The Portland Loo touts 'rounded anti-graffiti wall panels, open grating, easy-to-clean coating, and interchange-able building components' (Portland Loo)

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Change is coming to Center City’s public toilet scene (or lack thereof).

There’s some loss — Rittenhouse Square will say goodbye to the much-appreciated Barnes and Noble public bathrooms in February, and when a new Starbucks opens on that block it’ll be devoid of any public restrooms, after the closure of the 10th and Chestnut  location — but also some gain.

The City of Philadelphia is targeting next year for welcoming “the Swiss army knife of restrooms” to 15th and Arch: The Portland Loo®. Yes, that is indeed a registered trademark.

It’s part of a public restroom pilot the city is leading (a privy project, if you will), which is slated to introduce a total of six ADA-accessible standalone toilets across different neighborhoods over the next five years. The toilets will be maintained by employees from the Department of Public Health’s Substance Use and Harm Reduction division.

Bathrooms open to the public are so hard to come by in Philadelphia that someone literally created an app to find the precious few. The lack of places to go when folks need to do their business creates problems for people experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity, tourists, parents with kids, and other people out and about in the city — and it’s also a health hazard.

The situation is one that local officials have been aware of for years and have previously considered improving. And it’s an issue that’s gotten even worse during the COVID pandemic, spurring some temporary solutions from municipal government.

Center City was chosen as the first trial location after a public engagement process that started in January 2021. The 15th and Arch site — right near LOVE Park — is currently home to temporary porta-potties, which were introduced earlier in the pandemic and later reduced from six units to three.

Still, the city found through a 480-person survey that some people were hesitant to use the existing porta-potties. 93% of survey respondents said they needed to use the restroom in Center City at some point, but fewer than half said they’d used the porta-potties.

A set of old-style public restrooms next to MSB in Center City Credit: Asha Prihar / Billy Penn

What’s a Portland Loo?

This isn’t a “Philadelphia” Cream Cheese situation: The Portland Loo actually started out in the Oregon city that bears its name, according to the product’s website. The city of Portland commissioned the design in the 2000s, which is manufactured by the Portland-based metals fabrication company Madden Fabrication.

With its “rounded anti-graffiti wall panels, open grating, easy-to-clean coating, and interchange-able building components,” the free-standing toilet stall is what’s meant to be “the Swiss army knife of restrooms,” according to the product description.

The restrooms have steel doors and capped roofs, and they’re ADA-accessible — large enough to fit a bike, a stroller, or two adults and a child, according to a blog post by Philly Health and Human Services.

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Portland now has six of them downtown that are usually open 24/7, plus some more with different hours in city parks outside of downtown.

And Portland sells them to other cities, with some of the profits going right back into supporting its public restrooms, according to the West Coast city’s website. As of 2019, the Loos were priced at $95,000 per unit.

They’ve managed to sell them to over two dozen other municipalities. One of those places is Hoboken, New Jersey, where Philly officials apparently traveled to learn more about how the Loo works.

The lavatory design has been praised for its ability to preempt issues like graffiti, intravenous drug usage, and mirror-smashing — all through aspects of its carefully thought-out design.

The bathrooms haven’t been without issues, though. San Diego ended up spending twice as much as expected on installation because of the location of sewer lines. One of its Portland Loos ultimately ended up being removed after crime increased in the area — though San Diego officials pointed to the particular location rather than the restroom itself as the likely root of the problems.

Philadelphia has already ordered the Portland Loo that’ll be located at 15th and Arch, but the city says it won’t be installed until sometime in 2023. The permanent potties have been on backorder recently, per a June editorial in the Inquirer.

The plan is to keep the toilet open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Smart Cities Dive reported — the working hours of the city’s public restroom specialists, who currently maintain the Center City porta-potties that are also available during those hours.

So how will it work out in Philadelphia? Some folks seem pretty excited, others cautiously optimistic, and — as with any issue in Philly — some folks are just jaded.

Guess we’ll just have to wait and pee see.

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Asha Prihar is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She has previously written for several daily newspapers across the Midwest, and she covered Pennsylvania state government and politics for The...