Telegraph must implement a 24-hour public restroom to restore dignity of neighborhood

Illustration of public restroom on Telegraph Ave
Lily Callender/Staff

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The Telegraph district is one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in the East Bay, home to a diverse cross-section of Berkeleyans. As the densest neighborhood in the city, Telegraph attracts visitors from all over the world who are attracted to the vision of a place where everyone is welcome. Telegraph is a place in which diversity, creativity and alternative lifestyles are considered normal and a source of pride. The variety of cuisine, clothes, music, art and artisanal offerings reflect the diversity of cultures that make the East Bay and the Bay Area one of the most dynamic and successful regions in the state. We offer 12 different types of boba tea, but you won’t be able to find a public restroom if you are here after dark.

For residents who can afford to own or rent here, the lack of an accessible public restroom facility (for up to 10 hours at night) might lead to a few minutes of discomfort as they make their way home. For those in the neighborhood who find themselves unhoused, the consequences are more critical — each day takes a toll on their dignity and quality of life. Local residents, merchants and leaders from the city and campus have been discussing and deliberating the urgent need to establish a 24-hour public restroom for years. The time for discussion has come to an end — we need to take collective action to remedy this.

Until we do so, no one should be surprised by the images of our homeless neighbors making their way through the neighborhood looking for a semiprivate spot to relieve themselves. Nor should anyone be surprised by the mounting frustrations among merchants who are greeted by an unexpected surprise on their doorstep in the morning, or that the Telegraph Business Improvement District’s cleaning ambassadors must spend the morning responding to yet another “code brown.” 

This is the current situation. We have two public restroom facilities — one at People’s Park and another in the Telegraph Channing Garage’s lobby. The first is funded and maintained by UC Berkeley and the latter by the city; these facilities are open every day from 7 a.m. until early evening.

Our organization, the Telegraph Business Improvement District, recently received a grant from the Chancellor’s Community Partnership Fund to research and develop a plan for a 24-hour restroom facility in the district. While working in collaboration with city and campus leaders, we have identified one promising model of a self-contained, 24-hour restroom — the Portland Loo, which is currently deployed in 19 cities across the United States. According to maintenance people we spoke to in cities where these facilities exist, they are easy to clean because they have commonly used components that are easy to replace or upgrade. They have features such as a pedal-operated handwashing station and are lit by blue LED lights on the inside to discourage intravenous drug use. 

After receiving favorable feedback from our partners and neighborhood leaders, we have begun to work closely with the city of Berkeley’s department of public works to consider the planning and logistical steps that it would take to purchase and install one to two Portland Loos in our neighborhood. These facilities will be for everyone: bus drivers, visitors, Uber drivers, bar patrons — anyone who finds themselves in the area with no access to another facility. As has been the case in the cities that currently use the Portland Loo, it will also be a gesture of our commitment to restoring the dignity of our most vulnerable neighbors.

To those who say adding another restroom will only encourage more folks who are unhoused to come to Telegraph, we say there is an imperative to have this basic human need met. More importantly, as our esteemed Berkeley City Councilmember Rigel Robinson put it, “Everyone poops.” 

Although we are working with the Berkeley City Council to make this happen, it is still a heavy lift financially. If you agree with the need to have a 24-hour facility, it would be great to show your support with an email to [email protected]. There is a need right now for the budget committee and the mayor to prioritize it. We have asked UC Berkeley to provide additional support for the project as well.

As you likely have seen, there is a lot of housing development coming to Telegraph. This is a good thing. More students will walk to class rather than take a long bus ride, more local customers will keep your favorite hangouts on Telegraph Avenue thriving, and there will be an improved environmental footprint that comes with increased density. But as even more people call this area home, the importance of this issue only grows. Let’s get this basic ask right.

Stuart Baker is the director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District.