Public Restroom Study Report

If you’re in Cesar Chavez Park and need to go, you’re in trouble. The only facilities that the Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Department has put here in the past 35 years are three sets of porta-potties. Porta-potties — particularly ones as heavily used and poorly maintained as these — are a health hazard even in normal times. In this pandemic period, your need to go has to overwhelm your need to go on living before you’ll step inside one of these sh*tholes. Not by coincidence, I’ve seen more and more people, men and women both, relieve themselves in the bushes.

This glaring gap in the park’s amenities has been the target of public appeals for more than five years. In December of 2014 I set up an ironing board in the park and gathered signatures on a petition for better bathrooms. People responded vigorously. Berkeleyside ran with it. In very little time I had close to 1,000 signatures. I took the first batch to Berkeley City Council and spoke on the issue at a council meeting in March 2015. Several council members voiced support; none denied the gravity of the problem. I spoke at City Council a second time to address the unreal restroom cost estimates submitted by the Parks director. I followed up with analyses showing that permanent flush-toilet restrooms could very well be built on a landfill and that such bathrooms would be more economical in the long run than the current unending costly regime of porta-potty maintenance. I gave several examples of good permanent bathrooms built by others for one tenth the cost that the Parks director projected. Lathrop. Pacifica. Emeryville. Yet five years later, the City has done nothing, and park visitors still face the insult of having no place civilized to go when they need to.

The lesson that comes out of this experience for me is that the City Council doesn’t run the city. The entrenched salaried staff under the City Manager runs it. And when they don’t want to do something, it doesn’t matter what Council thinks. It won’t get done. The most that will happen is that staff will commission a study. That’s what is happening now. In December 2018, on the City Manager’s motion, Council voted $148,215 for a public restroom study. (That amount could have bought two permanent restrooms with change left over.) The City hired Hyphae Designs of Oakland to do the study. Hyphae is well qualified and worked hard gathering and analyzing material over a span of months. They submitted their draft report to City staff in December 2019, and after some initial processing by staff, it has now been published on the City’s website here. For convenience, a copy is also available right here on the website.

The good news about this study is that Hyphae recommends that one public restroom, a prefab unit with two stalls, be built at the end of Spinnaker Way, as part of the City’s planned Spinnaker Way remodeling project. That would be some time in 2021, or at the current mind-numbing time scale, in 2022 or ’23, or never.

One has to give Hyphae credit for making this recommendation. It’s based on the meetings Hyphae conducted last year with various community groups and other stakeholders, getting input from anyone who cared enough to attend one of the public gatherings.

On the other hand, it’s disappointing that Hyphae did not include Cesar Chavez Park as one of the more than two dozen site visits they conducted. If they had seen the shabby facilities, poor repair, pollution, and inadequate maintenance of the fiberglass outhouses here, perhaps they would have advocated with greater urgency for a larger number of permanent units. This is a park of 90 acres. One restroom for 90 acres doesn’t fit any guideline, criterium, or standard.

The Hyphae study report, as the authors are careful to emphasize, is only a draft. All the points and all the budget numbers are tentative, meaning that they will end up being whatever City staff wants them to be. The voices of a thousand petition signers count as nothing compared to the whim of one Parks manager. That Parks manager has a long record of embracing porta-potties and their lucrative maintenance contracts, while throwing every possible red herring in the path of better public restrooms in the parks. We have lobbied for years to get a civilized set of public restrooms in Cesar Chavez Park, and we have been ignored. Unless there is a change of personnel or policy at the top, the Hyphae study report will disappear with a quiet flushing sound into the black hole where City staff throws projects it doesn’t feel like doing.

Meanwhile, however, the City says it wants feedback on the draft report. For what it may be worth, send comment to Roger Miller, and/or to Megan Prier, chief of the Hyphae study, at Deadline to send comments is Oct. 30, two weeks away.

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