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.

Photo: ## Beautiful##

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.

  • Anonymous

    So according to SF NIMBYs, we can’t have cell phones, wifi, SmartMeters… and now we can’t have wired connections either. Soon, they’ll make talking illegal.

  • Let’s put the boxes on 726 new corner bulb-outs. AT&T can pay for the construction and the city can exempt the bulb-outs from CEQA.

  • mikesonn

    Can they put them horizontal with seats on them and then also double as benches?

  • Triple0

    Why don’t they put these boxes in the street and take up a car parking spot? Why should pedestrians bear this burden?

  • This is a terrific idea. I don’t have much sympathy to the “property values” argument of NIMBYs, but I am concerned about obstruction of the pedestrian right of way. If AT&T paid to improve the pedestrian right of way while grabbing a small share of space from that improvement, I would be all for it.

    How about bus-shelters with free wifi and rain protection?

  • Anonymous

    A neighborhood activist friend of mine said it best when she stated, “AT&T needs to come up with a solution that is not only good for their shareholders, but a solution that is also good for San Francisco’s Neighborhoods.”

    The Bicycle Plan needed a complete environmental impact report, and I don’t see why we should sidestep performing a complete environmental impact report before we giveaway public realm space to this corporation for FREE.

    Personally, I like Josh’s idea … let them build out corner bulb-outs so that their boxes have space they pay for, to some degree, and pedestrians benefit by not having to walk right against their piss-soaked, graffiti-covered, sticker-covered, electric toothbrush humming noisemaker, empty coffee cup/beer bottle collecting, pedestrian-endangering boxes on existing sidewalks that barely pass ADA compliance as it is in some cases.

    Look past your noses …. giving away our public realm for FREE to a corporation without any scrutiny (ie: a complete environmental impact report) is the definition of stupidity.

  • Anonymous

    The picture provided is of equipment that has already existed in the neighborhoods for ages (that’s where your phone service/dsl is coming from). The proposed stuff is less than half the size of what’s displayed.

  • EL

    Last time I looked, there are over 24,000 parking meters, 1,000 traffic signals, probably over 100,000 signs – each one of these has something in the sidewalk. Maybe there should be an environmental review of those too.

    I’m no fan of AT&T, but the objections to the utility boxes are as much a joke as the environmental review of the bike lanes.

  • EL

    To clarify, I meant requiring an environmental review of the bike lanes.

  • Anonymous

    The bulb outs are a great idea.

    Modern fiber optic internet would be a great benefit to SF (of course uverse still isnt fios) so hopefully the city and AT&T will figure out this solution.

  • the greasybear

    Are you seriously claiming you cannot meaningfully distinguish between existing, publicly-owned assets for public use on public land–e.g. traffic signals and signs–and the proposal for indefinite free public storage of private corporations’ privately-held assets, like these AT&T equipment sheds? You really can’t see why the former is not controversial and the other is?

  • EL

    No, I can’t. I also can’t distinguish the difference between these boxes and the thousands of power line and telephone poles (usually at least 6 per block) that extend 50-feet in the air (and all those wires in between) that would be classified by you as “indefinite free public storage of private corporations’ privately-held assets”.

  • TomV

    Triple, probably because of the risk of a car hitting them.

  • Thierry

    Last I checked (as in when I was walking this morning), the sidewalks were pretty clear of most everything, including people. The amount of people who drive in this city are ridiculous.

  • Alex

    Wait. What? Bulb outs? Really? Really?? Even if they do a piss poor job of it (leaving safety hazards), Verizon at least undergrounds their neighborhood boxes for their faster internet access. The city is in the process of undergrounding the utilities along Taraval. Why shouldn’t AT&T be bothered to at least place these boxes out of sight and out of the way of pedestrians?

    The biggest problem I see is that U-Verse doesn’t fall under the same regulations as their slower DSL service. With the legacy DSL stuff, AT&T is granted all sorts of special access (telephone poles, existing boxes, etc) but they’re required to share this infrastructure with its competition (CLECs – Competitive Local Exchange Carriers). With its new DSL offerings (U-Verse), AT&T is granted exclusive access. These boxes? They’re AT&T’s and they won’t have to share. This both raises the bar to entry for any prospective competition, and just generally discourages competition. Who wants fifty different boxes or fifty different bulb outs on each sidewalk corner?

    Aside from that there are plenty of high speed alternatives to both AT&T and Comcast available to residents in San Francisco. Paxio, Monkeybrains, Sonic’s Fusion service, Fastmetrics, Astound!, Webpass, etc.

  • Anonymous

    ATT’s Uverse is basically suped-up DSL — it offers faster speeds by bringing a mini Central Office to your neighborhood. These large boxes are fed fiber, use DSL and video equipment to cover the remaining distance over your telephone wires. Yes, it offers more bandwidth and some competition to Comcast, but there are inherent limitations in this technology, so it’s not a good long-term solution. The connection maxes out at 32 Megabits for download, 8 of which are reserved for television, so 24Megabits, or about 3 times SF’s average. Uploads max out at 5 Megabits, only 3 of which are available for customer use, scarcely better than what’s available today.

    Places in Europe, Asia, even Kansas City are building fiber to the home networks that can deliver gigabit speeds (1000 Megabits for download and upload). Given our density, this type of network can be built very cost-effectively here (several parties have expressed interest in doing thins), and without the need for these boxes. Check out

  • Ted King


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