San Diego's fancy $2-million public restroom raises eyebrows amid hepatitis outbreak

The city of San Diego helped install an aesthetically pleasing structure on its signature waterfront in 2014, designed by an artist to invoke “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” the popular 1970 novella about a seagull who 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 more downtown restrooms — not more stylish ones.

The liver infection is spread because of unsanitary conditions, 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-based 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, chaired the authority.

“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. It has a title, “Birds’ Words,” according to the San Diego Unified Port District, which 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 planned 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/Land Development Project in the State of California from the American Society of Civil Engineers, Region 9, and received a Project Achievement Award from the Construction Management Assn. of America.

Warning signs

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 another $65,000 per 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.

Between 2010 and the peak of the hepatitis outbreak, the city closed more 24-hour restrooms than it opened downtown. 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 between 2012 and 2015, port spokeswoman Brianne Page said.

One of them — a 24-hour stand-alone public restroom building that the Port District constructed 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 very 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 — as well as all of 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 24/7.

Cook writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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