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Politics & Policy

Behold the beauty of SF’s most controversial bathroom: It comes with a catch

If supervisors accept a modular bathroom donation, a new public restroom could be installed at the Noe Valley Town Square. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

San Francisco moved one step closer to putting a lid on its most controversial toilet, as the Recreation and Park Commission signed off on a donation that will slash the public bathroom's costs to a fraction of the original $1.7 million price tag.

While the tab has been greatly reduced—now down to just $300,000 in city funds, thanks to an out-of-state offer for a modular bathroom—the donation does come with a catch. 

But first things first, just look at this beauty. 

This $425,000 modular bathroom is being offered as a donation for the Noe Valley Town Square. | Courtesy Rec and Park Department

The modular bathroom is valued at $425,000 and is being donated by Public Restroom Company, which is headquartered in Nevada. 

Normally, doing business with the company would be a violation of city rules, as San Francisco’s “12X” policy bars the city from spending money in states that "perpetuate unequal treatment of the LGBTQ+ community.” Thirty states across the country are now on the 12X list, and many officials in San Francisco believe the ordinance has put the city at a competitive disadvantage in the procurement process for goods and services.

Legislation from Supervisor Ahsha Safaí will be considered Tuesday to limit the ban to just commodities and services, while Supervisor Rafael Mandelman plans to introduce legislation that would repeal the ban.

Regardless, since the soon-to-be dirty john is a donation, the City Attorney's Office said it does not violate the letter of the law. 

Larry Mazzola, a Rec and Parks commissioner who was joined by colleague Laurence Griffin in opposing the project, vehemently disagrees.

He argued during a Feb. 16 commission meeting that the project not only sets a precedent for San Francisco to ignore its own values, but also sets a path for the city’s skilled laborers to be overlooked for future work.

“All this developer cares about is free advertising,” said Mazzola, who is president of the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council. “This is a publicity stunt for them. Nothing is free.”

He added that the construction looks lousy—noting that the sink on the exterior will likely triple as a toilet and shower—and said the donation is part of a larger push for Public Restroom Company to put its signage up all over town. That would go against the spirit of 12X and hurt local workers, Mazzola said.

“One small bathroom, then it’s a big one, then it’s a kitchen, then it’s a big structure,” Mazzola said. “Where does it stop? You know what we’re doing by approving stuff like this? We’re shipping out local jobs.”

Phil Ginsburg, the general manager of the Rec and Park Department, acknowledged Mazzola's point on corporate branding.

“I don’t disagree with Commissioner Mazzola on the point; it’s good marketing and public relations for them,” Ginsburg said. “They jumped on this when all the national stories broke and they reached out to us.”

A breakdown of projected costs to the city for a public bathroom at Noe Valley Town Square | Screenshot

The city will be on the hook for $300,000 in soft costs for project management, which includes $2,000 in taxpayer money for the donor plaque and signage, and the remaining $1.4 million in state grants will now go toward efforts to install a public bathroom at Precita Park in the Mission and elsewhere, according to city officials.

Kat Anderson was among a few Rec and Parks commissioners who sympathized with Mazzola but noted that the city “can’t’ really afford to build $1.7 and $2 million bathrooms all over the system.”

Mazzola said that it’s not his workers’ fault the city’s Department of Public Works and the Public Utilities Commission “inflate their prices on us.” 

“The city is inept at managing projects,” he said. “That’s not the workers’ fault.”

The Board of Supervisors is expected to take a final vote on accepting the donated bathroom in the coming weeks.  

Josh Koehn can be reached at josh@sfstandard.com