San Francisco’s $1.7 Million Toilet: Why California Decided to Stop It and How the City Failed to Find a Cheaper Alternative

In October 2022, San Francisco raised eyebrows when the city budgeted $1.7 million for a single-stall public restroom in the city’s Noe Valley neighborhood. The high price tag, according to city officials, was due to the steep price of construction in San Francisco, as well as remaining supply chain issues.

But the state stepped in shortly after, scrapping the planned bathroom after outrage spread over its high cost to taxpayers. Fifteen months later, the public plaza where the restroom was originally planned still doesn’t have a place to pee—and it doesn’t look like it will get one any time soon.

“Why isn’t there a toilet here? I just don’t get it. Nobody does,” one resident told The New York Times last week. “It’s yet another example of the city that can’t.”

San Francisco has the most expensive construction costs in the world—and it’s hardly surprising. In order to build a public bathroom in Noe Valley, at a location that already had the necessary plumbing to add a restroom, builders would have to pass a dizzying number of regulatory stops. These include seeking approval from the Arts Commission’s Civic Design Review committee, passing review under the California Environmental Quality Act, and getting the go-ahead from the city’s Rec and Park Commission and San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors. If that isn’t enough, the project would also be subject to a period of “community feedback.”

Even after gaining approval, the city wouldn’t be free to simply find the cheapest acceptable bathroom—likely a pre-fabricated option—and connect it to city plumbing. According to a 2022 San Francisco Chronicle article, pre-fabricated bathrooms violate the city’s Public Labor Agreement. Adding to costs, the city would also be required to use union labor to construct the bathroom.

While the $1.7 million price tag was rightfully criticized, should the project have been allowed to go forward, the budget might not have been an overestimate. San Francisco’s regulatory burden on new construction—even something as simple as a single-stall bathroom—is just that high. 

Even San Francisco’s own government has conceded that the Noe Valley bathroom fiasco was a sign that the city has too much regulation. “It’s worth changing the laws that are in place around construction projects like the restroom that slow things down,” a spokesperson for Mayor London Breed told the Times

But this is far from the first time that local governments have earmarked absurdly large sums of money to pay for public bathrooms. In 2017, New York City spent $2 million on a public park bathroom. And last year, Philadelphia caused controversy when it announced that it would spend $1.8 million on six modular Portland Loo bathrooms over the next five years—a model that cities across the country have spent millions on in recent years.