Trash can’t: S.F.’s bespoke garbage bins put on hold because of graffiti fears


San Francisco’s seemingly endless quest to deploy new garbage cans took another odd twist Monday, when the city’s Civic Design Review committee put the entire process on hold.

Not for rarified artistic reasons, but something that regular people can relate to – committee-wide skepticism that the sleek silvery trash receptacles won’t end up trashed themselves.

“It’s the maintenance issue. I love the design,” said Arts Commissioner Patrick Carney, an architect on the committee that must sign off on public construction projects at all scales. “We’re talking about (spending) millions of dollars of city money, and it’s a graffiti magnet.”

The chair of the committee, landscape architect Kimberlee Stryker, framed the dilemma in a different way.

“Aesthetically beautiful. Functionally concerning,” Stryker said, after no commissioner offered a motion to approve the design presented by the Public Works department.

The committee’s non-vote comes nearly five months after the department announced that it had decided on a new model to replace the green trash cans that San Francisco has been using – with increasingly ramshackle results – since 1993. And 32 months have passed since the city selected three prototypes for a 21st century trash receptacle – a process widely ridiculed when the initial costs for the test was set at $537,000 (it was lowered to $400,000).

After the hearing, a Public Works official said that the temporary roadblock erected by the civic design committee shouldn’t knock the replacement project off-track.

“We don’t think it’s going to be much of a wrinkle,” said Beth Rubenstein, a spokesperson for the department. “Commissioners made it clear they really like the design, and that’s great … their concerns about maintenance are understandable.”

The model being reviewed by the committee on Monday also was the narrow public favorite after a two-month trial last summer where prototypes were on view in 52 locations across the city: “Slim Silhouette.” Streamlined in design, with an oval footprint and vertical strips of stainless steel,

Public Works decreed it to be the model that bested its rivals in terms of both design and functional criteria.

As for the much-lampooned question of costs – test models of the city-designed contenders come in at between $12,000 and $20,000 each – the aim at full production is for individual bins to cost no more than $3,000.

During the presentation to the committee, members were swayed by photos that Carney took earlier this month of a chosen model that remains at Sutter and Leavenworth streets, on Lower Nob Hill. It’s marred by stickers and graffiti, including a phrase denouncing the cost.

“I know it’s a trash can, but we want it to look nice,” Stryker said at one point. “We have a trash can graffiti problem … it’s the culture in this city right now.”

Lisa Zhuo, the project manager for Public Works, said that these matters are taken seriously by the department and that they will be emphasized when selecting a manufacturer for the contract.

“We looked at cans all over the world,” Zhuo said. As for the selection of stainless steel, “we want a material that will withstand the daily (oceanside) weather in San Francisco, as well as all the behaviors.”

But commissioners balked at giving what would be the final green light before the department goes public with a formal request for proposals to build the cans.

“This is a small project but an important project, because we’re going to see it everywhere,” said one commissioner. If maintenance and durability proves problematic, “I’m afraid of (allowing) either a pure nightmare or a money pit.”

When Stryker then asked for a motion, reminding the committee it must focus specifically on what Public Works had presented to them, there was silence.

Zhou took the vote in stride.

“These are all the questions we ask ourselves,” she said of the process throughout the cumbersome and often controversial search. “We’re trying to find the one that addresses most of our problems.”

Later on Monday, Rubenstein said that Public Works aims to return to the committee at its next monthly meeting or the one after that. The department would ask again for approval – bringing more details on how the cans would be maintained during their hoped-for 25-year life space.

Even in a best-case scenario, no manufacturer would likely be selected before early next year. This would translate into, perhaps, silvery silhouettes being spotted on public sidewalks as 2025 nears.

As the next generation of trash cans are installed, Rubenstein isn’t naive enough to predict graffiti-free bins.

“A trash can doesn’t have a force field around it,” Rubenstein said. “Taggers are going to tag. Stickers are going to stick. The question will be how we maintain it.”

Reach John King: [email protected]

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