Missoula’s most high-profile bathroom is open for business and it’s already seeing a steady stream of visitors.
Just don’t let the placement intimidate you.
The Portland Loo, on East Pine Street in the Art Park, sits prominently on the sidewalk, separating the user from the surroundings with its steel walls. Don’t get too comfortable in there, though – its ventilation allows sound to flow in and out easily, also bringing a sharp breeze on cool mornings.
Almost every one of the Loo’s features, which initially may seem flaws, actually is designed to deal with specific public bathroom issues.
“There was a lot of pressure on issues of safety,” said Laura Millin, director of the neighboring Missoula Art Museum. “So what we did was pull together police and parks for the design.
“Their concerns turned out to be really parallel.”
The first drafts of the park’s design involved huge planters behind a zigzag bench, as well as another half-wall along the street.
Both of those features provided easy places to hide, Rob Scheben, the former Crime Prevention Officer for the Missoula Police Department, told the designers.
“Shoot, that looks like a perfect encampment,” Millin said of the initial designs.
Scheben, who’s an expert in Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, or CPTED (pronounced sip-ted), advised the design process, along with Parks and Recreation’s Director Donna Gaukler, according to Millin.
So the planter was gone, along with the barrier along the street, enabling police to see almost the whole park from their patrol cars.
That left the park with far fewer features than designers initially wanted, Millin said, but they ended up liking the minimalist design a lot more, since it placed more focus on the art.
“In an unexpected way,” City Communications Director Ginny Merriam added. “Everything has made it not only more functional and safer, but more beautiful.”
The Loo was deliberately placed in the open, with the door facing the street, instead of being located at the back, in a more private space.
“That might be your tendency,” Millin said. “But no, you want it on the corner.”
Design features of the Loo align with CPTED principles as well.
Take the lack of sink. Instead, there's hand sanitizer and/or a water spigot to prevent people from using the Loo as a washing machine.
Or the vents, added to allow police and those in line to see if the Loo is in use, and by how many people. (By the way, a quick crouch-check confirmed there’s no line of sight toward anything above mid-calf).
More vents on the top of the Loo let ambient noise flow in, making it impossible to forget that one is doing one's business in the middle of a sidewalk.
They’re designed to make anyone using the Loo for other activities think twice or act fast, and also prevent the Loo from becoming a weather shelter.
Although it’s designed to prevent people camping out in it (or to sleep, have sex or do drugs), the Loo is really big. Like, double the size of a standard bathroom stall.
“You wouldn’t want to have to leave your dog to use it,” Millin explained. Or stroller or bicycle, either.
The Portland Loo has generally been met with approval – the city for which it's named has five now, and there are one or two in other cities across the West – aside from one notable exception.
San Diego removed one of its two Loos last year after crime rates and maintenance costs spiked, according to an article from the San Diego Union-Tribune. There were no plans to move the Loo anywhere else at the time.
The Loos, which cost around $100,000 apiece, ended up costing the city more than $500,000 to install, according to the article, and crime calls to the area around one of the Loos increased by 130 percent.
That Loo was only up for a little over a year before city officials pulled it off the sidewalk.
To make up for the loss, a nearby St. Vincent De Paul shelter opened its restrooms 24 hours a day with a security attendant, at an estimated cost of $100,000 a year, according to the Union-Tribune.
Costs for the Missoula Loo, along with maintenance for the entire Art Park, will total about $28,000 a year, according to Parks and Recreation Director Donna Gaukler.
That figure includes work on the planter beds, irrigation, lighting, snow and ice removal and daily Loo cleanings.
The MAM’s janitorial staff and the downtown Business Improvement District workers also make daily spot-checks of the Loo, Millin said.
The $90,600 bathroom ($105,600 with installation) has drawn just one complaint so far, Merriam said.
A woman called into the mayor’s office concerned the toilet’s vents made it “indecent” and unsafe.
Millin tried it the other day and had no complaints.
“It worked,” she shrugged. “It’s strictly business.”