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Cambridge answering calls for public toilet in Harvard Square

Posted by Brock Parker  February 27, 2014 09:49 AM

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Visitors to Harvard Square who have a difficult time finding a public restroom could soon get some relief.

Cambridge officials are preparing a set of recommendations that if approved could lead to the construction of a public bathroom on General MacArthur Square, which sits along Massachusetts Avenue between Harvard Yard and the Old Burying Ground in Harvard Square.

The bathroom would be similar to a Portland Loo and cost about $175,000 to purchase and install, said Suzy Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the Cambridge Public Health Department and member of a public toilet working group established by the city. The work would start in the fall and could be completed by the end of the year.

Local churches, homelessness groups and businesses around Harvard Square have been calling for a public restroom on the Cambridge Common for two years and formed Advocates for a Common Toilet to lobby city officials.

The effort gained momentum in 2012 when Christ Church Cambridge ended and open-door policy allowing members of the public to use its bathroom because the church was having problems with people dealing drugs or overdosing in the bathroom. When the bathroom closed, businesses almost immediately began complaining about people urinating and defecating in the alleyways and doorways in Harvard Square.

Feinberg said the city’s working group has been trying to find an accessible, safe place to put a public restroom near the Cambridge Common that would also have access to water and sewer lines.

She said the city will hold a public meeting on the proposed location for the bathroom, which she said the city is approaching as a pilot project to test how much use the bathroom gets and whether any problems arise.

While working to find a home for the public restroom, the city also conducted a survey asking residents, businesses, universities and tourists whether the city needs more public restrooms. Results of the study, released this month, found that about two-thirds of respondents had difficulty accessing public toilets in the city.

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Responses to a city survey question said the area in greatest need of a public restroom in Cambridge is Harvard Square. Graphic courtesy the City of Cambridge.

About 79 percent of the survey respondents said Harvard Square is where they have experienced the greatest need for public toilets, while others highlighted along the Charles River in Cambridge, local parks and in Central Square.

Feinberg said more than 800 people participated in the survey and submitted hundreds of comments ranging from people who said the city needs more signs indicating the location of public restrooms to one man who complained there are not enough public toilets on his jogging route.

“There were a lot of very funny comments—all very polite, very supportive,” she said.

She said the survey has helped identify places in the city where there would be a demand for public restrooms to be built in the future.

Feinberg said the public toilet in Harvard Square is one of a host of recommendations that the working group is finalizing to submit to the city manager this spring regarding public toilets.

--Brock.parker@globe.com

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