Opinion: Everybody wants better bathrooms at Cesar Chavez Park — except the parks director

The director of the Parks Recreation and Waterfront Department seems to have a strange and troubling resistance to replacing park Porta Potties with permanent bathrooms.

By Martin Nicolaus

Martin Nicolaus is a 25-year Berkeley resident who has published a book of photographs about Cesar Chavez Park and maintains a park blog at viva-cesar-chavez-park.org. He has launched a petition campaign and published a number of articles advocating permanent flush-toilet and hand-washing restrooms in Berkeley’s parks.

“Better bathrooms in the parks? Who can disagree with that?” That’s what I hear time and again at public meetings on Berkeley’s parks.

Everybody on all sides agrees that the city needs better park restrooms than porta-potties. Former City Councilman and mayoral candidate Laurie Capitelli called the plastic porta-potties in Cesar Chavez park even worse than I’d described them. New Mayor Jesse Arreguin is on record strongly supporting new, permanent restrooms in the parks. Long-term Councilwoman Linda Maio has emailed that she supports permanent bathrooms over portapotties. Newly elected Councilmembers Sophie Hahn and Kate Harrison are in favor. Nobody on the City Council has voiced opposition. City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley has declared “renovations, additions, or restroom replacements in City parks” a priority for T1 bond projects. And popular feeling runs strong. The petition campaign for permanent bathrooms I started two years ago had the most enthusiastic support I’ve ever encountered on any issue. There’s spontaneous applause at meetings whenever the project gets raised. Everybody knows porta-potties are disgusting, they’re forbidding for women and children, they make the city look bad, they’re a disgrace. Everybody – even former President W — wants park bathrooms that flush and where you can wash your hands.

And yet, park restroom improvement is missing from the agenda that Scott Ferris, director of the Parks Recreation and Waterfront Department is proposing for the City budget. Ferris has thrown up three walls of opposition to the improvement.

Ferris’ first argument against better bathrooms was specific to Cesar Chavez Park and was based on its history as a landfill. Permanent restrooms couldn’t be put here, went the argument, because the required excavation would let methane escape. This alarm had no basis. The waste matter that generates methane lies beneath a clean fill cover at least eight feet and as much as twenty-six feet thick. There are other penetrations – tree roots, storm drains – that go deeper into the cover than a modern restroom would, without problems. So the methane argument didn’t wash.

Ferris has also argued cost. On April 4, Ferris told City Council that new restrooms in Cesar Chavez and other parks now served by porta-potties would cost $800,000 each, and upgrading other park restrooms would cost between $350,000 and $450,000 each, for a total cost of just shy of $10 million. Months ago, when the cost issue first came up, I went on the web and researched park restrooms. In less than ten minutes I found vendors of prefab park restrooms with prices an order of magnitude lower than Ferris’ numbers.

After April 4, I filed a Public Records request with the city asking for the basis of Ferris’ astronomical cost estimates: engineering reports, contractor estimates, market research, anything. The answer came back: nothing. No engineer reports, no contractor estimates, no market research, nada. Ferris simply made the numbers up. Not only that, but his staff had barred a paper I prepared containing more accurate cost information from the literature table at the March 18 public hearing. (So much for the “robust public process” that the T1 bond requires.)

Most recently, at the April 8 public hearing on T1 bond spending, when a number of the assembled Parks and Public Works Commissioners spoke for better restrooms, Ferris came up with a new, legal-sounding line of defense. Building new permanent restrooms was illegal under T1, he claimed, because the language of T1 ruled out “new structures.” Existing structures could be upgraded, but new ones could not be built. Since porta-potties are not “structures,” went the argument, they are not eligible for T1 money. People at the meeting familiar with the T1 bond language doubted Ferris’ interpretation. (The word “structures” doesn’t occur.) It was pointed out to Ferris that his argument would also rule out a number of other projects, such as bioswales, that he had already approved. Ferris claimed that the City attorneys would back him up. I filed another Public Records request asking for evidence. Response: There is none. According to Roger Miller, the Parks department secretary, Ferris attended a meeting two weeks ago with City attorneys who “clarified” that Ferris was wrong. The attorneys said that T1 bond money could very well be spent on replacing porta-potties with new permanent restroom structures in existing parks. Which, of course, the City Manager – Ferris’ boss – had been saying all along.

While Ferris shows enduring love for the porta-potties that visitors to Cesar Chavez and other city parks have to use, he hates the porta-potty at the Marina small boat dock that windsurfers and kayakers use. Using grant money from the Cosco Busan oil spill of 2007, Ferris wants to put a new permanent custom-built bathroom there that will be, on a cost per square foot basis, the most expensive structure ever erected in Berkeley. Ferris snuck this insane $600,000 project through the Parks Commission and the City Council by disguising it as an “access” project, reasoning that no one would object to a benefit for the disabled. This fiscal obscenity was supposed to have been built last year but was put over to avoid it becoming an election issue. Ferris wants to build it now.

It’s hard to be dragged through this jungle of evasions, smokescreens, and contradictions without losing faith in the honesty and the competence of the Parks Department leadership. None of Ferris’ arguments about restrooms in Cesar Chavez Park have been true. There’s not a methane problem. There’s not a cost problem. There’s not a legal problem. Moreover, Ferris’ commitment to the gold-plated $600,000 windsurfer bathroom, paired with his opposition to basic sanitary facilities for park users, reveals a troubling double standard: Boaters get the elevator, park visitors get the shaft.

We have a new progressive majority on City Council now. Ferris is a holdover from the Bates regime that voters dumped decisively last year. It was the received wisdom under Bates that our parks were overstressed and underfunded. Undoubtedly there was truth to that. But given Ferris’ dismal inaction and lack of integrity on the parks restroom issue, the question has to be asked to what extent the blame for poor parks maintenance rests at Ferris’ doorstep. Cesar Chavez and some other parks have had stinky porta-potties for 25 years, and Ferris has done nothing. The Berkeley municipal pier has been shut for three years, and Ferris has done nothing. The Aquatic Park link tubes have been derelict for at least five years, and Ferris has done nothing. Many other parks have similar stories to tell.

Money is not the only problem, and more money is not going to be the solution to the city’s parks problem. The unsolved problem is substandard leadership at the top of the department. We have voted $100 million in new money. We need a new Parks director with the integrity, the empathy for park visitors, the get-things-done spirit, and the competence to spend that money effectively.