Utility-free Restrooms in Cesar Chavez Park: a Briefing

Berkeleyside today published an op-ed I wrote about the park restroom issue:

Op-ed: Utility-free Restrooms in Cesar Chavez Park — A Briefing

By Martin Nicolaus

Martin Nicolaus is a 23-year Berkeley resident, a park activist and blogger (https://chavezpark.org) who is leading a campaign petitioning for better restrooms at Cesar Chavez Park. He has no connection with any party involved in the design, sales or construction of the restrooms. Nicolaus published a photo-book about Cesar Chavez Park in 2014.

The need for permanent restrooms in Cesar Chavez Park has been on the City’s agenda since at least 1977, when the North Waterfront Park Land Use Plan said that “of course, a park headquarters building and restroom structures will be needed for the park to function.” [1]  The 1991 Conceptual Master Plan for North Waterfront Park envisioned restrooms as part of a constructed park entry area.[2]  “Permanent restrooms” in the park formed part of the 2003 Berkeley Marina Master Plan.[3] 

Yet to date nothing has been done.  Visitors to Berkeley’s largest park, coming from all over the region, get their impression of the City of Berkeley from widely detested plastic porta-potties. Porta-potties are designed for temporary use. The units in the park have been there since the park opened in 1991 — a quarter-century.

Two main obstacles are usually cited against the construction of permanent restrooms in the park.  They are (1) funding, and (2) the landfill gas issue.  Both of those problems had considerable traction in the past, but with the advance of time they are fading to the rear view mirror.  New restroom technology — the utility-free flush-vault restroom — dissolves these objections and puts  permanent economical and ecological park restrooms within the City’s reach today.

Old Technology.  Old park restroom technology is costly because it requires custom construction and hookups to the municipal sewer lines.  An example is the windsurfer bathroom currently slated for construction near the South Basin of the Marina. The floor area of this custom-built old-technology structure will be 530 square feet[4] and the cost will be $600,000.  That sum is approximately twice the cost of building a Class 1 single-family residence complete with kitchen, heating, and all fixtures.[5] 

  • The windsurfer restroom will cost $1,132 per square foot. For comparison, the median cost of building a 1-story office building in San Francisco in 2015 was $118 per square foot and for a 1-3 story apartment building, $86 per square foot.[6] In 2015 you could purchase a 5+ unit apartment building in Pacific Heights for “only” $631 per square foot, half the cost of the windsurfer bathroom.[7] On a square foot basis, the windsurfer restroom will be among the most expensive construction projects in the history of Berkeley
  • A significant cost element for old-technology park restrooms is the sewer hookup. The windsurfer restroom will require a trench ten feet deep[8] in places, running for about 175 feet to University Avenue.[9] The trench would cut into 18 feet of highly variable landfill including organic material.[10]  The risk of encountering and releasing landfill gas at this depth in this area has not been measured,[11] is not considered in the Initial Study, and is liable to lead to additional mitigation expense if the project proceeds.
Utility-free restroom near dog park in Lathrop, CA. Photo: courtesy Martin Nicolaus

New Technology.  By contrast, the new utility-free restrooms available today utilize pre-fab technology and require no sewer hookups. The leading vendor of this technology, Greenflush Technologies of Portland, OR, (www.greenflushrestrooms.com) offers a variety of models, all prefabricated and shipped to the site by truck.  I recently visited a new installation in Lathrop CA (a suburb of Manteca), see photos this page. Located at a dog park a quarter-mile from the nearest sewer, this unisex bathroom with a flush toilet, waterless urinal, and sink for handwashing cost the city $53,000 installed, less than one tenth the cost of the projected Berkeley windsurfer bathroom.[12] 

The utility-free flush-vault technology is essentially a happy hybrid between standard sanitary flush bathrooms and the rustic no-flush vault toilets typically found in state parks. 

  • To the user, the facility appears entirely like a conventional residential or commercial bathroom with a flush toilet, urinal, and sink.
  • There is a vault underneath. But unlike the campground toilets, there is no odor and no optic opening onto the waste matter.
Utility-free restrooms have flush toilets, are ADA compliant. Photo: courtesy Martin Nicolaus

The invisible vault is considerably more capacious than the campground units.  It gets pumped out a few times a year, depending on use, by the same vacuum trucks that service porta-potties and campground toilets.

Soil deep enough for tall cypresses is more than deep enough for trench-less toilets Photo: courtesy Martin Nicolaus

No Trench Required.  The flush-vault models can be set into a rectangular excavation no deeper than 24 inches. They require no sewer hookup and therefore no trench.  The whole expense and environmental risk of trenching is a non-issue.[13] 

Spot excavations 24 inches deep made at the present locations of the two sets of porta-potties along Spinnaker Way in Cesar Chavez Park (map, right) would create no risk of penetrating the landfill cover and causing landfill gas leakage. 

Both of these sites are in line with the existing row of cedar trees on the north side of Spinnaker Way (photo, left). The trees are planted on the levee that underlies Spinnaker Way, and are not on landfill.[14] If the soil here is deep enough for tall trees, it is more than deep enough for utility-free restrooms.

