San Francisco $1.7 million restroom
Graphic by Will Jarrett

Life is just one long series of trips to the toilet. That’s the case in this and every city. But, in San Francisco, it does cost more. 

San Francisco is currently up in arms regarding the strange and terrible saga of the $1.7 million Noe Valley toilet; when the Chronicle’s Heather Knight this month broke the story on the stupefying price tag of a 150-square-foot commode, it triggered a concatenation of blame deflection and reactive damage control. 

Faced with media headaches over a state-funded $11,600-per-square-foot toilet in one of San Francisco’s toniest enclaves, Gov. Gavin Newsom — who, coincidentally or not, is up for re-election next month — clawed back the funds from San Francisco. 

Assemblyman Matt Haney, who passed along Noe Valley residents’ toilet plea and put in the request for that money, asked the Recreation and Parks Department just what the hell added up to so much. In response, Rec and Park boss Phil Ginsburg blamed Haney’s former roost, the Board of Supervisors, for yoking his department with onerous layers of process. He also blamed Haney’s key ally, organized labor, for driving up costs. 

Now, Haney tells Mission Local he’s in favor of an audit or even an investigation over city project estimates and costs and contracting, to be potentially undertaken by city entities — or, if need be, handled by state bodies. 

In too many ways, the situation harks to “Murder on the Orient Express.” Just as every protagonist in that story independently decided to put the knife into Samuel Ratchett, every entity in San Francisco deserves its share of opprobrium. Rec and Park generated a cost estimate that beggars belief. Haney believed it, and passed it upstairs. The governor granted the money. Most all of the factors subsequently blamed as cost escalators check out. Everyone did their part. 

(Sorry for the spoiler, but “Murder on the Orient Express” came out in 1934. Even the latest film came out in 2017. You’ve had time). 

Mission Local has obtained Rec and Park’s rough cost breakdown of the proposed Noe Valley restroom. The issue here isn’t just that the costs are high — though they are — it’s that they’re high in bizarre places. The architecture and engineering fees to erect a 150-square foot structure are pegged at up to $300,000, paid to Public Works. Project management is listed as up to $175,000, and construction management, also sent to Public Works, could run up to $150,000. 

These are bewildering costs for everyday people to comprehend, and the same goes for the architects, engineers, contractors and construction professionals contacted by Mission Local. As well as subject matter experts offering their own $0.02 on the web since the Chronicle stories went viral.  

“If you can justify that? Wow,” summed up influential city developer and builder Joe Cassidy. “I’m in the wrong business.” 

The potential future site of the Noe Valley restroom was converted from a parking lot only six-odd years ago. This renders the $40,000 estimate for a utility and topographical survey somewhat questionable.

LaVonda Atkinson is used to big numbers. She is used to big numbers that don’t look right, and to projects going off the rails. That’s because she’s the former cost engineer for the infamous Central Subway project — a position she quit in 2014 after reporting cost manipulation and irregularities. In 2015, the Society of Professional Journalists presented her with a whistleblower award for her service to the public.

Going over the numbers for the Noe Valley restroom, as well as two prior Rec and Park restrooms costing millions of dollars, she utters a single word: “Insane.” 

Why do San Francisco’s big projects go off the rails, she asks? Because the little ones go off the rails. That’s something a grown-up city would take as a point of introspection, rather than the cue for a complex Cover-Your-Ass ritual. 

San Francisco’s costs for building restrooms, Atkinson continues, ought to be going down, not up. We’ve been doing this for a while; continuing sky-high design costs is counterintuitive. 

“They are not designing something that hasn’t existed before. It’s a bathroom. That should make the costs less,” she says. “The biggest question I have is [about] these architecture and engineering fees. Most of what they should be doing should be purchasing commercial, off-the-shelf items.” 

Soft costs probably shouldn’t come to more than 20 percent of a project’s budget, Atkinson says. Rec and Park’s line-item budget for the Noe Valley bathroom, however, puts soft costs at 57 percent of the budget.

Recreation and Parks spokespeople told us that many of these line items are, in fact, paid to other departments, and may end up costing less than the estimates.

Ginsburg’s letter bemoans even so tiny a project being scrutinized by Public Works, Planning, the Department of Building Inspection, the Public Utilities Commission, the Mayor’s Office on Disability, PG&E and the Arts Commission. This complaint is not new; 15 years ago, the exorbitant-turned-parsimonious $531,000 price tag for the prefabricated Panhandle restroom was explained, in part, due to the layers upon layers of process and input weighing down any San Francisco construction endeavor.  (That $531,000, in 2007 dollars, had the buying power of $756,000 today).

