The Price Tag on a Noe Valley Public Restroom — and a Gift to the City From Nevada — Spark Debate Over SF Values
By Robert Fulton, Contributing Writer
What started as a practical desire for a permanent public restroom at the beloved town square in Noe Valley has quickly escalated over recent months into a debate about addressing seemingly wasteful government spending, questioning long-held values, and protecting workers’ rights.
Now that some decisions have been made, we’ll catch you up on the whole saga that some in the media have referred to as San Francisco’s “Toiletgate.”
The Beaucoup-Bucks Bathroom
Noe Valley’s progressive history goes back to the 1970s, when its numerous coffeeshops and taverns filled with activists talking revolutionary pro-working-class politics in the City. After a post-dot-com wave of gentrification hit the neighborhood in the 2000s and hollowed out its bohemian character, it’s been getting back to its radical roots: Some longtime Noe Valley activists recently converted an old church parking lot into a welcoming town square that hosts a regularly scheduled farmers’ market steeped in pro-labor and pro-social-justice roots.
Neighborhood residents wanted a permanent, free-standing restroom for the square to replace its inadequate porta-potty, so they hit up State Representative Matt Haney. He managed to secure funding in the California budget that would cover the cost of the longed-for lavatory based on an estimate from the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department.
That estimate? $1.7 million for a 150-square-foot toilet and sink. And it would take two years to build.
Noe Valley resident Lisa Jaicks was troubled by the notion of a $1.7 million public restroom in a city with countless needs and scarce resources.
“I just thought it was outrageous,” she said. “I was very upset about it.”
Jaicks, a community activist, has worked for decades for social justice in Noe Valley, often with husband Peter Gabel and friend Leslie Crawford. The three were instrumental in establishing the square and its farmers’ market back in 2016. Gabel passed away late last year.
When Governor Gavin Newsom heard about the price tag for the lavish latrine, he pulled the funding, and, well, the you-know-what hit the fan. The deal came under immense scrutiny, and the backlash led to the project’s cancellation.
Highlights of the restroom cost breakdown from SF Rec and Parks include $175,000 for project management to the department and an additional $150,000 for construction management. Architecture and engineering fees for the 150-foot structure were estimated at $300,000.
A Trojan Toilet
Having caught wind of San Francisco’s pricey potty — the story was picked up in national news and SF roundly mocked — a non-union concern in Nevada by the name of Public Restroom Company last November offered to gift the City one of its prefabricated modular restrooms free of charge.
SF Building and Construction Trades Council Secretary-Treasurer Rudy Gonzalez called the offer a “cute” publicity stunt by Public Restroom Company and speculated that months of staff reimbursements tacked on by the Rec and Parks Department resulted in the $1.7 million price tag for the locally built loo.
“Why does a simple restroom cost $1.7 million?” Gonzalez said. “I don’t think it actually does. A restroom should never cost that much, and from a construction standpoint, I can tell you for a fact that it doesn’t cost that much when we’re currently building conventional, 100% affordable apartment housing for $533,000 a door.
“Let’s get this exorbitant quote adjusted rather than give up on San Francisco workers and grant their projects to non-union profiteers from out of state. Our obligation is to [our workers], especially after we told them to stop working and shelter in place during the pandemic in a far more aggressive way than they did in places like Nevada.”
The estimated value of the modular gift restroom is $425,000, with the City still having to cough up $300,000 for implementation. The project would be completed by late summer or early fall.
District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who represents Noe Valley, agreed that the gift restroom is “fantastic publicity” for the Public Restroom Company. But he also sees the toilet as a unique circumstance, calling it a “one-off.”
“I’m happy as the District 8 supervisor that Noe Valley will get a bathroom that they need in the town square,” Mandelman said.
Noe Valley community activist Crawford, however, shared Gonzalez’ exasperation at the offer from the Silver State.
“Accepting this pre-fab toilet from out of state is abandoning the very roots of why we fought for this space from the beginning,” she said.
Public Restroom Company CEO Chad Kaufman was unavailable for comment.
In 2016, the Board of Supervisors enacted Chapter 12x of the administrative code, which banned municipally funded travel to states with anti-LGBTQ laws and prohibited the City from contracting with companies in those states. In recent years, states with restrictive abortion laws and suppressive voting restrictions were added to 12x. Now, San Francisco can’t do business with 30 states.
Mandelman has proposed repealing 12x outright. He has cited numerous issues with the ordinance, including its impact on costs, slowing contracting down for those companies seeking waivers, and the inherent unfairness in the fact that the City can’t deal with very blue cities such as Las Vegas or Miami because they happen to be in sometimes-red states.
“It was, I think, an admirable effort to use San Francisco contracting to pursue social policy goals,” Mandelman said of 12x. “There’s no indication any of these states are motivated by San Francisco’s ban to change any of their laws.”
Gonzalez disagrees. The SF Labor Council opposes the wholesale repeal of 12x, too.
“I’m sure there are areas of 12x that could be discussed, could be revisited, that could even be improved upon,” Gonzalez said, “but throwing the whole chapter out sends the wrong message and practically creates an unlevel playing field for California businesses when they have to compete against not only non-union but oftentimes outright exploitative and low-road entities.
“I’m not saying that 12x has changed the behavior of some of these states. Certainly, it has not. I do think we’re sending the wrong message to the businesses in the San Francisco community and in California if we’re just going to roll this back completely. It does seem a little hypocritical to impose standards here and then send those tax dollars to places who are aggressively opposed to everything we stand for.”
At a meeting of the SF Rec and Parks Commission in February, commissioner and SF Building Trades President Larry Mazzola Jr. expressed frustration at a gifted non-union modular restroom, calling its acceptance “a race to the bottom” while questioning the legality of receiving it, citing 12x.
“All this developer cares about is free advertising,” Mazzola said. “It’s a publicity stunt for them. […] You know what we’re doing by approving stuff like this? We’re shipping out local jobs. Also shipped out of town are the economic sustainability that comes from local hire, living wages […] and the other economic benefits of properly spent public dollars. San Franciscans should build San Francisco.”
Despite Mazzola’s dissent, the commission approved accepting the Nevada-built modular restroom on a 5-2 vote.
Jaicks is disappointed in the direction that acquiring a toilet for the Noe Valley Town Square has taken.
“We had an opportunity for this to be a model for the rest of the City,” Jaicks said. “Now it better not be a model for the rest of the City because it’s going to mean violating all of the things the history of the farmers’ market and the town square rest on, and what our city’s values are.”