The Parks Department is looking to curb the cost of constructing new public bathrooms — by making them smaller.
Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver Tuesday said the agency is exploring stand-alone units tested in other cities, such as the Portland Loo and trailer-like bathrooms in Boston.
He also pointed to automatic public toilets like the ones at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn as an option, particularly at playgrounds.
“We haven’t committed to doing any of them … we’re just exploring a cheaper, more inexpensive way of building bathrooms,” Silver told THE CITY after a City Council hearing on parks construction costs.
Earlier this year, THE CITY reported that a comfort station at Ferry Point Park West in The Bronx had run taxpayers nearly $4.7 million, and that a $6 million bathroom was on tap for Staten Island’s Seaside Wildlife Nature Park.
Mayor Bill de Blasio promptly promised to rein in escalating costs after the average tab for a parks restroom tripled from roughly $1.3 million in 2011 to nearly $3.6 million last year.
A See-Through Loo
“We were struggling — felt it was not fair to taxpayers to spend that much,” said Silver. “Plus the volume of people requesting to have these in their playground — every playground has a comfort station — that’s when we decided, ‘Let’s see if we can explore it.’”
The Portland Loo is a metal kiosk-like structure with grills that allow large parts of the bathroom to be viewed from the outside — a feature that’s meant to discourage criminal activity while still providing privacy. The facilities are built to be easily cleaned and offer hand sanitizer rather than running water for washing.
The Boston trailer bathrooms, which resemble units that have been used on Governors Island, are essentially larger, sturdier versions of porta-potties.
“What we all care about is not necessarily what it looks like on the outside but cleanliness [and] availability,” said Council Member Vanessa Gibson (D-The Bronx), chair of the Council’s capital budget subcommittee.
Getting Past Cost Overruns
When it comes to general parks construction, Silver said his agency has been making significant strides — with 684 projects completed under his watch since 2014. The average project takes about three to four years from funding to completion, and that 85% are finished on time, he said.
Silver said that 87% of parks projects have been completed on budget in recent years, although that figure only encompasses the construction phase.
“The myth about parks having cost overruns is really a thing of the past,” he testified.
But Council members highlighted a number of inefficiencies that contribute to delays well before construction begins — including months-long waits to assign projects to an in-house design team after they’ve been fully funded.
The Parks Department said that process typically takes between two and 10 months based on staff availability, but Councilmember Ben Kallos (D-Manhattan) said he’s seen the process take a year.
When Kallos pressed officials on staffing numbers, he was told there are 50 vacant slots within the capital projects division — about 10% of the budgeted positions.
“I’m flabbergasted by the fact that they have 50 open positions while their projects sit there doing nothing for as much as a year,” Kallos, chair of the Council’s contracts committee, told THE CITY.
Councilmember Mark Levine (D-Manhattan) questioned why the system for other agencies to review parks projects isn’t more streamlined.
Five agencies — the city Law Department, Department of Investigation, Office of Management and Budget, Mayor’s Office of Contract Services, and the Department of Small Business Services — each get 30 days to approve a segment of a project.
“We cannot have parks projects stalling for each of five agencies,” said Levine.
Silver said discussions to speed up the mandated external reviews have been ongoing.
This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.