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Open-air urinal in San Francisco park has no designs on privacy

Patrick Sullivan

Patrick Sullivan, 63, a retired personal trainer, stands in front of the open-air urinal in San Francisco’s Mission Dolores Park. He has signed on with the Pacific Justice Institute, which has threatened to take legal action against the city if it does not remove the urinal.

(Robin Abcarian / Los Angeles Times)

For 23 years, Patrick Sullivan has lived across the street from Mission Dolores Park, one of the most scenic patches of recreational space in this increasingly crowded town.

From his kitchen window, at the southwest edge of the park, Sullivan, 63, a retired personal trainer, has a spectacular view of the skyline and the Oakland Hills, unobstructed, thanks to the park’s steeply raked sloped. These days, his view includes the backs of dozens of men relieving themselves in a new open-air urinal, the city’s latest solution to a pervasive lack of restrooms.

On sunny weekends, Dolores Park becomes a giant beach blanket for thousands of fog-fatigued San Franciscans. They play tennis, basketball and Frisbee. They sunbathe, and picnic, and consume prodigious quantities of beer for which their bladders are no match.

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Sullivan was happy that the park, which had not been improved for more than half a century, got an expensive face lift last year: new irrigation, new playgrounds, new tennis courts and two sorely needed new restrooms.

As the renovations wrapped up, he noticed workers pouring a concrete base on the corner, beside a Muni streetcar stop that runs along the western edge of the park.

How cool, he told a friend. They’re putting up a statue.

“My friend was listening to the news, and she called me and said, ‘You aren’t going to believe this. It’s not a statue. It’s a urinal!’ I was shocked.”

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The problem with this urinal, which city officials call a pissoir (one of the few instances where a French word sounds uglier than its English counterpart), is that privacy-wise, it has none.

I have never seen anything quite like it. The base is a concrete pad with a drain but no spigots. A crescent-shaped fence offers limited privacy. The fence looks as if it’s supposed to be covered with vines, but there aren’t any, so a small tarp covers the, ah, strike zone.

As we sat in his living room, Sullivan showed me photos on his iPhone: The backs of three men using the urinal simultaneously. A street car stopping in front of the urinal. Schoolchildren walking past.

On Easter, as his children and grandchildren joined him for dinner, he said, their unappetizing view was a dozen men waiting to use the urinal. At least it faces away from his home.

“The most upsetting thing is just seeing people urinate in the busiest corner of the park,” Sullivan said. “People in the trains can look down and see the person peeing.”

We walked outside to get a closer look. From the side, it offers zero privacy. “If you were standing here with a kid waiting for a train,” Sullivan said, “you can see right in!”

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On Feb. 4, the Pacific Justice Institute, a conservative legal group that usually defends people who believe their religious liberty is being infringed, sent a stern letter to the general manager of San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks Department.

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The urinal, wrote the institute’s chief counsel, Kevin Snider, is an assault on decency. It discriminates against women and the disabled, violates plumbing codes, impairs the public health (there is no sink for hand washing) and is a public nuisance.

Snider must have had fun writing this letter; he refers to the “open-air urination hole,” the “sewer hole” and the “open-hole place for urination.”

The institute has threatened to sue the city on behalf of distressed neighbors. In frustration, Sullivan told me, he signed on to the effort last week. Early on, he registered his distress with his supervisor, Scott Wiener, who is running for the California Senate.

Wiener’s response did not placate him. “He wrote back and said, ‘We realize we’re going to have to tweak it.’ But they can’t do too much to it, because that would bring other problems.”

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To understand the urinal, you must first understand the sociology of Dolores Park.

In the last decade, as techies have pushed into the Mission, gentrifying everything in sight, the park has become crowded. Pretty much everyone knows how the park’s real estate is divvied up: kids here, hipsters there, lesbians have a spot. Gay men have the southwest corner, affectionately dubbed “the gay beach.”

The pissoir is steps from the gay beach.

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“Part of the rationale is that there were many more men than women there,” Wiener told me. “Men could use it, and it would take pressure off the other restrooms.”

He acknowledged the privacy problem and said the city is working to improve screening. “But you don’t want it to be too secluded,” he said, “because problematic things can happen, like drug use.”

The $40,000 urinal was not a whim. It was the result of many community meetings with hundreds of park users who helped develop the park renovation plan, Wiener said. There was unanimous sentiment for more restrooms.

The feedback on the urinal, he said, has been almost entirely positive. But if it has to come out, he admitted, it can.

Wednesday afternoon, I bumped into Allen Graves, owner of San Francisco Love Tours. He takes visitors around the city in a psychedelically painted VW van. On this day, he had a family from Dayton, Ohio, in tow.

“So everybody just urinates right here?” said Jim Caldwell, a retired Air Force vet. “Well,” he said with a shrug, “they do that in France.”

Of course, like eating horse meat and snails, that doesn’t make it right.

robin.abcarian@latimes.com

@AbcarianLAT

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