Af­ter hep­ati­tis, fancy re­stroom loses gleam

Amid San Diego’s deadly out­break, the $2-mil­lion wa­ter­front bath­room is crit­i­cized.

Los Angeles Times - - CITY & STATE - By Mor­gan Cook mor­gan.cook@sdunion­tri­bune.com Cook writes for the San Diego Union-Tri­bune.

The city of San Diego helped in­stall an aes­thet­i­cally pleas­ing struc­ture on its sig­na­ture wa­ter­front in 2014, de­signed by an artist to evoke “Jonathan Liv­ingston Seag­ull,” the pop­u­lar 1970 novella about a seag­ull that wanted to be special. Its func­tion? A re­stroom. Its cost? Two mil­lion dol­lars.

It was wel­comed at the time as a so­phis­ti­cated new ad­di­tion to San Diego’s “front porch” for tourists and oth­ers ar­riv­ing by bay. But now that a hep­ati­tis A out­break has killed 20 peo­ple and sick­ened more than 500 oth­ers, some are ques­tion­ing whether the re­gion’s pri­or­ity should have been build­ing more down­town re­strooms — not more stylish ones.

Un­san­i­tary con­di­tions con­trib­ute to the spread of the liver dis­ease, par­tic­u­larly among San Diego’s grow­ing home­less pop­u­la­tion, which lacks ac­cess to proper fa­cil­i­ties. The cri­sis has brought new scru­tiny on years of grand jury re­ports that called for a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in the num­ber of re­strooms down­town.

Of­fi­cials cited cost in re­ject­ing the rec­om­men­da­tions, even as they planned and ex­e­cuted the North Em­bar­cadero Vi­sion­ary Plan that in­cluded the seag­ull-themed lava­tory.

“The city should be beau­ti­ful and wel­come tourism to boost our econ­omy with the money that it brings, but at what ex­pense?” said home­less ad­vo­cate Anne Rios of the San Diego non­profit Think Dig­nity. “I think our city places em­pha­sis on those who have as op­posed to those who have not.”

A special joint gov­ern­ment au­thor­ity was formed to over­see the wa­ter­front project in 2007. Mayor Kevin Faulconer, then a city coun­cil­man who rep­re­sented down­town, was the au­thor­ity chair­man.

“Mayor Faulconer is proud to have sup­ported this trans­for­ma­tive project to re­store pub­lic spa­ces and re­cre­ation space along the wa­ter­front,” spokesman Craig Gustafson said by email. “The ex­te­rior of the re­stroom fa­cil­ity also dou­bled as a pub­lic arts project meant to be show­cased on San Diego’s wa­ter­front. The fact that this project in­cluded a much-needed pub­lic re­stroom is a good thing.”

Gustafson said the mayor rec­og­nizes the city needs more down­town re­strooms and pointed to ef­forts this fall to pro­vide pub­lic re­strooms as the hep­ati­tis A cri­sis boiled over and be­came na­tional news.

The fancy re­stroom fa­cil­ity that opened in 2014 stands next to Broad­way Pier with the ti­tle, “Birds’ Words,” ac­cord­ing to the San Diego Uni­fied Port District. It helped pay for the bath­room.

The 816-square-foot stand-alone build­ing was de­signed by Los An­ge­les artist Pae White.

White said the North Em­bar­cadero Vi­sion­ary Plan orig­i­nally called for more tra­di­tional struc­tures and a sep­a­rate work of pub­lic art. She said she sug­gested in­te­grat­ing art into the de­sign of the struc­tures, as op­posed to cre­at­ing a free-stand­ing sculp­ture.

“Dur­ing one of the early meet­ings, I got a sense that ele­ments such as the bath­room or pavil­ions were go­ing to be a bit non­de­script and so I asked if I could in­ter­vene,” White said by email. “The art bud­get funds were used to put these ‘en­hance­ments’ in place. So in many ways, the art bud­get is re­spon­si­ble for aes­theti­ciz­ing the ex­ist­ing plan.”

