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Cambridge Moves Forward with Public Toilet in Harvard Square

By Ivan B. K. Levingston and Celeste M. Mendoza, Crimson Staff Writers

After years of discussion, the City of Cambridge is moving ahead with the construction of a public toilet in Harvard Square this fall. The toilet, which is expected to serve the needs of both residents and the local homeless population, will be located in General MacArthur Square between Harvard Yard and the Old Burying Ground on Massachusetts Ave.

According to Kathy Watkins, a city engineer and the assistant commissioner for engineering for the Cambridge Department of Public Works, installing the toilet will cost about $350,000 to $400,000 in total, with the structure itself costing about $90,000.

“The goal is really to provide an accessible safe place for public restrooms,” Watkins said. “There’s obviously a strong need.”

The city chose to utilize the Portland Loo, a type of public toilet installed originally in Portland, Ore., which has since been installed by seven other cities, according to Watkins. She described the toilet as very sturdy, but also said that the city will still spend $25,000 a year on maintenance and upkeep.

“It’s a sleek, durable design that’s easy to maintain, very hardy, it’s sized appropriately.... It’s stainless steel,” Watkins said. “We’re committed for multiple-times-a-day maintenance.”

The project gained momentum in 2012 when the Christ Church Cambridge closed the use of its bathroom to the public. According to Kennedy School of Government lecturer and Christ Church member Richard Parker, “[drug] overdoses, near deaths, and harassment of the staff” were among the reasons for the closure.

As the need for a public bathroom escalated, a coalition of churches, businesses, and organizations for the homeless formed to lobby for a public toilet. The coalition conducted a survey of Cambridge residents, workers, and visitors and collected over 6,000 signatures in support for the request.

Parker predicts that the construction of the toilet will produce great results and will positively impact the Harvard Square homeless community in particular.

“It will give a small sense of greater humanity to the Square,” Parker said. “It’s a great reminder that we can help people in a small way with great consequences.”

According to Denise A. Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, the local business community became involved in the process about two years ago when Cambridge Police began to receive phone calls related to the Christ Church bathroom. In addition to working with the MBTA to reopen the Harvard Square T-stop restroom, Jillson said the HSBA also campaigned for a portable toilet in Cambridge Common.

“We worked very closely with the MBTA to reopen the toilet to the public.... It still wasn’t enough,” Jillson said. “We worked very closely with the social services agencies, particularly Youth On Fire, for a porta-john to be installed in Cambridge Common.“

Citing the strain on local businesses that have had to deal with the number of people seeking a restroom, Jillson said the process of securing a public toilet was smooth and that she was pleased with the location of the toilet.

“We’re frankly really pleased with the process,” Jillson said. “It’s a great location.... Certainly early next year we’ll have it up and flushing.”

Watkins wrote in an email that the toilet is currently on schedule to be installed either this fall or early next spring.

“We will be installing the utility connections this fall and are currently in the process of ordering the toilet. It is a specialty item and has a long lead time,” Watkins wrote.

—Caroline T. Zhang contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Ivan B. K. Levingston can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @IvanLevingston.

—Staff writer Celeste M. Mendoza can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CelesteMMendoza.

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