The latest construction project straining San Francisco's city budget? A single-stall public restroom that's expected to cost an eye-popping $1.7 million to build.
Last Wednesday, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that a new, 150-square-foot public restroom in central San Francisco's Noe Valley was expected to cost $1.7 million by its completion in 2025. The story sparked outrage from local citizens and state officials alike who balked at the high price tag. While city officials have attempted to chalk up the price to high construction costs, the shockingly expensive budget estimate for one restroom shows the pitfalls of a city where construction is nigh impossible—and the local government is more than willing to overspend.
How did the $1.7 million figure get estimated? Well, according to San Francisco Assembly member Matt Haney (D–San Francisco), who secured the funding, he went with the figure that the Recreation and Parks Department gave him. "They told me $1.7 million, and I got $1.7 million," Haney told the Chronicle. "I didn't have the option of bringing home less of the bacon when it comes to building a toilet. A half a toilet or a toilet-maybe-someday is not much use to anyone."
But why such a steep price tag on something as simple as a single-stall restroom—especially considering that the plaza on which the restroom will be built already has the necessary plumbing for a bathroom? A statement from the San Francisco Department of Recreation and Parks and the Department of Public Works argued the bathroom's exorbitant price tag is driven by the high cost of construction in San Francisco—the highest in the world—as well as increases in construction costs due to inflation and supply chain issues.
"It's important to note that public projects and their overall cost estimates don't just reflect the price of erecting structures," officials wrote in the statement. "They include planning, drawing, permits, reviews and public outreach." Officials also stressed that their estimate is deliberately high in order to account "for the worst-case scenario due to the onerous demands and unpredictable costs levied by PG&E."
Further, actually building the bathroom will involve a dizzying number of roadblocks, notably "community feedback," to ensure that the bathroom's "design is appropriate to its context in the urban environment." After passing community muster, the design will head to local officials for approval, as well as review under the California Environmental Quality Act. Only then can construction start.
While the city government is convinced that their $1.7-million figure is a reasonable, if deliberately high, estimate for a public restroom, other experts disagree. The San Francisco Chronicle spoke with Tom Hardiman, the executive director of the Modular Building Institute in Charlottesville, Virginia. When asked to guess San Francisco's budget for the bathroom, he told the Chronicle, "I'm going to guess high, I think, and say $200,000." When told the real cost, he replied "What are they making it out of—gold and fine Italian marble? It would be comical if it wasn't so tragically flawed."
While Hardiman told the Chronicle that a prefabricated bathroom would be much cheaper, San Francisco law might stand in the way of a much more sensible option. Why? In 2019, the city supervisors reached a Project Labor Agreement, which required union labor for all "covered projects." According to the Chronicle, Noe Valley's single-stall bathroom shouldn't apply under this agreement "because it's not worth $10 million and it didn't come from bond funding."
However, Haney seems to believe that the bathroom project is constrained by the agreement, thus ruling out cheaper, prefabricated options. The Chronicle reports that "he'd be open to modular bathrooms if they didn't violate the Public Labor Agreement." Unfortunately, even if this bathroom is exempt from the law, mistaken city officials are more than enough to effectively rule out this cheaper option made by non-union labor. Another fact making a prefabricated option less likely: The city of San Francisco is barred from doing business with 30 states, due to anti-abortion, anti-LGBT rights, or "voter suppression" laws.
Governor Gavin Newsom (D) has even waded into the controversy. "A single, small bathroom should not cost $1.7 million," a Newsom spokesperson wrote in a statement to the Chronicle. "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." However, Newsom's office hasn't seemed to have had trouble approving such expensive projects before. According to the Chronicle, two other single-stall bathrooms were recently constructed in San Francisco, costing $1.6 and $1.7 million respectively.
The price tag for Noe Valley's single-stall public restroom is outrageous. However, so is San Francisco's needlessly complicated process for approving new construction—and its laws restricting who and where this construction can come from. It simply should not be this complicated to build a public bathroom—or just about anything, for that matter. San Francisco's city government has a long and storied history of erecting bureaucratic roadblocks to new construction—from much-needed apartment buildings to a trash can. Blame for such a ludicrously expensive bathroom should thus primarily lay at the feet of an incompetent, regulation-happy city government.
A $1.7 million toilet is a uniquely San Franciscan tale. It's a story of fiscal irresponsibility, yes, but also a story of government ineptitude—and it shows what can happen when bureaucracy and regulation clouds common sense.
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