Newsom calls $1.7m bathroom a waste and halts state money until costs come down


Noe Valley’s simple wish to have a public bathroom installed in its prized town square appears to be running around the drain – with even Governor Gavin Newsom wading into the spat over its projected $1.7million cost .

Newsom’s office told me that public funds earmarked for the single toilet in 150 square feet of space would not be available given the exorbitant price.

“A single small bathroom shouldn’t cost $1.7 million,” Erin Mellon, the governor’s director of communications, wrote in a statement. “The state will hold the funding until San Francisco comes up with a plan to use that public money more efficiently. If they can’t, we’ll go back to the legislature to revoke that appropriation.

The governor’s convenient communication sounded similar to the state that recently warned San Francisco about its overly complicated and expensive process for housing approvals and construction. In short: simplify, save money, and bring your, uh, stuff – or whatever.

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

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

Assemblyman Matt Haney, who got money in this year’s state budget for the much-needed restroom, said he heard Jason Elliott, Newsom’s senior adviser, talk about the concerns from the governor on Wednesday, the day this column revealed that San Francisco was about to spend the 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 officials had planned a press conference — call it a pot party — to celebrate the news. Haney canceled the event after my column sparked outrage, making me a pot party poo.

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

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

There’s no doubt that San Francisco’s construction processes are clogged, making every project too slow and too expensive. But one might wonder why Newsom and Haney are dumbfounded by this fact since the former was the mayor of San Francisco and the latter was a supervisor, and both should be intimately familiar with the city’s notorious bureaucracy.

It’s also unclear why Haney took the Department of Recreation and Parks’ $1.7 million award at face value if he finds it so horrendous.

Rec and Park spokeswoman Tamara Aparton hit back: “It is shocking that the state is allocating money without understanding what it was going to pay. The Noe Valley community asked for this money directly from the assemblyman, who promised it to them, apparently without asking questions.

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

Ginsburg responded Friday morning, noting it was the first time he had received questions from Haney about the $1.7 million project. Ginsburg agreed the project was “long and expensive,” but said it was the result of skyrocketing construction costs, as well as years of policy choices laid out in local, state and federal codes.

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

He pointed out that Haney’s old stomping ground, the board of supervisors, is responsible for some cost-raising choices, such as not allowing the city to do business or contract with companies in 30 states because these states discriminate against LGBT people, restrict the right to abortion or suppress the right to vote. Ginsburg pointed out that this makes buying prefabricated bathrooms or other materials more expensive.

Ginsburg, whose anger seemed to spring from the page, asked Haney to advocate for changes to those processes, such as exempting small projects from environmental review and simplifying the use of prefabricated structures.

He also pointed out that the Noe Valley bathroom is not a rarity in its exorbitant price. A small, simple 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 audience’s attention.

Ginsburg also provided Haney with a breakdown of the Noe Valley restroom budget. The construction itself – including construction management, materials, utilities and labor – costs $1.05 million. The rest seems to go to the city for its own work: Rec and Park project management, the Department of Building Inspection for permits, architectural 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 wages and benefits for people who were already on the city’s payroll.

He said it motivated him to call his union peers and see if they could find cheaper toilets and build them themselves on a voluntary basis for the good of the community.

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

Meanwhile, the toilet story got even weirder when I read an article in the Noe Valley Voice covering the 2016 opening of the town square, with the plumbing ready for a bathroom. He mentioned that an anonymous donor had offered to fully fund the bathroom and was meeting with Rec and Park to see if the department’s $600,000 to $800,000 estimate could be lowered.

It turns out that anonymous donor was Rodrigo Santos, a Noe Valley resident, a structural engineer who has since been charged with bank fraud, aggravated impersonation and obstruction of justice. The evidence against him included checks he allegedly told his clients to write to “DBI” – the Department of Building Inspection – which he then changed to read “RoDBIgo Santos”.

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

It is unclear why the cost of the project soared by a million dollars in just six years. Santos did not return a request for comment.

Back in the Noe Valley Town Square, a seedy Porta Potty leans in the corner, unlocked only on Saturdays for Farmer’s Market vendors. Someone taped a piece of paper to his door saying “$1.70”.

As for the Noe Valley neighbors themselves, several said they still want toilets – but they agree with Haney and Newsom that the cost is ridiculous. Leslie Crawford, co-founder of Town Square and the Farmer’s Market, said she hoped a cheaper bathroom could come to fruition.

“It’s a beloved, well-used park with needy toddlers and needy homeless people and everyone in need,” she said. “Maybe we’ll find a more creative way to do it and be more economical.”

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

Heather Knight is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @hknightsf


Comments are closed.