Flushing Money: San Francisco to Spend $1.7 Million to Build a Single Public Toilet

Evidently no longer content to flush public money down just any old toilet, the city of San Francisco is upping its toilet game and is prepared to spend up to $1.7 million to build a single commode in one neighborhood plaza.

City leaders are slated to gather Wednesday afternoon at the Noe Valley Town Square to officially announce a “$1.7 Million state budget win” to build a toilet there, according to an online event schedule. The proposed facility would include just one toilet in a 150-foot space, according to a new report by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Heather Knight.

The city’s Recreation and Parks Department and the Department of Public Works, which will work together to build the pricey potty, expect it will take three years to complete.

San Francisco tops the list of the world’s most expensive cities to build in, and the proposed million-dollar toilet helps explain why. While construction costs everywhere have risen over the past couple of years due to inflation and supply-chain challenges, the process to install a single toilet in a San Francisco plaza that already has plumbing includes a maze of planning, permitting, reviews, and public outreach, according to the Chronicle report.

First, an architect needs to draw plans for the toilet, which will then be presented to the public for feedback. The Arts Commission’s Civic Design Review committee will be responsible for conducting a “multi-phase review” of the project, like it does for all projects on public lands. According to the Arts Commission’s website, “the committee evaluates each project’s design, scale and massing for accessibility, safety and aesthetic merit.” The review process “ensures that each project’s design is appropriate to its context in the urban environment, and that structures of the highest design quality reflect their civic stature.”

Before the project is put out for bid, it will be subject to review under the California Environmental Quality Act, according to the Chronicle. The public toilet will be built by union workers who will “earn a living wage and benefits,” according to a joint statement from Rec and Parks Department and the Department of Public Works, which added that, “While this isn’t the cheapest way to build, it reflects San Francisco’s values.”

California Assemblyman Matt Haney, who secured the $1.7 million funding from the state to install the toilet, told the Chronicle he requested that sum because that’s what the Rec and Parks Department told him the going rate for a public bathroom was. The city said the $1.7 million estimate “is extremely rough.”

“They told me $1.7 million, and I got $1.7 million,” Haney told the paper. “I didn’t have the option of bringing home less of the bacon when it comes to building a toilet. A half a toilet or a toilet-maybe-someday is not much use to anyone.”

In an email to National Review Wednesday, the Recreation and Parks Department said it will consider various options for constructing the toilet, including installing a pre-fabricated restroom. The department said it budgets for the worst-case scenario, so it estimates high. “In the end, the project may well be delivered for far less [than $1.7 million], with leftover funding put toward further improvements or maintenance,” the email stated.

San Francisco, which is struggling with a troubling homelessness and public-defecation crisis, needs more public toilets. A 2018 report in the Guardian questioned “Why is San Francisco … covered in human feces?” One city non-profit has turned old municipal buses into rolling showers and toilets to help with the problem.

San Francisco also has a history of overspending on seemingly mundane items. Last year, the city spent nearly a half-million dollars to develop new trash can prototypes because city leaders “weren’t happy with the look” of off-the-shelf cans.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include additional details from a Recreation and Parks Department email received early Wednesday evening.

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