On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors approved a proposal allowing AT&T to install hundreds of utility boxes on San Francisco sidewalks without first undergoing an environmental impact study.
There are few things people in San Francisco get testier about than corporate use of public space, and AT&T found this out the hard way when the communications giant proposed the installation of 726 utility boxes on San Francisco sidewalks as part of U-verse, the company's cable, Internet and phone service bundle that would effectively end Comcast's citywide home telecom monopoly.
Earlier this year, Planning Department officials determined AT&T didn’t need to submit the plan for the comprehensive environmental study that's usually required under state law.
However, as the San Francisco Business Times reports:
Despite more than a year of outreach to community groups by AT&T, a coalition of 25 neighborhood groups appealed a city staff ruling that AT&T did not have to do an analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act of a plan for up to 726 boxes, which would be four feet across, just over four feet tall and about two feet deep, and sit on concrete pedestals flanked by metal bollards.
In a 6-5 vote, the Board of Supervisors upheld AT&T's exemption, paving the way for the boxes' installation.
The board had delayed this vote numerous times and it was AT&T's newly issued list of concessions, including an offer to voluntarily cut the number of boxes nearly in half, which appeared to push the board over the edge.
On Tuesday morning, AT&T delivered to the Department of Public Works a detailed agreement sheet in which the telecom giant agreed to give neighborhoods advance notice of a cabinet installation, "look" for a non-sidewalk site such as an alleyway before building in the public right-of-way, move a cabinet or halt the installation if a neighborhood group or supervisor objects, pay $25,000 a year for graffiti removal, and hire 33 percent of workers on the project from within city limits.
Even though there are already over 1,000 similar utility boxes on sidewalks throughout the city, organizations like San Francisco Beautiful have opposed the measure, saying the telecom behemoth should find someplace else to put the boxes. Underground, for example, where they won't block foot traffic, become magnets for graffiti or alter the character of the neighborhoods in which they're placed.
A 2005 Department of Public Works policy dictates utility equipment should only be located on city sidewalks when placing it elsewhere isn't a viable option. For their part, AT&T insists that placing the boxes underground is far too expensive, not to mention technically complicated, and installing them on private property would hinder the company's ability to safely and efficiently service the hardware when it breaks down.
AT&T has been working to install utility boxes in San Francisco for years without much success. The company backed down from a similar plan, which was also granted an exemption from environmental review, in 2008 when it was met with unexpected levels of vitriol from neighborhood groups.
The failure of the 2008 plan was blamed largely on the company's virtually non-existent community outreach efforts. This time, AT&T went on an unprecedented charm offensive, pleading their case with approximately 80 community groups on a one-on-one basis throughout the city.
The company has had mixed success installing these boxes in cities across the county. They put over 4,000 boxes on the streets of Chicago without any formal protest but encountered problems elsewhere when rival Comcast ran billboards decrying the harm that would be done AT&T's "giant utility boxes."
Installation of the first box is expected to begin in the Outer Richmond later this week.