public space." Chou added, "The city needs more of that."

Look at that tile! (Erin Durkin / Hell Gate)

Chou led a toilet-themed walking tour on Saturday, which she gives annually as part of the Municipal Arts Society's Jane’s Walks, with the Lincoln Center loo as one of the stops.

She is part of the Public Bathroom Working Group, made up of members from several Manhattan community boards who are working to expand restroom access in the city. 

Chou says she’s always surprised how many New Yorkers are willing to spend their Saturday afternoon traipsing around to examine places to pee. Her own interest in public bathrooms as a pet issue grew out of her work on housing and homelessness.

"Public bathrooms are a need and a right, a basic need," she said. "It's easier to manage, but often overlooked…Nobody talks about it. Nobody thinks about it. The planners don't consider it when they lay out our city."

The working group has counted an estimated 1,100 public bathrooms around the city, which ranks New York 93rd among U.S. cities on a per capita basis. Only two—at Penn Station and the Port Authority—are open 24/7. A bill introduced in the City Council would require the City to come up with a plan to increase the number of bathrooms to 4,200 over the next 12 years. 

Another stop on Chou's tour is Lincoln Center's David Rubenstein Atrium—one of the privately owned public spaces, or POPS, that developers build in exchange for zoning permission to make their buildings larger—on West 62nd Street. 

There, tucked behind a security desk, is a single-stall bathroom with both a urinal and toilet inside, plus a changing table and a humming air purifier. There are more bathrooms upstairs, though you have to ask for a key. 

But that POPS is one of only 14 that have a public bathroom, out of 600 such ostensibly public spaces. (Also highly recommended: the bathroom in the POPS at 550 Madison Avenue.) Chou's group is calling for the City to require POPS over 10,000 square feet to offer access to a bathroom—a rule that would open up 128 more restrooms. Three Manhattan community boards have passed resolutions to change the City's zoning laws to add the requirement. 

"That could be an easy lift. It's low-hanging fruit where these buildings already have an existing bathroom, and they could just open it up to the public. We're not asking them to build a new bathroom," Chou said. 

Another proposal that would come with no construction costs: opening up bathrooms in existing publicly owned buildings, like senior centers, City pools, recreation centers, and buildings (such as City Hall and courthouses) managed by the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. Together, these measures would create 1,243 more public toilets across the five boroughs. Chou also suggested asking restaurants to open their bathrooms to the public in exchange for waiving the fees they'll be charged to participate in the City's permanent outdoor dining program

The walking tour wrapped up at the bathroom carved into the Merchant's Gate at Central Park, which has earned 4.4 stars in Google reviews.

One more key proposal from the working group is to add bathrooms to the 390 public parks over an acre that don't have them. Currently, only 662 of the City's 1,700 parks have bathrooms. 

While the City is notorious for spending exorbitant sums to construct new park bathrooms, prefabricated Portland Loos or automated public toilets could provide relief more cheaply—but only five of the latter have actually been installed out of 20 purchased nearly two decades ago during the Bloomberg administration. 

"It's an accessibility issue. There are certain people who can't enjoy public space without access to bathrooms, so what are we saying when it's not a requirement?" Chou said. "We're saying, 'You don't matter, your needs aren't a concern.'"

Porcelain New York Rating for David Geffen Hall: 8.9

Do you know of a public bathroom that Hell Gate should review? Let us know! Send an email to tips@hellgatenyc.com with "PNY" in the subject line.

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