April 21 marks the Missoula Art Park's grand opening at the intersection of Pattee and Pine. The Art Park, a longtime project of the Missoula Art Museum, will offer downtown visitors a scenic plaza in which to view art installations. April 21 will also mark the grand opening of the Art Park's most novel amenity: Montana's first Portland Loo.
"The original vision had been an art plaza, but it really blossomed into a full-blown park and community space," explains Laura Millin, MAM's executive director. "I was asking people to envision what they'd like to see in a public space like that—the idea of the loo came from the mayor's Downtown Advisory Council."
The loo is no mere bathroom. It was developed in Portland, Oregon, in the mid-2000s by city designers trying to create a free public restroom that would be impervious to graffiti, drug use, prostitution and trash. Public restrooms can be an expensive proposition for busy cities. Seattle, for instance, spent $5 million in 2003 on five high-tech, self-cleaning, public bathrooms that became "refuges for drug use, prostitution and hanky-panky," according to the Seattle Times.
The Portland Loo, which in 2010 earned the city of Portland's first patent, cost about $105,000, including installation. (The Art Park was funded primarily through private donations, plus $280,000 from the city of Missoula, and will be operated as a city park.) The loo's heavy-duty stainless steel design is resistant to vandalism and easy to clean with a power washer. Louvers at the top and bottom of the structure make it easy to see how many pairs of feet are in the restroom at a time, so police can intervene in case of excessively romantic public interactions. The handwashing station is located outside the unit, making for quicker exits from the space. The loo is equipped with LED lights that brighten when someone enters the stall, so it's easy to tell when it's in use.
Millin says the loo reflects the way in which the Art Park itself aims to provide a public service, with all the challenges that ambition entails. She regrets, for instance, that the park won't be able to host ceramics exhibits—too easy for vandals to smash.
"Public art is a gamble, that's part of what you deal with," Millin says. "It certainly affects what you put out in the public realm."
The Portland Loos haven't been greeted with enthusiasm everywhere. NPR reported in 2015 that San Diego removed one of its loos after local business owners complained that the restroom attracted too many homeless people. But for the most part the loo seems to be spreading in popularity, with installations from Seattle to Alaska to Montreal.
Missoula's loo is enthusiastically endorsed by Sheila Snyder, chief operations officer at Adventure Cycling, which donated about $75,000 to the project, and whose offices abut the Art Park. Snyder says the loo will help offset the need for public restrooms in a part of downtown where crowds throng every Saturday during farmers market season.
"A lot of businesses don't just let people use the restroom. You know how it is when you're downtown," Snyder says. "Sometimes you have to run all the way to Caras Park to use the bathroom."
Whitney Ford-Terry, an Adventure Cycling staffer who is also designing an inaugural exhibit for the Art Park, says the loo seems to fit perfectly with the idea of the park as a public amenity.
"Art is a basic public service, I think, and having spaces for people to engage in that is really important," Ford-Terry says. "And there are basic human needs that need to be counted in that. I'm really happy the loo is there."