Legislation will address neighborhood concerns associated with the placement of over 700 AT&T U-verse cabinets on San Francisco streets by establishing a clear, community-based process, requiring efforts to place the boxes on private property, and creating beautification and artwork requirements for the boxes
San Francisco, CA - At today's Board of Supervisors meeting, Supervisor Scott Wiener will introduce legislation to codify and establish an improved process to govern the placement of utility boxes on city sidewalks. The legislation, for the first time, will put binding procedures in place to require outreach to neighborhoods, require utilities to allow artwork on their boxes and place greening near the boxes, and make meaningful efforts to place the boxes on private property rather than blocking sidewalks. Under state law, utilities have a right to place boxes on neighborhood sidewalks - meaning the city cannot ban these boxes - but local jurisdictions have significant leeway in requiring a community-based process and siting standards.
In January of this year, Supervisor Wiener convened a hearing at the Land Use and Economic Development Committee where, for over two hours, members of the public representing neighborhoods all over the city criticized the current process. At the hearing, Supervisor Wiener indicated he was working on legislation to address flaws in the process.
"Our current utility box permit process isn't working," said Supervisor Wiener. "It creates adversarial and charged situations among neighbors, city departments, and utilities, resulting in confusion, acrimony, and wasted resources and time. This legislation will require significant consideration of neighborhood impacts, early community outreach prior to the submission of a permit application, and stronger rules around beautification and placement of boxes on private property rather than on sidewalks. These updated rules will give both utilities and residents clarity and a voice in the process before any applications are submitted."
The legislation does several things. First, it front-loads community outreach to try to iron out disputes early and avoid pitting neighbors against neighbors. Utilities will be required to propose multiple viable locations for each box, all of which must demonstrate minimal neighborhood impacts as defined in the legislation, and will also be required to conduct a pre-application noticed community meeting to present all of those locations together in one setting with all with all neighbors involved. Having this type of meeting - bringing all neighbors together and airing out all possible locations in a public setting - will help avoid the current situation, where neighbors object to a particular location and the proverbial can gets kicked down the road to another set of neighbors who had no idea that their area was even being considered.
Second, utilities will have to make significant and good faith efforts to site their boxes on private property, by engaging in meaningful search efforts and offering to pay market-rate rents. Currently, utilities appear to be making only cursory efforts to find private property locations and to offer low prices. As a result, few, if any, private sites have been utilized.
Third, utilities will be required - if neighbors request and the Arts Commission approves - to allow artwork to be placed on their boxes. This type of artwork has proven very popular - for example, the art-covered MTA traffic control boxes at Church and Duboce Streets - yet AT&T has refused to allow artwork on its boxes. Utilities will further be required, if asked to do so, to install and maintain greenery around the boxes, at no cost to neighbors.
Finally, the boxes will have to be sited with city policy in mind, including minimally impacting the aesthetic character of neighborhoods as well as pedestrian safety, and ensuring that placement is consistent with the Better Streets Plan. There will also be a list of disfavored locations for placement, including on streets where utility facilities are undergrounded, where major capital improvements are planned, such as pedestrian safety improvements, and near historic resources and parks and open spaces.
"This is a great step in the right direction, addressing some of the major concerns expressed by neighbors across the city: graffiti, greening, and the burden of a process that often pits neighbor against neighbor when these big, ugly boxes are proposed on their block," said Kearstin Krehbiel, Executive Director of San Francisco Beautiful, an organization dedicated to beautifying and greening the city. "We applaud the efforts and the leadership of Supervisor Wiener's office on this issue."
As with the current process, both utilities and neighbors will have the right to appeal the Department of Public Works' permit decisions first to an administrative hearing and then to the Board of Permit Appeals.
"The current permitting process for 'Surface Mounted Facilities' (e.g., AT&T's sidewalk cabinets) is obtuse, unfair and, in many cases, accomplishes nothing more than to pit neighbor against neighbor," said Raymond Holland, President of the Planning Association for the Richmond (PAR). "PAR, which has been advocating for environmental review of these facilities, supports the Board of Supervisors efforts to improve the process in a way that ensures the interests of the City's neighborhoods are considered foremost."
The legislation will be heard at the Land Use & Economic Development Committee, which Supervisor Wiener chairs.