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Occupied: San Francisco: Understanding the City Through its Toilets. Yes, Really. 

Wednesday, Mar 19 2014
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In 2008, the department, already saddled with a $2 million dollar backlog from deferred maintenance costs — and run-down facilities throughout the city — sent perky mailers out to the residents of San Francisco, each featuring a map of the city dotted by 35 stars and a picture of the new bungalow-style john that city officials installed in the Panhandle in 2007. The Panhandle potty included a shingled roof, skylights, open-air grated doors, and forest-green tiled trim — and at $531,219 cost nearly as much as a small house in the Excelsior. Plumbing renovations, ADA enhancements, and union construction all contributed to the overall tab. Scrutiny from multiple city agencies ensured that the new john would be a utility, an equalizer, and a thing of beauty, all wrapped into one costly package. It was a harbinger of the times.

The mailer, proudly displaying the new utopian crapper, exhorted voters to pass ballot Proposition A, the $185 million parks bond that earmarked $11.4 million for bathroom renovation. Voters obliged, perhaps not realizing that restrooms cost as much as residential real estate in San Francisco. The Panhandle john was no outlier.

The new crop of restrooms in San Francisco are well-maintained and fabulously expensive, though a $531,000 privy might not shock a citizenry already numbed by $4 toast and $5 drip coffee and exorbitantly priced boutiques on Valencia. They've come to symbolize a strange cultural moment for San Francisco, when the city's long-held do-gooder sentiments are butting up against its obsession with high-tech gadgetry, and its desire to garnish everything — even toilets — with aesthetic frills.


Nouveau restroom design in San Francisco might best be encapsulated by the new Dolores Park rehabilitation project, which will serve tens of thousands of weekend loungers on 16 acres of lumpy, manicured grassland. For anyone who's spent a weekend drinking on those sun-dappled hillocks, the line snaking behind the park's concrete clubhouse is a familiar sight. Add to that a tried-and-true law of human behavior — that the urge to pee in a bush rises with the amount of beer consumed. Such circumstances have led many a well-preened citizen to indulge his baser instincts.

As a result, parts of the city's most park for the most upwardly mobile residents smell like some of the alleyways downtown.

"Public urination has been a significant problem along the western edge of the park," Rec & Park project manager Jake Gilchrist says, explaining that the clubhouse restrooms were too small and remote to accommodate people who hang out in the southwest corner by 20th and Church streets, affectionately known as the Gay Beach. Many of those folks were peeing on the Muni tracks.

Park caretakers are determined to rectify that problem.

Over the next several months, Recreation & Parks will lavish some $12.4 million on amenities for the area, part of the 2008 parks bond. The list of enhancements includes new tennis courts, new irrigation systems, and new, intelligently outfitted restrooms to replace the ones in the clubhouse, which will soon be razed.

The two 1,300-square-foot bathrooms set to go up on either side of the park offer enough restroom real estate to fit 31 toilets, park officials say — 14 for women, five for men, eight urinals, and four unisex stalls.

But the park's most talked-about piece of toilet architecture will crown the top of the hill. Called the "pPod," it's a stark, minimalist structure modeled after the Parisian pissoir — nothing more than a drain hole and modesty panel to hide the user's mid-section. The panel, composed of 2-inch mesh screen rather than corrugated steel, will harbor vines and trellising plants, turning the pPod into a thing of (relative) beauty. It's the next stage in bathroom evolution and, like its forebears, tells us a lot about who we are now.

In fact, the pPod illuminates S.F. cultural sentiments even more than its bigger, costlier contemporaries. It's the iPad of urinals — sleek, ascetic, indomitably practical and, new to the S.F. restroom vision, equipped with features that match the city's environmental sensibility (peeing back into the earth) and its Francophile aspirations. San Francisco has a long history of poaching concepts from the French: After the Gold Rush, our scrappy city tried to repackage itself as "The Paris of the West;" more than a century later, then-mayor Gavin Newsom promised to turn a newly gentrified Market Street into our own Champs-Elysees.

Incidentally, the pissoir will likely be a more flattering form of imitation. Bucking another trend, it's a cheap $15,000.

Only one other futuristic San Francisco toilet could possibly upstage the pPod. Called the "PPlanter," it's a wonder of science and urban planning: part toilet, part bamboo garden, outfitted with pipes that pump urine and faucet water into an airtight tank, clean it through a bio-filter, and feed it to the plants. Engineers from Oakland's Hyphae Design Laboratory pilot-tested the idea last year on Ellis Street, near the back entrance of Boeddeker Park in the Tenderloin (which, as any San Francisco resident can attest, is ground zero for toilet R&D). They hope to launch a new iteration this year in partnership with the North of Market/Tenderloin Community Benefit District, and a proposed budget of $160,000 for the entire project — mostly deriving from grants.

The next phase, officially christened the Tenderloin Ecological Toilet Project, will comprise a toilet, two urinals, a sink, a wheelchair ramp, and vines or trellising plants — all configured to fit within two parking spaces. Its gray-water flushing system will erase foul odors while its foliage will add a "beautification element," according to Susie McKinnon, associate director of the community benefit district. McKinnon compares the Ecological Toilet Project to parklets that have popped up around San Francisco, converting paved streets or parking spaces into greenery. It's a waste repository with bold aims. Its components — all wrought from scavenged industrial materials — apply high-minded ecological ideals to primordial human behaviors for those who need it most.

It transforms pee into garden mulch. Its elaborate title bespeaks a noble calling.

About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Bio:
Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.

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