Neighborhood Groups Push to Keep Sidewalks Clear of AT&T Boxes

Pedestrians in San Francisco are no strangers to crowded conditions, but a plan to install 726 private utility boxes on sidewalks could impose even more obstacles for them.

Neighborhood and advocacy groups are leading an effort against internet and phone service provider AT&T’s plan to place the “cabinets” on roughly 5,800 square feet of city sidewalks without environmental review, calling it an unwarranted and unchecked privatization of valuable public space.

“The AT&T scheme, as it now stands, would burden the public realm while solely benefiting private parties,” Milo Hanke, the past president of SF Beautiful, wrote in a letter [pdf] to members. The organization has been leading the charge against the plan, which was recently exempted from an environmental impact report by the SF Planning Department. SF Beautiful filed an appeal, leading the SF Board of Supervisors to hold a public hearing tomorrow.

The boxes, according to AT&T, would allow the corporation to provide its customers with better internet and phone services. But the “blanket go-ahead” given by the Planning Department “officially denies that the massive installation would have a cumulative impact upon the quality of the public right-of-way,” Hanke wrote.

“AT&T is attempting to sidestep the more costly alternatives required under regulations” to place the boxes underground or on rented private property, he said. Those regulations, “signed by Mayor Ed Lee in 2005 when he was director of the Department of Public Works (DPW), state that street level fixtures are a last resort.”

At 4 feet tall and 4 by 2 feet wide, “they will be permanent graffiti magnets, obstacles to the visually impaired, and hazards to opening passenger car doors,” as well as hurt property values, said Hanke. SF Beautiful associate Jonathan Goldberg noted that a competing company has been able to store similar equipment out of the public right-of-way by placing it underground, on private property, or on utility poles.

“We have an awful lot of things blocking our sidewalks, so we need to take a look at whether it’s really necessary and if the public is being compensated adequately for it,” said Walk SF Executive Director Elizabeth Stampe.

AT&T would pay just over $5,000 in fees for environmental review, although there may be ongoing fees to the DPW, said Don Lewis of the Planning Department. In comparison, a permit for a parklet, which actually expands public space by about 480 square feet, costs $1,465 plus an annual $245 renewal to the business it fronts [pdf].

AT&T estimates it already has 1,200 to 1,500 utility boxes on San Francisco streets, and their track record of performing required graffiti removal appears poor, said Goldberg.

Fourteen neighborhood groups have endorsed SF Beautiful’s opposition, showing a resistance similar to that voiced at public hearings that caused AT&T to withdraw from a previous attempt in 2008.

A hearing will be held on SF Beautiful’s appeal to the Board of Supervisors tomorrow at 4 pm at City Hall in Room 250.