August 9, 2013

The latte lavatories: old toilet blocks facing a cafe makeover

They are seedy and entirely unlovely, redolent of graffiti, urine and filth. But three vacant Sydney toilet blocks may soon be occupied under a plan to turn them into cafes.

The City of Sydney has been fielding offers from cafe operators to take over decommissioned public toilets at Taylor Square, Belmore Park near Central Station, and Hickson Road at Millers Point.

It would put the idle council assets to work and create unusual new commercial spaces in a city intent on ”reactivating” its forgotten nooks.

Forget the past: A historical toilet block located in Belmore Park may soon be your local coffee stop. Photo: Lidia Nikonova

In particular the Hickson Road site, built into a cliff face, is a potential goldmine. It is across the road from Barangaroo, one of Australia’s largest urban redevelopments, where hordes of builders, and later office workers, will be looking for a coffee and croissant fix.

Despite the structures’ insalubrious past, a council spokesman said it had received ”a number of enquiries to convert these old toilets into cafes, so there is clearly interest”. The council will finalise how to re-use the facilities after signing off on its public toilet strategy – a Sydney first.

However, a council development application for the Taylor Square site, long slated for re-use, seeks to convert the space ”for future use as a cafe” including counters, lighting and outdoor seating.

Stomach-turning though it might sound, the concept of restrooms-turned-restaurants is not unheard of.

In London, an underground Victorian-era men’s toilet has been converted into a cafe called the Attendant, replete with the original porcelain urinals, which now serve as booths.

In Sydney, the Gardener’s Lodge cafe at Victoria Park, Camperdown, and the Sydney Cove Oyster Bar at Circular Quay have also had past lives as lavatories.

The bar’s manager Dimple Nanikram said customers often inquire about the building’s history. ”We tell them it used to be public toilets … They just laugh and say it’s better as a restaurant,” she said.

Colliers International retail leasing manager Alex Berentsen said after the renovations, customers would likely ”forget what it used to be”. As for retaining the toilet theme, he said while Sydneysiders are not averse to quirky conversions, ”I still don’t think you’d want to call up your mate and say, ‘I’m at the toilet cafe’.”

The president of the 2010 Darlinghurst Surry Hills Business Partnership, Lawrence Gibbons, questioned why the council had installed portable urinals on Oxford Street, ”turning it into an open-air toilet” while the Taylor Square block sat idle. ”Wouldn’t you think restoring it to its historic use would make sense?” he said. The council plans to install automated toilets at Taylor Square and Belmore Park.

Mecca Espresso partner Sam Sgambellone said re-using lavatories was ”something that if you do creatively, people will talk about it”.

Prime locations: Many of the historical toilet blocks are located in great areas for business, such as Taylor Square (pictured above) and Hickson Road. Photo: Lidia Nikonova

August 6, 2013

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