Opinion

A Close Examination of the Most Infamous Public Toilet in America

On a recent sunny Sunday, residents of San Francisco’s Noe Valley gathered to celebrate the opening of a toilet. But not just any toilet. This was the nation’s most infamous public toilet.

In 2022, my colleague Heather Knight, then at The San Francisco Chronicle, noticed the projected price tag on the commode: $1.7 million, which Assemblyman Matt Haney had secured from the state. This was business as usual in San Francisco. Other public toilets had cost about the same. Local officials were planning a celebration. But Knight’s article set off a furor. Gov. Gavin Newsom clawed back the money. The party was canceled. Haney denounced the project he had made possible: “The cost is insane. The process is insane. The amount of time it takes is insane.” He wanted answers.

Phil Ginsburg, the general manager of San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks Department, responded with a letter that is a masterpiece of coiled bureaucratic fury. He told Haney that the department had been “pleasantly surprised” by the “unexpected allocation” of $1.7 million for the Noe bathroom. “Until now,” Ginsburg wrote, “we have not received any questions from you on the estimate.”

But Ginsburg was happy to walk Haney through the numbers and describe how Haney, as a former member of San Francisco’s powerful Board of Supervisors and a current member of the State Legislature, bore responsibility for them. “As you will see, the process is indeed long and expensive,” he noted. “It is also the result of many years of political choices and exacerbated by skyrocketing costs.”

There’s the planning and design phase, which requires bringing the design for the public toilet to “community engagement stakeholders” and refining it based on their feedback. That typically takes three to six months. Then the Public Works Department can solicit bids from outside contractors. That takes six months. Construction takes four to six months more, depending on whether a prefab toilet is used or one is constructed on site. The toilet also needed approval from the Department of Public Works, the Planning Department, the Department of Building Inspection, the Arts Commission, the Public Utilities Commission, the Mayor’s Office on Disability and PG&E, the local electric utility.

“I share your frustration and concern over the length and costs associated with public construction processes,” Ginsburg wrote. “As an elected official, I hope you will advocate for policy changes at the state and local level to make it easier to move small projects like this one.”

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