After Backlash, Celebration For S.F.’s $1.7 Million Toilet Is Canceled. Critics Say “The Cost Is Insane”

José Segue, a resident of San Francisco, is sitting at a table by himself in Noe Valley Town Square on Tuesday. Construction of a new toilet stall is planned to cost $1.7 million and will take more than two years to complete.

A portable toilet is in Noe Valley. It would cost $1.7 million and take more than two years to build it, said Assemblyman Matt Haney.

On Wednesday, Matt Haney had a celebration to show off San Francisco’s plans for a new toilet that will cost $1.7 million and take more than two years to build. This came after people had critiqued the city for how ridiculous the project is.

Haney (D-San Francisco) secured the money to build a public bathroom in the Noe Valley Town Square in this year’s state budget. Families had pleaded for one since the charming plaza opened in 2016, complete with all the necessary plumbing.

Haney learned that the city had no good reason for the $1.7 million price tag or its 2025 opening date. So he cancelled his 12:30 news conference. His aides called neighbors to tell them the news conference was cancelled.

Haney said he will send Recreation and Park Director Phil Ginsburg a letter asking for an explanation of why a small bathroom can cost as much as a single-family home and take more than two years to build.

“When Rec and Park told us the number, it sounded high to me, and I think your article has revealed that their process is broken and the number is inexplicable, Haney told me Wednesday afternoon.”

“I’m glad that Noe Valley will get a bathroom, but it’s taking too long and costing too much. I’m angry about it and don’t want to celebrate it.”

The spokesperson for the department of recreation and parks said they are happy to share details about the project. She said the cost and timeline are only estimates and the department is working to make them lower.

She said a bathroom that is already built and is the same as others is being considered for the site that would likely deliver it faster and cheaper and that the department believes it can cut out some public process since a bathroom was always planned for the plaza.

The fact that San Francisco public officials were planning to celebrate one toilet that might eventually get built, after years of neighbors begging for it, shows how little there is to celebrate in the city these days. The commode kerfuffle is just one recent example of a city bureaucracy that is so overly complicated and enamored of process that nothing seems to get done.

There is a quest that has been going on for years to make the perfect trash can. The process is not yet complete. The Human Resources Department director for the city said in a meeting this week that it normally takes 255 days to hire just one city worker.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency said that it would take seven years to remove parking spaces from curbs in front of bus stops so passengers, particularly those in wheelchairs, can more easily board buses. They also said that the public engagement process is so lengthy, it takes 500 hours of staff time to get one bulb-out, or curb extension, installed.

If it takes so long to do small things like picking a trash can, hiring a worker, and creating a curb extension, how will the city ever be able to solve its bigger problems? For example, how will it be able to meet the state’s requirement of building 82,000 new housing units within eight years?

Jeff Cretan, the spokesperson for Mayor London Breed, said Wednesday the mayor is committed to cutting red tape. This means she is committed to making budget changes that will make hiring easier and streamlining permitting for housing and small businesses.

He said that the Noe Valley toilet is an example of a process that is worth examining and simplifying. It is currently as complicated to build a public bathroom in a park as it is to build a full recreation center with bathrooms inside it, he pointed out.

“No, the toilet will not be worth every penny.”

Kanishka Cheng used to work as a city planner. She knows how frustrating it can be to work on projects to renovate public bathrooms in San Francisco. She worked on a project to renovate the bathrooms in Portsmouth Square in Chinatown about eight years ago.

The price for the bigger project was more than $1 million a long time ago and, like the Noe Valley bathroom, needed help from different groups like the Planning Department, Rec and Park, the Department of Public Works, and the Arts Commission to look at the design of the bathroom.

Cheng said that there is no one in charge and that no one is coordinating with each other. He also said that no one sees the priority as delivering the project quickly, efficiently, under budget, and on time.

Now she is the person in charge of Together SF Action, a organization that helps people get involved in their community and advocate for change. When she was asked if the city is worth saving, she said it is — as long as the public continues to hold city officials responsible.

Haney said that the $1.7 million that has been set aside for the Noe Valley project in the state budget cannot be changed, but he would like to see the city find a way to spend less so that the leftover funds can be used for something else.

Haney says the cost, process and amount of time for the city’s project is too much and offers one solution.

Heather Knight is a columnist who writes about City Hall, politics, homelessness, family flight, and the quirks of living in a fascinating city. She believes in holding politicians accountable for their decisions or lack thereof, and telling the stories of real people and their struggles.

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