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Coed bathrooms are part of dorm renovations at Minnesota state university

MOORHEAD, Minn. - The gender divide found in most bathrooms will soon be a thing of the past in one of Minnesota State University Moorhead's residence halls.

The school plans to close West Snarr Hall at the end of the spring semester and begin construction on a $4.9 million renovation that will reopen in time to house about 100 students in August 2014.

One small part of renovation plans is getting the most attention - coed bathrooms on the dorm's three residence floors.

Heather Phillips, the university's housing and residential life director, said the project will give the hall its first major renovation since it was constructed in 1962, adding modern features like an electric fireplace and a more open floor plan on the first floor.

Phillips said the idea for coed bathrooms goes back to 2009, when the housing department completed a housing master plan that set a goal of catching up to deferred maintenance on its aging buildings while offering students more options.

She's met with students since spring to discuss the different proposals from architects and said many liked the idea of upgrading to coed bathrooms that offer more privacy, including fully-enclosed toilet rooms and shower areas instead of the traditional stall walls.

"The idea here was to increase privacy, making it much more private than you have in a community bath with stalls," she said.

Student senate President Russel Ferguson said the plan at first "seemed a little bit weird" to student leaders.

"But then after an explanation of it, I came to understand that it's really not that strange of a thing," he said.

The student senate unanimously approved a resolution last month supporting the renovation, and the Residence Hall Association gave its blessing this fall.

Sophomore Sonya Szostkowski said she doesn't think coed bathrooms will be an issue, especially if students who are uncomfortable with the idea have the option of living in one of the other eight residence halls on campus.

Junior Shane Kelly agreed and said the plan could save valuable space in West Snarr, the university's smallest residence hall.

"It wouldn't be an issue for me, but I can see how it could be," he said.

Phillips said the "overwhelming majority" of the students she's talked with since spring support the plan and the enhanced privacy this layout would offer, compared to the traditional community bathrooms that still exist in many dorms.

"This is just three bathrooms on campus, so it's not what we intend to do with all future bathrooms," she said. "It's intended to be an option."

Each residence floor would have four separate toilet rooms and four separate showers. The six sinks would be the only component out in the open, with two sets of three sinks across the bathroom.

Each floor also would have a separate accessible bathroom, including a toilet, sink and shower.

The switch would come with some other perks, Phillips said. Putting just one coed bathroom on a floor rather than two separate facilities saves some space, allowing each floor to still have its own laundry room, kitchenette and recycling room.

It also would better accommodate transgender students who aren't comfortable using a single-gender restroom, she said.

The idea might seem new, but MSUM wouldn't be the first university in Minnesota with coed bathrooms. Phillips said Bemidji State University recently renovated Birch Hall to include coed bathrooms, and the private Macalester College in St. Paul offers all-gender housing.

Ryan Johnson reports for the Forum of Fargo, N.D. The Forum and the News Tribune are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.