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The Case of The Very Expensive Public Toilet

24 January 2024

News and media


The latest addition to ANZSOG’s John L. Alford Case Library, written by ANZSOG Research Fellow Marinella Padula, takes a rare break from Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand to explore a universal problem – finding a public toilet when you need one.

Set in the bayside city of San Francisco, The Very Expensive Public Toilet shows how the quest to build a simple restroom in a popular local meeting place became much more complicated, politicised and notorious than the City of San Francisco would have liked.

The story begins in late 2022 when the California state government awards a $1.7 million grant to the City of San Francisco to construct a long-awaited public toilet in the Noe Valley Town Square. In a city short on public toilets and dealing with a public defecation ‘epidemic’, every extra restroom counts.

But what would normally have been an ephemeral piece of local news becomes an international embarrassment when a San Francisco Chronicle columnist picks up the story and questions why a single toilet should take two years and cost as much as a house to complete. The controversy soon leads the California Governor to withhold the grant until San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks Department trims the price tag.

Suddenly everyone has an opinion, and the debate exposes broader flaws in San Francisco’s processes for approving and delivering public works projects.

Building new public toilets involves input from multiple city authorities. The trouble, according to former San Francisco planner Kanishka Cheng, was that: ‘No one’s in charge. Nobody’s coordinating with each other,’ Cheng said. ‘Nobody’s seeing the priority as delivering the project quickly, efficiently, under budget and on time.’

San Francisco Recreation and Parks General Manager Phil Ginsburg explains that the project needed cooperation or approval from six different city agencies, and needed to go through site analysis, community consultation, design review followed by a bidding and contract approval process, which together could take up to a year.

The toilet will also require numerous additional features like accessible walkways, landings, railings and outdoor lighting so as to be compliant with city and state regulations. Moreover, public restrooms are expected to have a 50-year service-life, thus have to be built with durable materials that could withstand heavy use.

Before San Francisco’s best and brightest can get to shrinking the budget, however, the City is gifted a ready-made answer in the form of a prefabricated toilet. Donated by a Nevada-based company, it also comes with an offer to cover installation costs. Seems like the perfect solution but is it?

Touching on issues of public value, budgeting, waste, transparency, homelessness, public health, inequality and civil rights – this case reveals the complexities behind even the simplest-sounding construction project.

This two-part case is also accompanied by a teaching note available to ANZSOG partners and instructors on request.

Download the case for free here or contact cases@anzsog.edu.au.