Yes, it’s a legit complaint that the Arts Commission et al. shouldn’t be a factor here; perhaps the $1.7 million Alamo Square restrooms required a certain aesthetic, but the $1.6 million McLaren Park commode clearly did not. There’s no obvious reason the Noe Valley toilet couldn’t be a facsimile of McLaren’s.  

The design costs for the Alamo Square restroom (and connected renovation projects) were $837,515. The design costs for McLaren were $265,000. As is the case with trash cans, it seems San Francisco feels the need to re-invent the toilet. 

Ginsburg also hinted that, perhaps, Haney’s former chums on the Board could see fit to undo Administrative Code 12X. Mission Local has written a bit about this; this is the city’s boycott of 30 states due to their anti-abortion laws, anti-LGBTQ rules, or voting restrictions.

Of note, the factory where the city, in 2007, purchased the prefabricated Panhandle restroom was in Kentucky, which is certainly on the city’s shitlist for all three of those problems. 

So, that’s a legit issue. But that’s just one of the many knives plunged into Samuel Ratchett. And now, knives are out: Ginsburg’s comments about organized labor did not go unnoticed. 

“I’m not against people having a place to take a shit,” says San Francisco Building Trades secretary treasurer Rudy Gonzalez. “I am against people taking a shit on our workers.” 

The city’s history with public toilets has not been a happy one

In Ginsburg’s letter to Haney, he twice mentioned the onerousness of environmental review. The term “California Environmental Quality Act” is certain to elicit a reaction among this city’s pro-housing and development allies akin to a barful of St. Patrick’s Day revelers glancing up to witness a man walking through the door clad from head to toe in orange. 

Be that as it may, the cost breakdown for “environmental review fees” for the Noe Valley restroom is given as $500. What’s more, restrooms such as this are exempt from review; the city doles out some 5,500 CEQA exemptions a year. 

So that seems an irrelevant reference. But there are lots of price points on this breakdown that are relevant — and mind-boggling. 

  • Why would it cost $40,000 for a utility and topographical survey of a pancake-flat lot that was converted from a parking lot only in 2016? Wouldn’t those have been done then? “That’s a $10,000 job, max,” sums up Cassidy. 
  • Why is cost estimation for this job pegged at $20,000 to $30,000? Especially when that line item on the McLaren toilet was $5,000? What’s the estimation on how much an estimator is paid to estimate? How much estimated time does $30,000 worth of estimating require?
  • The $300,000 in architectural and engineering fees stunned architects and engineers, some of whom joked they’d do it for half that cost, with the joke being that even this total would be exorbitant. For this much money, you would expect to be dealing with the ground-up construction of a multistory apartment building. Along similar lines, the $175,000 in project management and $150,000 in construction management are also jarring. These are likely  tasks earmarked for city employees, or perhaps two or more, already on staff. Are we to believe this is something that someone is going to be managing for eight hours a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year? 

Soft costs — design, fees, management, insurance, etc. — probably shouldn’t come to more than 20 percent of a project’s budget, Atkinson says. Rec and Park’s line-item budget for the Noe Valley bathroom, however, puts soft costs at 57 percent of the budget.  

On hard costs — construction — Cassidy couldn’t dream of how you could rationalize charging more than $1,200 a square foot, and that’d be for “a mansion on Pacific Heights. Or a hospital.” On construction costs alone, the Noe Valley restroom comes out to $5,000 a square foot.

“We need to see their basis of estimates. And statements of work,” concludes Atkinson. When she was doing work on a federally funded project at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, she was mandated to “lay out, month by month, what every single item cost, for five years — down to the screws and the nails.” That, she says, should happen here. For this project and for the prior restroom projects subsequently cited by Rec and Park to imply that $1.7 million was a sane and normal cost of erecting a public lavatory. 

Justifying high costs by pointing to prior high costs may not be the defensive masterstroke Rec and Park seems to think it is: A motorist caught driving on the sidewalk probably isn’t going to alleviate his problems when he simply points out he has a long history of driving on the sidewalk. 

“I’m not against people having a place to take a shit. I am against people taking a shit on our workers.” 

Rudy Gonzalez, secretary treasurer of SF Building Trades

Haney, too, is now calling for some manner of investigatory body to make Rec and Park show its hand. Like Atkinson, he wants to see the basis of estimates and statements of work. 

Well, better late than never: Haney admits that he didn’t scrutinize the $1.7 million ask before passing it along, beyond querying Rec and Park if it could be lower. He says he was told no. 

“I assumed their estimate was reasonable,” he explains. “In the future, I will look a lot more closely at estimates given to me by the City and County of San Francisco.” 