White won a $125,000 con­tract in 2011 to pro­vide de­signs and con­sult­ing for the project, ac­cord­ing to port records.

The project took longer than an­tic­i­pated, and the port re­peat­edly ex­tended White’s con­tract, in­creas­ing its value to $291,350.

In 2015, the project won an Ur­ban De­sign Honor Award and a Di­vine De­tail Award from the Amer­i­can In­sti­tutes of Ar­chi­tects, San Diego; was named an Out­stand­ing Ur­ban or Land De­vel­op­ment Project in Cal­i­for­nia by the Amer­i­can So­ci­ety of Civil En­gi­neers, Re­gion 9; and re­ceived a Project Achieve­ment Award from the Con­struc­tion Man­age­ment Assn. of Amer­ica.

The city was warned re­peat­edly as far back as 2000 that hu­man waste on city streets was a prob­lem that threat­ened pub­lic health, and that there was a short­age of 24-hour pub­lic re­strooms avail­able to the city’s grow­ing home­less pop­u­la­tion down­town.

In 2005, city of­fi­cials shot down a grand jury rec­om­men­da­tion call­ing for more toi­lets to ad­dress the short­age.

City of­fi­cials said the fa­cil­i­ties could cost up to $250,000 each to buy and in­stall, plus $65,000 a year to main­tain, and the city did not have “the re­sources to ex­e­cute a project of this mag­ni­tude.”

Based on those cost es­ti­mates, the $2 mil­lion spent on the seag­ull-themed re­stroom could have paid for four such fa­cil­i­ties and op­er­ated them for 16 years.

From 2010 to the peak of the hep­ati­tis out­break, the city closed more 24-hour down­town re­strooms than it opened. As the health cri­sis peaked this fall, more re­sources were made avail­able.

“We have taken ac­tion to ex­pand re­stroom op­por­tu­ni­ties as we work through this pub­lic health emer­gency,” city spokes­woman Katie Keach said. “We are mon­i­tor­ing us­age of the pub­lic re­strooms daily and will de­ter­mine the long-term ap­proach based on var­i­ous fac­tors, in­clud­ing pub­lic health needs.”

The Port District op­er­ates 17 pub­lic re­strooms on San Diego’s wa­ter­front, ac­cord­ing to in­for­ma­tion pro­vided by the district. Of those, at least six are open 24 hours a day.

“Birds’ Words” is one of three new pub­lic re­strooms built on a half-mile stretch of the Port District’s wa­ter­front prop­erty from 2012 to 2015, port spokes­woman Bri­anne Page said.

One of them — a 24-hour stand-alone pub­lic re­stroom build­ing that the Port District built at Ruocco Park in 2012 — cost $378,991.

The $2-mil­lion wa­ter­front re­stroom cost about five times as much as the bath­room in Ruocco Park.

Page said it’s im­por­tant to un­der­stand that the Ruocco Park re­stroom was part of a dif­fer­ent project.

“The re­stroom at Ruocco Park fea­tures a mod­ern, min­i­mal­ist de­sign to go with the min­i­mal­ist theme of the park,” Page said.

The North Em­bar­cadero bath­room and the project’s struc­tures “were de­signed to be in­spi­ra­tional, in­ter­ac­tive and func­tional art.”

The wa­ter­front re­stroom was open from 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. un­til San Diego County de­clared the hep­ati­tis A out­break a lo­cal pub­lic health emer­gency in Septem­ber, Page said. It is now open 24 hours.

Howard Lipin San Diego Union-Tri­bune

A PUB­LIC re­stroom, de­signed to evoke “Jonathan Liv­ingston Seag­ull,” joined San Diego’s wa­ter­front in 2014.

San Diego Union-Tri­bune

THE CITY was warned of a short­age of 24-hour pub­lic re­strooms avail­able to home­less peo­ple down­town.

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