Even if hypothetically the restroom structures had to be sited over landfill, the protective cover over the refuse in this area is much thicker than required. Test drillings made in 1988 show a cover thickness of between 8 feet and 26.5 feet near one site, and a thickness of 8 feet near the other.[15] These cover thicknesses were measured prior to the additional cover material (approximately four feet)[16] laid down before the area was opened to the public as a park in 1991.

Currently, there is a string of concrete stormwater drain boxes in the ground over landfill just north of the paved pedestrian path along Spinnaker Way (photo, right). Each of these boxes is sunk as deep or deeper than the excavation needed for the permanent restrooms.  No gas escapes because the cover is much deeper. There is no danger of cover penetration or gas leakage resulting from the installation of the utility-free restrooms

Storm drains over landfill demonstrate ample thickness of cover soil Photo: Martin Nicolaus

Installing the utility-free toilets will not require moving any landfill pipes and will not require shutting down the gas extraction system even for one minute.

Declining Gas Volume.  In general, there is small and declining cause for alarm about landfill gas emissions from the park, particularly near Spinnaker Way. Dumping started here in 1961 and gradually moved north, ending in 1983 at the northern boundary.[17] The refuse in the area just above Spinnaker Way is now 55 years old. The EPA estimates that landfill gas production typically continues for about 20-30 years.[18] 

Gas production at this whole landfill site was always fairly benign,[19] and has been declining.[20] Already in 2008, the City took note of the declining gas generation rate and indicated that the gas flow was getting too low to run the big flare station built in 1988.[21]  On April 30 2009, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) gave the City permission to run the flare station at less than half of full time (312 hours per month instead of 720) because of declining gas flow.[22]

In 2011, SCS Engineers, the City’s consultants, asked the California Air Resources Board (CARB) for permission to shut the flare station down altogether in view of the sub-minimal gas emissions measured at the surface and “the increasing difficulty keeping the GCCS [Gas Collection and Control System] running continuously with poor gas quality and declining gas production.”[23] This was denied.

Consequently, under regulatory agency pressure, on July 14 2015 the City entered into a contract in the amount of $721,600 to replace the existing flare station with a smaller unit because of “decreasing waste decomposition gas flows at a landfill that last accepted waste 32 years ago.”[24]

Construction under this contract is currently ongoing, and the big rusty leaning tower in the flare station will be gone in the spring — a visible reminder that the park is running out of gas. 

— Martin Nicolaus






[1] North Waterfront Park Land Use Plan Summary pp. 2, 6.  Cesar Chavez Park was formerly called North Waterfront Park.

[2] Conceptual Master Plan for North Waterfront Park, p. 73, maps pp 11, 13.

[3] Berkeley Marina Master Plan June 1, 2003, pp. 4, 42, 77-78.

[4] City of Berkeley, Department of Parks, Recreation and Waterfront, Berkeley Marina South Cove Parking Lot Renovation and New Restroom Project, Mitigated Negative Declaration/Initial Study, p. 4.  (“Initial Study”)

[5] Retrieved from http://www.building-cost.net/CompMatrix.asp on 1/8/2016 for construction in zip codes 945-947 in January 2016.

[6] Retrieved on 1/8/2016 from http://www.buildingjournal.com/construction-estimating.html

[7] Retrieved on 1/8/2016 from http://www.paragon-re.com/Bay_Area_Apartment_Building_Market

[8] Initial Study, p. 28 

[9] Initial Study, p. 10

[10] Initial Study, pp. 24, 25, 28.

[11] Initial Study, p. 28

[12] See https://chavezpark.org

[13] The flush-vault toilets require no electric hookup; they use a solar panel on the roof. Water lines to supply the toilet and sink already run along the north side of Spinnaker Way, partly on the surface. Note that the flush-vault toilet uses only one quart of water per flush. 

[14] Berkeley Marina Master Plan, p. 27. “Landscaping and plantings are restricted at Cesar Chavez Park because of the Regional Water Quality Control Board’s concern that tree roots have the potential to compromise the landfill’s clay cap.” 

[15] Harding Lawson Associates, Berkeley Landfill Well Drilling Logs and Dailies, September-October 1988, Extraction Wells 1-6.

[16] Conceptual Master Plan, 1991, p. 12.

[17] City of Berkeley, History of the Berkeley Landfill, July 1989.

[18] Environmental Protection Agency, LFG Energy Project Development Handbook, February 2015, p. 1-2.

[19] Conceptual Master Plan,1991, p. 14. Surface testing in the area near the parking circle already in 1982 “showed zero to very low gas concentration readings.”  History of the Berkeley Landfill, p. 8.

[20] Bay Area Air Quality Monitoring District, Evaluation of Collection and Control System Design, Oct.8, 2003, p. 9. 

[21] Phil Kamlarz, City Manager and Claudette Ford, Director, Public Works, Memorandum to City Council, Oct. 7 2008, pp. 1, 2.

[22] BAAQMD letter to City of Berkeley dated April 30, 2008, with modified permit attached. 

[23] SCS Engineers letter to California Air Resource Board, Nov. 1, 2011.  On 12/31/15 and again 1/8/16, the flare station burners malfunctioned, probably due to insufficient gas volume, and the stack emitted flames and smoke.

[24] Christine Daniel,City Manager, and Andrew Clough, Director Public Works, Memo to City Council, July 14, 2015.

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