On the one hand, that’s called for. On the other hand, it’s a hell of a thing to expect our elected officials to be poring through the line items of staff-generated estimations because of potential shenanigans. Rancor from Haney’s former city colleagues directed at him for failing to parse their numbers feels a bit like the line Otter delivered to Flounder in “Animal House:” “You fucked up! You trusted us.

This is going to get messier before it gets cleaner. And that’s separate and apart from the morality of the state funding a restroom in tony Noe Valley, at ultra-top dollar, while people defecate between parked cars in SoMa, the Tenderloin, the Mission and elsewhere. 

But that’s another problem. Whither San Francisco: Where the restrooms are dirty before they’ve even been built.  


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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. Rec & Parks ridiculous budgeting has been going under the radar for years because they’re the “nice guys” – they build parks and playgrounds and make people feel all warm and fuzzy! But they’re corrupt, inept, and honestly just not very nice people to work for. For a department that claims to be building things for the people, they certainly dislike actually working with the people. Hopefully this will finally be the thing that gets Ginsburg out, he’s the biggest misogynistic bully I’ve ever met. Imagine the headline “Ginsburg flushed over overpriced toilet debacle”

  2. It would be worthwhile to have someone examine how the time as well as the money was spent by the participating city agencies on the other restroom projects mentioned in this article, Alamo Square ($1.7M) and McLaren Park ($1.6M) . Presumably, the cost estimate for the proposed restroom at Noe Valley Town Square was based in part on the time that these various city agencies spent on these projects. How much of their time was spent addressing and resolving issues raised by certain agencies? How much time was spent addressing public comments? How much time was spent modifying the design to address every issue that the project managers deemed pertinent? By comparison, what was the average cost per restroom constructed by JC Deceaux?

  3. Amazing — in this story and every other, comments from Haney, Newsom, Ginsburg and yet no comment from the Mayor. Ginsburg reports to her, as does DBI, Planning, etc yet once again, no one seems to think she has any responsibility or is worth asking (blaming?) for the lack of leadership in responding to this. Why isn’t the Mayor concerned about fixing this?

  4. Why are they asking department of Wreck the Parks to build a restroom? The only thing they do is build fences, “grow” astroturf, or rent out our public parks for private events (lining pockets AND fences). Doing something to actually help San Franciscans? Not in their tool box. Probably the entire RPD management doesn’t even live in SF, so what do they care?

    1. Thanks for bringing up astroturf.

      There’s another scandal in how and why fields are being transformed into synthetics.
      I had the opportunity to ask a veteran gardener why our grass playing fields had the topography of a cow pasture. Basic lawn care involves rolling it with a cylindrical barrel filled with water at an appropriate time of the year. Really simple stuff to flatten it out.

      The gardener answered he was fully aware of the process and the need.
      He also stated they had the equipment just sitting there but … “management” would not allow them to use it. Wreck indeed.

  5. When will it be that we insist that our BoS do their jobs of ‘supervising’? SF spending is rife with examples like this. Instead we allow them to duck responsibility and pass prop after prop that avoid supervision responsibility – like new commissions for overseeing DPW, etc. SF has a wealthy tax base and for too long we have just allowed the BoS to throw money at projects without accountability, but still get the credit with their favorite interest group.

    1. But it’s also easy to get. distracted by the shiny “squirrel” of a small project like this, when the entire City budget is rife with multi-billion $ issue. The aybe we could shave $200-300k we could realistically shave off this project this a drop in the bucket compared to the bloated Fire and PD budgets where we pay tons and get middling results (look at the 2005 Prop F for unneeded firehouses, and the very low clearance rate of our Chesa-chastened Police Dept.) While these City employees pull in triple overtime, non-profits we count on to deliver critical health and social services can’t pay their rent. So while we definitely need construction management reform, that alone won’t make much of a dent in the city budget.

  6. Thanks Joe for revealing what should be obvious: “the city that knows how” only knows how to make work for bureaucrats. It’s not corruption in the old-fashioned, Mohammah-Nuru-tractor sense, but in the more pernicious political backslapping sense, from years of labor-friendly policies and agreements exchanged for votes. Those high soft costs come from requirements that City workers (architects, engineers, estimators, etc.) do all the pre-construction work, rather than outsourcing it to professional firms at a per-project basis. In a charitable light, these onerous rules were put in place to discourage the kickbacks and bid rigging that went with outside contactors. But of course they came with a nod and a wink that the public employee unions would support candidates that create jobs and opportunities for their members. So now there is no one to hold down the costs, as DPW and other departments price gouge each other to keep their funding going, and everyone pleads poverty and asks for more money. Does a small bathroom really require a year of a full time planner/estimator? No, but they can ask for it, and RecPark passes the cost along because they want their own planners/architects/etc to get paid too. Real reform would require the city to look at best-in-class design and construction programs around the country and adopt processes that can work here. Who builds quality projects on time at a reasonable cost without widespread corruption? Let’s do what they’re doing….

