Ads-for-Toilets Deal May Leave City Flush

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A proposal to swap valuable billboard space on Interstate 80 for public toilets is slated for discussion at tonight's Berkeley City Council meeting.

The measure would have city staff members study a plan to give currently prohibited billboard space on the east side of I-80 to Adshel, a New York-based company specializing in outdoor furniture.

In return for one freeway billboard, the initial plan would have Adshel remove four billboards in the city and install and maintain for 20 years two of its coin-operated, self-cleaning Adshel public toilets, similar to the green JC Decaux toilets in San Francisco.

Adshel is owned by the same company as billboard giant Eller Media, which controls several billboards in South and West Berkeley. If the measure passes, city staff members will negotiate the details.

Michael Colbruno, a spokesperson for Eller Media's Oakland office, said revenue from billboard advertising would help pay for the toilets.

He said many cities have expressed interest in the toilets but are reluctant to install them, as maintenance can cost $60,000 per toilet annually. Each toilet costs $250,000 to install.

Over the course of 20 years, Adshel would spend $3 million on the toilet deal, but the proposed I-80 billboard would be worth about $7,500 a month, Colbruno added.

Unlike the French-made Decaux toilets, the Adshel toilets would have a floor that rotates like a conveyor belt, disinfecting the floor and disposing loose items.

"It's like you're getting a new floor when you step in," Colbruno said.

He said the city will determine how much the toilets cost per use and how long they can be used without replacement.

Councilmember Kriss Worthington, one of the measure's co-sponsors, said the arrangement is similar to one currently under scrutiny in Oakland.

"If we can get a proposal within reason, we should study it," Worthington said. "We need to begin the negotiating process to see what are the possible parameters of the deal."

Worthington described a plan that would place up to six toilets in the Downtown, Telegraph Avenue and University Avenue areas. He said South and West Berkeley residents have advocated taking down neighborhood billboards. Worthington added that the deal would not allow Adshel to put advertising on the toilets.

Councilmember Diane Woolley, however, said she would oppose the measure and is worried that Adshel may cheat the city.

"A company manipulating governments for its own purposes is very well versed in how to do this," she said. "We should proceed very cautiously. This is not the way the council should be doing business."

Dan Newman, a local business owner, said combining the toilet and billboard issues obscures how much money the city could lose from the deal.

"If creating new billboards is so valuable, then sell the billboards to the highest bidder," Newman said. "If the city needs toilets, the council should put a toilet contract out and pay cash."

Oakland is contemplating a similar but larger-scale deal, said Jay Leonhardy, chief of staff to Oakland Councilmember Henry Chang.

Leonhardy said the Oakland City Council was not satisfied with Adshel's original proposal, feeling that the city was being short-changed, and is opening the deal to competitive bidding.


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