“Want a better restroom?” reads the sign next to two sad port-a-potties near Riverside Park’s 95th Street tennis courts.
About 100 people strolled by those port-a-potties on Saturday as part of the second annual walkathon of the Green Outlook Project: an effort to replace the smelly toilets with a set of high-tech, solar-powered, environmentally friendly composting toilets as well as a wildflower garden and new maintenance shed.
This section of the park is built on a landfill with little electricity or plumbing available, and it is not attached to a sewage grid, so traditional bathrooms are impossible. The Riverside Park Fund and Riverside Clay Tennis Association have been fundraising for the project since 2010. Braving the windy chill, the walkers raised about $3,000 to $4,000 for the project on Saturday, RCTA board member Robin Noble-Zolin estimated—but there’s still a long way to go in raising money.
The toilets will compost waste underground just as leaves and food might be composted. It will introduce the waste to bacteria that will process it into a fertilizer, which can be used in the nearby garden.
The solar panels will heat the water, turn on the lights, and power the pumping mechanism that transports the compost from storage to an area where it can be accessed and put to use.
Mark McIntyre, executive director of the Riverside Clay Tennis Association, said the project is the first of its kind in New York City that “combines composting technology and solar power.”
But so far, the $6 million project has struggled to raise funds. The only public funds committed are $1.2 million from City Council member Gale Brewer, who represents the area. The project recently received a $50,000 grant from solar energy group Green Mountain Energy Sun Club to install solar panels on the facilities, and organizers have also applied for a capital projects funding grant from the borough president’s office.
McIntyre said he is hopeful that the effort will raise enough private funds over the next four to six months to finalize design and get necessary permits. He added that he hoped groundbreaking would occur within the next six months to a year and that ribbon cutting would happen between a year and two years from now.
Philanthropy took a major hit during and after 2008 as a result of the financial crisis, he said.
“We started this campaign just as the stock market crashed,” McIntyre said. “Going to people and asking them to contribute with tax deductibles, like all charities, we have taken a big hit.”
While the city Parks Department, the Riverside Park Conservancy, and local elected officials are supportive, McIntyre said, “not a lot of these agencies and individuals have a great deal of money to help pay for it.”
McIntyre said that the completion of the Cherry Walk, Hudson River Greenway, and Riverwalk pedestrian paths along the Hudson River has increased pedestrian traffic to the tennis courts, meaning that “instead of dozens of visitors every day, we have hundreds, and we have thousands on the weekends.”
Given the park’s increased popularity and the accessibility of the completed walkways, McIntyre said, “these two portable toilets are not enough to service the needs of the park.”
McIntyre added that a set of composting toilets would actually be notably cheaper than standard off-the-grid electric toilets for that area.
Community Board 7 chair Mark Diller, CC ’80, said locals should be doing as much as possible to make it a reality.
“The idea that sustainable energy would be used to create it is, of course, a home run—or I guess a grand slam, if you are talking tennis,” Diller said.
Participants in the walkathon agreed.
“The people in the neighborhood should really get behind this idea,” tennis player Linda Clark said.
Pam Campbell, senior associate of COOKFOX Architects, worked with a number of consultants to help plan out the program and figure out how to accommodate the building into the land.
“You’ll see the worst of what the city is doing, and you’ll see the best of what the city is doing,” Campbell said at the walkathon, referring to the poor state of the port-a-potties now and to the green technology of the planned composting toilets.
Other parkgoers said they would like something different from the port-a-potties.
“I would be curious to try it,” Petra Donnalova, a babysitter who was walking two children in the area, said. “As long as it will not smell bad, I would be much happier to use it than these port-a-potties.”
“I saw the port-a-potties there, and I thought that I’d rather go outside than use them,” said Emily Provost, a nanny who comes to the tennis courts every Friday with two children. “Today I thought to myself, ‘Don’t drink a lot of water so you are not forced to use them.’”
But Provost, recalling the experience of using a composting bathroom in Vermont, said she had some concerns.
“It was basically a really big black hole. It was kind of frightening,” Provost said. “There wasn’t any odor, but the hole was so far down that you felt so… unsupported. Even if you were squatting, you were like, ‘Oh my God! What’s down there?’”