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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.