  7. I agree that the restroom is insane – I live blocks away and the portapotty works fine btw.
    However, I found it extra-funny that the “Central Subway project’s former cost engineer” is commenting about insane costs. The Central Subway is a prime example of corruption and over spending.

    1. Ray — 

      Please read the articles before you comment. If you had, you’d know that the cost engineer reported cost manipulation and irregularities, quit the job, and won a whistleblower award from the Society of Professional Journalists.



  8. Joe,

    Fabulous piece as always.

    That toilet from Kentucky came from Dawg pressure.

    Watching my granddaughter who was still in diapers and they had had Janis Joplin’s toilet (what locals called little tile-topped beauty that matched every other one in the park) …

    Rec and Park had kept the toilets in all parks closed since Angela Alioto as BOS prez drove around with bolt cutters and personally opened them all.

    I presented pics to the City of Joplin and her band posing at the old bathroom (also, matched old Art Museum in GG Park) …

    Couple musicians even on top of thing.

    When I pushed I was told that the toilet was so stuffed with old blue jeans that they couldn’t get it unclogged.

    At same period w/Class of 2000 in office the constructed new street lighting and sprinkler systems next to old systems (“there are two working sprinklers 13″ apart” a gardener told me at the time) …

    City paid to run the two systems simultaneously for years.

    Personally, I replaced sewage sludge from around utility poles and along curb in Clarion Alley for entire block … with concrete.

    For under a hundred bucks using broken cement bags from Discount Builders.

    Created a combo compost heap/shitter in a corner by accident while weeding under murals.

    Entire thing plus cleaning the place and prepping and painting several hundred feet of curb over the year for under five hundred bucks.

    City workers paid for 200 of that w/off the cuff hundred buck contributions while touring my work.

    Got a Petition to Recall Mayor London Breed sitting in the Sonoma country sun til after election with 3 causes.

    1. Reversing SF Criminal Justice Reform
    2. Failure to pave Clarion
    3. Failure to put Porta Potties in front of Mission cop shop on one end (Valencia) and in front of the Pentecostal Church on other end (Mission).

    Loved every minute of decorating my apartment out of Community Thrift at Valencia opening to Clarion and met some totally awesome people from here and all over the world there but met with opposition to my somewhat rogue operations.

    I got a thousand thanks and offers of money and food all the way from my crib at 14th and Valencia all the way to Clarion just past 17th street but eventually was forced out of both store and Gallery Alley over ‘Trash Talk’.


    Go Niners !!


    1. Campers,

      To see about a thousand too many pics of Clarion including wonderful murals (around 40 Lefty Worship pieces) and some of my gardening and concrete work …



  9. Great article! Elected officials should have a relative pulse on basic costs of things.
    Haney is severely out of touch with the real world if hearing $1.7 million for a bathroom doesn’t immediately get a “that’s ridiculous” response and look to fire whomever came up with that number. NEVER take anything he says regarding finances seriously because he is obviously an idiot when it comes to money.

    1. Haney? “You ain’t seen nuttin’ yet baby”… Wait until that mess he left behind at the Treasure Island Mobility Management Agency (TIMMA) blows up in earnest. He and his fellow board members (including Ronen and Peskin) let SFCTA staff move ahead with a tolling plan that is violating the law in multiple ways, even though they were told so for years now. That’ll make that $1.7m project look like small change.

    1. Well yeah, it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to know corruption, mismanagement and incompetence are the problem. Question is how do we fix it?

  10. I think its clear whomever estimated these costs did an extremely poor job or just didnt care and copied numbers from another project.

    1. I’d like to see a forensic accountant’s report on the last few projects like this, and a comparison of jobs that are externally funded vs. covered by existing city budgets. My suspicion is that the funded projects show a lot more bloat, and that they’re effectively charging “overhead” to the state.

      1. Suspicion? It’s right there in plain sight: They roll City&County staff who’s hours are already covered through the City&County payroll into the capital project. That’s how they arrive at the enormous number of hours, the more, the merrier. At the federal level, they’d need a federal department ruling hat specifically allows “capitalizing” such cost. I assume same applies to the state level.

        1. Actually, the City project staff’s time isn’t already paid for. They charge all of their hours to specific projects. No projects, no staff.