Article : Streets of S.F. to Include Utility Boxes

Streets of S.F. to Include Utility Boxes

Utility boxes will have an increasing presence on San Francisco’s streets after the city’s Board of Supervisors ruled that AT&T could install up to 726 boxes that can house telecommunications equipment for digital television, phone service and high-speed Internet.
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The landscapes of many San Francisco streets will change with the addition of hundreds of utility boxes thanks to a recent Board of Supervisors ruling.

As a result of the ruling, AT&T got the go-ahead to place hundreds of utility boxes on city sidewalks and alleyways without first having to undergo a lengthy and costly environmental analysis.

The metal cabinets, which measure 4 feet tall, 4 feet wide and 2 feet deep, will house telecommunications equipment for digital television, phone service and high-speed Internet.

“This decision means we’re finally going to be able to bring competition and choice to San Francisco,” said Marc Blakeman, AT&T regional vice president.

In winning approval on a 6-5 vote, AT&T agreed to conduct robust community outreach and to give each of San Francisco’s 11 supervisors what amounts to veto power over the proposed locations for individual boxes.

“Significant” community opposition also could derail plans for specific sites.

AT&T also has agreed to consider various screening options, such as landscaping and public seating, to help shield the boxes from public view. A third of the installation and upkeep jobs would go to San Franciscans.

While AT&T now has environmental clearance to install up to 726 boxes, the company said it would put in no more than 495 without going back to the Board of Supervisors for permission.

“You just have to call it as you see it. I think AT&T has done everything it could to minimize the impact, and I take them at their word that they’re committed to listening to the concerns of the community,” said Supervisor David Campos, who in the end voted with the majority to reject an appeal by San Francisco Beautiful and several neighborhood groups looking to force an environmental review.

Campos was joined by Supervisors Scott Wiener, Carmen Chu, Malia Cohen, Sean Elsbernd and Mark Farrell.
Wiener, who helped broker the deal, said he would have preferred that no boxes be placed on the public right of way, but felt comfortable enough that safeguards were in place to address neighborhood concerns. Some people, he said, want the technology upgrades and should have the opportunity to get them. "People also will have the opportunity to object."

Supervisor Eric Mar wasn’t convinced.

“I do feel that the addition of the boxes, whether it’s 500 or 700 or even 100, could lead to a negative, potential adverse impact and I do feel there should be further environmental review,” Mar said. He said that while he appreciates that some residents want the boxes, and the jobs that the upgrade project will create, he still errs on the side of environmental organizations and neighborhood groups concerned over the creeping encroachment on public space.

In addition to Mar, Supervisors David Chiu, Jane Kim, Ross Mirkarimi and John Avalos voted against AT&T's plan.

Milo Hanke, past president of San Francisco Beautiful, a civic beautification group that led opposition efforts, said after the board vote that a decision will have to be made whether to sue to try to halt the project. He said opponents also could take the issue before voters.

"We will regroup and consider our options," he said.

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June 30, 2016, 1:32 pm EST

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