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Rules could relax for AT&T utility boxes despite graffiti dispute

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An AT&T utility cabinet is seen at 22nd Street and San Jose Avenue on March 20, 2017. (Steven Ho/Special to S.F. Examiner)

In what could be seen as a corporate giveaway, one member of the Board of Supervisors has introduced legislation to relax requirements for installation of those controversial AT&T green utility boxes.

Just weeks after a fiery exchange between AT&T and San Francisco officials over the telecom giant’s failure to clean up graffiti on the utility boxes within the mandated 72 hours, Supervisor Malia Cohen introduced legislation last week that would make it easier for AT&T to install more utility boxes.

The proposal would lift altogether the landscaping requirement and the accompanying $7,500 fee in-lieu of actual landscaping, as well as lift a requirement to work with local artists to paint murals on the boxes as a graffiti deterrent and for aesthetics.

Instead of having to allow murals, AT&T would be able to pay an in-lieu fee of just $500, which would go into a fund overseen by the Department of Public Works. But that amount is less than an estimate by The City, which pegged actually having a local artist outfit a utility box with a mural at about $15,000, though if multiple boxes are proposed at once it would decrease to $7,500 per box.

Cohen provided a statement via text message Monday when asked about the legislation.

“I introduced this legislation with the understanding it still merits robust public feedback and discussion, and I am committed to having a public conversation as the item makes its way through the legislative process,” she said. “At this stage, nothing has been ‘given away,’ and my priority is to ensure we serve the public interest.”

Cohen currently serves as chair of the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee and recently declared her candidacy for a seat on the State Board of Equalization.

The Department of Public Works and the Arts Commission, the latter of which is charged with overseeing the murals under the current rules, did not take a position on the legislation Monday and their directors were unavailable for comment.

Public Works spokesperson Rachel Gordon said that “we of course will work with whatever legislative mandates the Board of Supervisors craft.”

The proposal retains a tree planting requirement but permits AT&T to pay a tree in-lieu fee, currently at $1,906, and allows “modest” changes to the height or volume of the existing boxes without needing permits.

The City could use the in-lieu fees for planting new street trees, landscaping and graffiti abatement, according to the legislation.

It also eliminates a provision requiring the company to make “reasonable efforts” to install the boxes on private property, citing a 2014 court decision filed by Pacific Bell Telephone Company — which is owned by AT&T — against San Francisco that makes that provision unenforceable, the legislation said.

AT&T spokesperson Steven Maviglio said the requirements are necessary for the company to expand its service.

“AT&T wants to bring advanced services like ultra-fast AT&T Fiber internet to San Francisco,” Maviglio said in an email. “We haven’t been able to do that under the previous surface mounted facilities legislation. This legislation proposes a way to provide infrastructure to city residents in a way that could be workable for all parties.”

AT&T and Public Works, which approves permits for the installation of the utility boxes, have not exactly seen eye-to-eye. Since 2014, 48 permit applications were denied, seven were approved and three were pending, as of March 23. Also at that time, AT&T was appealing seven denials.

Just last month, Larry Stringer, deputy director of Public Works, sent a strongly worded letter to Kenneth McNeely, president of AT&T California, accusing the company of “not meeting its legal responsibilities to remove graffiti,” the San Francisco Examiner previously reported.

“Property owned by your organization is currently defaced by graffiti at many places in the City and County of San Francisco,” Stringer wrote in a March 1 letter to McNeely and copied to the mayor and the Board of Supervisors. “Examples of the most effective ways to diminish attacks by graffiti vandals are to quickly eradicate such vandalism. You have not in the past done that, and as attached examples show, you are not doing that now.”

Maviglio said last month the company would improve its graffiti clean up response.

The City could clean up the graffiti itself and send AT&T the bill, but has yet to do that.

The 4-foot-tall boxes have stirred controversy since they were first proposed. In 2011, a narrow 6-5 board vote allowed the company to install more than 700 metal cabinets as part of its roll out of high-speed internet service called “U-verse.” San Francisco Beautiful filed an unsuccessful lawsuit to block the installation of what they considered eyesores.

In 2014, The City passed a law to create the process for local artists to place murals on them, which has yet to occur.

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