Sidewalk feces spurs toilet talk in Tenderloin 

click to enlarge If you gotta go ... Last year, the Public Works Department fielded 7,500 calls for sidewalk steam cleaning — often to clean up poop. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • If you gotta go ... Last year, the Public Works Department fielded 7,500 calls for sidewalk steam cleaning — often to clean up poop.

The Tenderloin’s well-documented poop problem is often blamed on a lack of public restrooms. But some of the very groups concerned about sidewalk droppings would rather have the perennial mess than more toilets attracting illicit drug use and prostitution.

Now, a nonprofit group and an alternative bathroom maker have what they think might be an answer: monitored translucent plastic restrooms connected to parklets, the portable seating areas put in place of parking spaces around The City.

Community groups in the Tenderloin, Nob Hill and on Polk Street will hear the pitch in meetings this month from Brent Bucknum, founder of the company Hyphae Design Labs, which is developing the idea that’s bound to draw verbose support, opposition and plenty of advice.

“People say all kinds of things, like it should have a time limit, or that the floor should jiggle after five or 10 minutes so people won’t sleep in there,” Bucknum said, adding that the restrooms could also include green roofs and that waste could be used for fertilizing in the nearby alleyway green space cheekily known as the Tenderloin National Forest.

According to the Department of Public Works, 7,500 calls came in last year for “steam cleaning,” which often involves some kind of excrement, human or otherwise. More than half of those were within The City’s District 6, which includes Lower Polk Street, the Tenderloin and South of Market neighborhoods.

Hyphae Design Labs is currently developing a prototype with the help of a $20,000 grant from the North of Market Community Benefits District. The group’s director, Dina Hilliard, said people using shelters and meal centers need a place to use the bathroom after eating, and The City should look into helping provide a space. Costs for each new public bathroom are still being determined, and Hilliard said an attendant could cost up to $25 per hour after wages and benefits.

“The alternative is not working for us right now, and that alternative is status quo,” Hilliard said. “What we’ve learned is that removing facilities because of problems does not work.”

But community groups remain skeptical and say any new public enclosures on Polk Street would need monitors, which is the aspect of the idea that has yet to be funded. Also yet to be worked out is a water source for the restrooms, which Bucknum said could be fire hydrants or local stores willing to let the
bathrooms tap into their systems.

“This doesn’t sound like something that folks working so hard to fix the Polk corridor would support,” said Ron Case, chairman of the Lower Polk Neighbors group. “But that’s just my gut feeling. We’ve talked about public toilets for a long time, and there seems to be no solution.”

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