The Tiffany's of public restrooms gets a S$392,000 upgrade

The Bryant Park public restrooms will reopen this month after a US$280,000 (S$392,000) makeover
The Bryant Park public restrooms will reopen this month after a US$280,000 (S$392,000) makeoverPHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTimes) - Bryant Park, a 6-acre oasis set among Manhattan skyscrapers, packs in the crowds with its winter ice rink and holiday shops, summer movie nights, smorgasbord of artisanal fare and rustic lunch tables and chairs under stately London plane trees.

Yet it is a 315-square-foot Beaux-Arts gem that draws the longest lines: the bathroom.

If there is a Tiffany's of public restrooms, this is it. Divided into men's and women's sides, it has self-flushing toilets lined with sanitary seat covers that rotate between uses, fresh bouquets of flowers, classical music and two attendants at all times who mop and shine until everything gleams.

But even that isn't good enough: For those who have to go, it is about to get a whole lot nicer.

When the bathroom reopens this month after a US$280,000 (S$392,000) makeover, it will have sleek Toto toilets and fixtures, wall tiles in warm, earthy shades to reflect the trees outside and a modern air-conditioning system for the dog days of summer. The attendants, fresh flowers and seat covers will all return. And for the first time, original artwork depicting Bryant Park will be displayed, selected from the park's collection of 225 works by painters-in-residence.

"I'm going to come here more," said Mr Will Chen, 30, a messenger who uses the bathroom once a week. "I thought it was already good enough and now they're going to make it even better? I may live here."

The bathroom is one of a pair of compact buildings tucked behind the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue; the other has been converted into a park office and storage area. Designed as a public comfort station as part of the library, which opened in 1911, the bathroom was closed in later decades as the park descended into a blighted eyesore, a place best avoided that was overrun with drug dealers and criminals. Dust and pieces of plasterboard covered the bathroom floor.

"It was a total wreck," recalled Mr Dan Biederman, president of Bryant Park Corp., a nonprofit that manages the park.

In rebuilding the bathroom, Mr Biederman said, his inspiration was Mrs Brooke Astor, the grande dame of New York society. After all, she was indirectly responsible for saving it: Biederman said he had been told that in 1979, Astor, then 77 and a member of the library's board of trustees, was on her way into the library for a meeting when she said a "hooligan" approached her on the front terrace and tried to sell her drugs. She complained to her friend David Rockefeller that the area needed to be cleaned up. Mr Rockefeller helped secure the financial support to make it happen.

"Mrs Astor was in my mind," said Mr Biederman, who envisioned the bathroom as a powder room in a country estate. "Anybody from homeless people to Mrs Astor could use it."

The upkeep of the bathroom runs to US$271,000 annually, which includes US$27,000 for 14,040 industrial-size rolls of single-ply toilet paper and US$14,160 for flower deliveries. The bathroom attendants earn between US$25,000 and US$30,000 a year. The city-owned park is supported entirely through private revenue from a variety of sources, including corporate sponsorships.

It has become a popular pit stop for tourists, workers and residents alike. Average daily bathroom use has soared to 3,266 people in 2016 from 1,818 in 2013, according to park data. Lines can grow to 40 people or more, with the wait on the women's side stretching to 15 to 20 minutes.

"Sometimes I wonder how they can hold it that long," said Mr Ronald Lynch, 63, a bathroom attendant for seven years.

Mr Lynch has even spotted celebrities like comedian Chris Rock in the bathroom alongside the regulars who are so appreciative that they try to slip him tips, he said. When he turns them down because tips are not allowed under park policy, they return with a cup of coffee or a souvenir T-shirt for him.

The bathroom cannot be expanded because the exterior of the building, which has been designated a landmark, has to be preserved, park managers said. Inside, the men's and women's sides were previously flipped to squeeze in a third toilet for women (the men have two).

Instead, park managers have sought to make the bathroom experience one worth waiting for.

Any change - even to the playlist of classical music - is discussed at length at staff meetings. Park managers have convened focus groups on the bathroom. After women said they preferred not to have to touch anything, hands-free faucets and driers and self-flushing toilets were introduced. Park managers have also dispatched scouts to luxury hotels and restaurants, including the St. Regis, the Waldorf Astoria, the Plaza and Morimoto restaurant, to check out the competition.

Such attention to detail has not been lost on parkgoers. Ms Emily Gilas, 22, a nanny, said it was comforting to know there was such a nice bathroom just steps away.

"It's very important when you're walking around," she said. "There's a Starbucks on every corner, but those bathrooms are pretty gross."

From time to time, there has been work to update the Bryant Park bathroom, which reopened in the early 1990s. The current renovation is the most extensive yet and will help make it more efficient and resistant to wear-and-tear, park managers said. Soap dispensers were selected, in part, by how fast they dispensed liquid, and hand driers by how quiet they were - so as not to drown out the music. Ceramic tiles were replaced with more durable porcelain tiles. Larger tiles were used to reduce the amount of grout between them, and the scrubbing needed to keep them clean.

The park partnered with Toto, a luxury brand whose products can be found in the bathrooms of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Mandarin Oriental, among other places. Toto provided high-efficiency toilets, faucets, urinals, wash basins and hand driers.

Before closing the bathroom at the end of February for the renovation, park managers asked nearby stores if park visitors could use their bathrooms. Most refused. So the park installed a row of four portable toilets. To make them more palatable, park workers built an L-shaped wall to partly hide them, then covered the wall with a digital print of ivy that cost US$1,950. Bathroom attendants wipe down the portable toilets between uses.

Mr Ignacio Ciocchini, the park's vice president for design, said that having a nice bathroom - even a temporary one - was an invitation to stay longer in the park.

"We always want people in Bryant Park to feel as comfortable as in their living room," he said.

Mr Ciocchini recalled that several years ago he overheard two women talking excitedly to their friends upon returning from a trip to the bathroom. They even dragged their friends over for a look.

"You would have thought they were talking about a sculpture," he said. "But they were talking about a public bathroom."