You’ve seen them in nearly every neighborhood in The City — those bulky, 4-foot-tall, Army green boxes on the sidewalk, often near the curb. They contain electronics for high-speed internet, phones and TV. They’re butt-ugly, a triumph of utilitarianism over beauty. And when covered in graffiti, as many are, they become neighborhood eyesores.
Three years ago, in response to many complaints, the Board of Supervisors voted to require the private companies whose customers benefit from these boxes to either cover them in attractive murals or plant trees, bushes and other greenery to hide them.
Supervisor Malia Cohen is now asking the board to rescind this requirement. Her legislation would allow companies like AT&T to pay a fee to The City instead of beautifying the boxes. I’m sure the $7,300 donation made by AT&T’s local lobbyists last month to Cohen’s campaign for the Board of Equalization in 2018 had nothing to do with her legislation.
AT&T owns two-thirds of the utility boxes in San Francisco. They installed about 300 of them before the beautification requirement was implemented, then abruptly stopped after it went into effect, even though they had received initial approval for more than 700 boxes. The company has said it will resume installing boxes — and therefore provide high-speed internet access to more residents, including those in low-income areas — if Cohen’s legislation passes.
There’s supposed to be public input on the location of the boxes. But the reality is that the process to appeal the placement of a box is weighted strongly in favor of the private companies. Neighbors rarely stop one.
We went through this in my neighborhood in 2011, when AT&T sent out notices that they wanted to put a new box on a landing on the Quintara Staircase between 14th and 15th avenues. The steps are among the longest and steepest in The City. Located on the first hill inland from the beach, they’re visible from a large part of the Western neighborhoods, as is any graffiti on them.
The photo on the notice showed the new box on one side of the landing. But the picture was cropped so that it did not show an already existing box on the other side of the same landing. If the new box were installed, people standing on the street below would see two boxes, not one. But you’d never know that from the notice.
The existing box had become a magnet for graffiti, which spilled onto other parts of the stairway and private property alongside the steps. The neighbors felt that the second box would essentially double the size of the graffiti billboard on the steps and, therefore, opposed it.
The neighborhood association argued with AT&T for more than a year about the location. We had meetings, sent letters and followed up with phone calls. Often, we heard nothing back for months at a time.
Finally, AT&T agreed to install the second box directly behind the existing one, reducing the “billboard” visible to those looking at the steps from below. They also planted a tree in front of the first box, helping hide it from view.
The City has essentially privatized small parts of our public space — portions of our sidewalks and stairways — every place where there’s a utility box. The boxes don’t benefit all residents, however, only those who pay high monthly fees to the companies who installed them.
In exchange, The City has asked only that the private companies make them prettier to look at and less attractive to taggers.
Given how unsightly and obtrusive the boxes are, it doesn’t seem like an unreasonable burden to expect companies to cover them with graffiti-resistant wraps (like what you see on buses, but showing flowers or other pretty designs, not ads for movies) or plant trees or other greenery around them. After all, the companies are making a lot of money selling the services the boxes make possible.
If we absolve the companies of this minimal responsibility, we’ll be stuck with twice as many bulky, green boxes as we have now, and our streets will be uglier, just like the unadorned boxes themselves.
Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.