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SmithGroup-designed public restroom debuts in San Francisco

SmithGroup-designed public restroom debuts in San Francisco

AmeniPODS are part of a larger retrofit campaign that includes ad kiosks and, in some cases, micro-retail.

By John Caulfield, Senior Editor | December 5, 2022
A stainless steel pod houses a public restroom that's being tested in San Francisco.
A cylindrical, stainless-steel pod houses a public restroom that's being tested in San Francisco's Embarcadero Plaza. The bathroom is part of a larger amenities upgrade in that city. Images: Courtesy of SmithGroup

The number of toilets accessible to the public could be as low as eight per 100,000 people in the U.S., according to one estimate, inconveniencing the general populace and exacerbating the nation’s homeless problem.

Some cities, such as Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., have, in recent years, launched programs to install public restrooms. The city of Portland, Ore., has placed its freestanding, gender-neutral restroom, known as The Portland Loo, in more than 20 metros. The city designed the Portland Loo, which Maiden Fabrication produces and markets. A unit sells for around $100,000.

And now SmithGroup has gotten into the act. On December 1 the firm celebrated the launch of its design for AmeniPODS, which is part of a new generation of public amenities that includes toilets, advertising, interactive information, and micro-retail kiosks.

The first public toilet, a stainless-steel monolith—built from SmithGroup’s design, was installed at San Francisco’s Embarcadero Plaza on November 23 for a 60-day test run. If that preview is deemed successful, more AmeniPODS will be built to eventually replace the city’s 24 familiar, green-colored automatic bathrooms, which have been servicing San Francisco for 25 years. (The existing bathrooms log about 400,000 flushes per year.) New designs will also replace 114 ad kiosks.

“The new toilets are unique to San Francisco, with a design that blends sculpture and technology to create a cleaner, safer and more hygienic experience,” said Bill Katz, design principal at SmithGroup, in a prepared statement. “With their modeled stainless-steel surface, they will literally reflect our diverse city neighborhoods and their deep-rooted history while creating sculptural street furniture.”  

A French marketing firm picks up the tab

AmeniPODS’ exterior shell for the bathroom amenity was conceived as a kit-of-parts that simplifies assembly and maintenance. The specific shaping of its form breaks down the kiosk massing. And updates include the addition of interior skylights, low-flow fixtures, and rainwater collection for washing the exterior shell.


The French company JCDecaux is handling the installation and maintenance of the new amenities.
Under its long-term contract with the city, the Paris-based JCDecaux is handling the installation and daily maintenance of the new amenities.

The combined amenities are part of San Francisco Public Works’ pact with Paris, France-based “street furniture” company JCDecaux Group. The 20-year contract covers construction, installation, and daily maintenance expenses at no cost to the city. JCDecaux reportedly has also agreed to spend $2.2 million per year to staff 11 of the toilets as part of the Public Works’ Pit Stop program in which an attendant is on hand to ensure the toilets are kept safe, clean, and operational for their intended use. 

In addition to serving as a platform for advertising, 10 kiosks will house micro-retail establishments, such as newspaper stands, coffee vendors and artists, and another 15 will include interactive screens with public service announcements and wayfinding information. In a partnership with the San Francisco Arts Commission, 40 of the advertising kiosks along Market Street will include public art posters by local artists.

The new toilets, as well as the updated advertising kiosks, will be at the same locations in San Francisco as the original amenities. These include Civic Center Plaza, Twin Peaks, the 16th Street and 24th Street BART stations and the Castro. Embarcadero Plaza was chosen for the pilot because of its dense pedestrian traffic.


114 ad kiosks will be upgraded to this design
Newly designed street kiosks will flash advertising, wayfinding, and public-service announcements. Some of the pods will also double as micro-retail sites (below).

A micro-retail amenity

The test period will allow the city to evaluate public comment on the amenities, and troubleshoot problems before the larger rollout. Not surprisingly, the prototype public bathroom might need some tweaking. Ariana Bindman, a reporter for SFGATE, tried out the Embarcadero Plaza facility, which she found “nicer than most bathrooms in people’s houses, including my own.” However, the facility’s self-cleaning feature left everything inside—including the toilet seat, floor, and paper dispenser—soaking wet. The interior also lacked hooks for hanging coats or bags. And the toilet’s flushing capacity left something to be desired, Bindman demurred.

Three days after the first AmeniPOD restroom unit opened to the public, it had to be taken out of service for repairs, apparently because the mechanized commode seat wouldn’t lower after a self-cleaning cycle, according to SFist.com.

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