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S.F.’s Toiletgate: Newsom calls $1.7 million bathroom a waste, halts state money until costs come down

San Francisco Chronicle 10/22/2022 By Heather Knight
A plan to replace this temporary toilet in Noe Valley Town Square with a $1.7 million commode has generated ridicule. © Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle

A plan to replace this temporary toilet in Noe Valley Town Square with a $1.7 million commode has generated ridicule.

Noe Valley’s simple wish to get a public bathroom installed in its treasured Town Square appears to be circling the drain — with even Gov. Gavin Newsom wading into the spat over its projected $1.7 million cost.

Newsom’s office told me that the state funds tagged for the single toilet in 150 square feet of space would not be forthcoming considering the stomach-churning price tag.

“A single, small bathroom should not cost $1.7 million,” Erin Mellon, the governor’s communications director, wrote in a statement. “The state will hold funding until San Francisco delivers a plan to use this public money more efficiently. If they cannot, we will go back to the legislature to revoke this appropriation.”

The governor’s commode communication seemed similar to the state recently putting San Francisco on notice about its overly complicated, expensive process for approving and building housing. In short: simplify, save money and get your, um, stuff together — or else.

The city, under state investigation for its terrible track record on housing, faces loss of state funding if it doesn’t quickly come up with a realistic plan to build 82,000 new units of housing in eight years. And if this is the result when it tries to build one toilet, the chances on that score aren’t good.

The governor’s office provided no further details — including what price it would deem appropriate for a small bathroom or whether San Francisco could still get the full $1.7 million if it used it to install multiple bathrooms in a city that desperately needs them.

Assembly Member Matt Haney, who secured money in this year’s state budget for the long-sought loo, said he heard from Jason Elliott, Newsom’s senior counselor, about the governor’s concerns on Wednesday, the day this column revealed San Francisco was about to spend state money worth the equivalent of the cost of a single-family home to build a small bathroom.

And that it wouldn’t be ready for use until 2025. And that Haney and other public officials had scheduled a news conference — call it a potty party — to celebrate the news. Haney canceled the event after my column sparked outrage, making me a potty party pooper.

“I support not spending the money — the cost is ridiculous, and it will take far too long,” Haney said Friday, lamenting that the toilet travails had gone international. He’d just heard from a friend in Northern Ireland who read about it in his own local newspaper. Slow news day in Northern Ireland, I guess.

“Noe Valley should get a bathroom, but $1.7 million should pay for seven bathrooms, and it should happen much quicker,” Haney continued. “I fully support and agree with the governor here, and we’re going to work together to get this done cheaper and quicker and also send the message that San Francisco needs to fix its broken processes.”

There’s no question San Francisco’s processes to get anything built are clogged, making every project too slow and too expensive. But it could be asked why Newsom and Haney are gobsmacked by that fact because the former was San Francisco’s mayor and the latter was a supervisor, and both should be intimately familiar with the city’s notorious red tape.

It’s also unclear why Haney took the Recreation and Park Department’s price tag of $1.7 million at face value if he finds it so nose-holdingly awful.

Rec and Park spokesperson Tamara Aparton fired back, “It is shocking that the state would allocate money without understanding what it was going to pay for. The Noe Valley community requested this money directly from the Assembly member, who promised it to them, apparently with no questions asked.”

Haney is asking questions now, though. He sent Rec and Park general manager Phil Ginsburg a letter Thursday night requesting “a detailed cost breakdown” of the project.

Ginsburg wrote back Friday morning, noting it was the first time he’d received any questions from Haney about the $1.7 million project. Ginsburg agreed the project is “long and expensive,” but said it results from skyrocketing construction costs, as well as years of political choices laid out in local, state and federal codes.

For example, for one little bathroom, city laws require Rec and Park to seek approval from or partner with Public Works, the Planning Department, the Department of Building Inspection, the Arts Commission to review its civic design, the Public Utilities Commission, the Mayor’s Office of Disability and Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

He pointed out Haney’s previous stomping grounds, the Board of Supervisors, is responsible for some cost-raising choices, such as banning the city from doing business or contracting with companies in 30 states because those states discriminate against LGBT people, restrict abortion rights or suppress voting rights. Ginsburg pointed out that makes purchasing prefabricated bathrooms or other materials more expensive.

Ginsburg, whose anger seemed to bubble off the page, asked Haney to advocate for changes to these processes such as exempting little projects from environmental review and making it easier to use prefabricated structures.

He also pointed out that the Noe Valley bathroom isn’t a rarity in its exorbitant price. A small, single-toilet bathroom in McLaren Park recently cost $1.6 million, and a similar one in Alamo Square cost $1.7 million. The difference this time is the public attention.

Ginsburg also provided Haney with a breakdown of the Noe Valley toilet budget. The construction itself — including construction management, materials, utilities and labor — is $1.05 million. The rest seems to go back to the city for its own work: Rec and Park’s project management, the Department of Building Inspection for permits, architecture and engineering fees and other matters.

I showed the breakdown to Rudy Gonzalez, secretary-treasurer of the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council, who called it “a bad joke.” He said it appeared the department was billing the state for city salaries and benefits of people who are already on the city’s payroll.

He said it motivated him to call his union peers and see whether they can come up with a cheaper toilet and just build it themselves on a volunteer basis for the good of the community.

“It’s outrageous,” he said. “They ask for our assemblyman to go fight for us in Sacramento, get the resources we ask for, and it’s to do what? Spend money on the city’s bureaucracy and bloated overhead? Unbelievable.”

Meanwhile, the toilet tale got even stranger when I read an article in the Noe Valley Voice covering the 2016 opening of the Town Square, complete with plumbing ready for a bathroom. It mentioned an anonymous donor had offered to fully fund the bathroom and was meeting with Rec and Park to see whether the department’s $600,000 to $800,000 estimate could be lowered.

Turns out that anonymous donor was Noe Valley resident Rodrigo Santos, a structural engineer who’s since been indicted on charges of bank fraud, aggravated identity theft and obstruction of justice. Evidence against him included checks he allegedly told clients to write to “DBI” — the Department of Building Inspection — which he then allegedly changed to read “RoDBIgo Santos.”

Aparton, the Rec and Park spokesperson, confirmed the anonymous donor was Santos and said he met with department officials twice about funding the bathroom. She said he “never followed up.”

It’s unclear why the project cost ballooned by $1 million in just six years. Santos didn’t return a request for comment.

Back at the Noe Valley Town Square, a ratty Porta Potti leans in the corner, unlocked only on Saturdays for farmers’ market vendors. Somebody taped a piece of paper to its door reading “$1.70.”

As for Noe Valley neighbors themselves, several have said they still want a toilet — but they agree with Haney and Newsom that the cost is ludicrous. Leslie Crawford, co-founder of the Town Square and the farmers’ market, said she hopes a cheaper bathroom can come to fruition.

“This is a beloved and much-used park with toddlers in need and people experiencing homelessness in need and everybody in need,” she said. “Maybe we’ll find a more creative way to do it and be more economical.”

“No bathroom,” she said, “should be $1.7 million.”

Heather Knight is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Email: Twitter: @hknightsf

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