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After setback, SF moves forward with relaxed rules for AT&T utility boxes

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In 2014, The City enacted a mural requirement to deter people from writing graffiti on utility boxes. In the past, The City has clashed with AT&T over the company’s failure to clean up graffiti on boxes within the 72 hours required. (Steven Ho/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Facing threat of litigation from AT&T, San Francisco is planning to relax requirements for the installation of utility boxes by the telecommunications giant.

Instead of requiring murals on the boxes, The City would allow AT&T and other companies that wish to install what are known as surface-mounted facilities to pay a fee.

But the amount of that fee has been the subject of months-long debate at City Hall, and just last week prompted the Board of Supervisors to refer the proposal introduced by Supervisor Malia Cohen back to a board committee for further debate.

The revenue could benefit the artist community. And murals on the boxes could provide a chance to showcase work, but The City is seemingly giving up on the idea of having murals on the utility boxes themselves.

The mural requirement, enacted in 2014, was seen as a graffiti deterrent as well as a way to make the green boxes more aesthetically pleasing. The City has recently clashed with AT&T over the company’s inability to clean up graffiti within the 72 hours required.

Since February, lobbyists for AT&T have reported 36 contacts with members of the Board of Supervisors or their legislative aides, and a number of city departments have had internal discussions around legislation to ease requirements for installation of the boxes.

AT&T, looking to expand its fast internet service by installing more boxes, has promised not to sue The City for at least five years over the surface-mounted facility law and drop seven pending appeals of city rejections of box installations if the board approves legislation to its liking.

Discussions continued Wednesday when Cohen made amendments to her proposal at the board’s Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee, which won’t discuss the proposal again until September, after summer legislative recess.

Emails obtained by the San Francisco Examiner through the Freedom of Information Act from the Arts Commission, which oversees public murals, provide a glimpse into the negotiations and breadth of the fee amounts considered.

The emails were those sent and received by Susan Pontious, public art program director for the Arts Commission, between April and July 14.

One estimate in the emails reached as high as a $15,250 mural cost per utility box, which included a $4,500 payment to an artist and $5,500 in administrative costs. Arts Commission officials in public hearings later estimated the mural cost per box at $3,500 excluding administration and other costs.

Cohen’s legislation, introduced in late April, initially proposed charging AT&T a $500 fee to opt out of the mural requirement. But amid criticism it was increased to $2,000, an amount some critics still said was too low.

Tom DeCaigny, director of cultural affairs for the Arts Commission, wrote in a June 9 email about “the evolving surface‐mounted facility in‐lieu fee legislation” that Cohen and her legislative aide Yoyo Chan was, at that time, considering a $3,000 fee.

“Yoyo and Sup. Cohen understand that $3K/box is not enough money to do a mural on each utilitiy [sic] box and that many owners of the boxes will not allow murals,” DeCaigny wrote. “I asked if the funds could be pooled for a single mural in the geographic nexus of the boxes and she agreed that was a good idea. In other words, we would be able to pool 3 boxes x $3K/box to commission a $9K mural within the geographic nexus of the boxes (or pool 4‐5 boxes in order to expand the mural and/or cover our admin costs.”

Cohen’s current proposal apparently assumes murals won’t get painted on the boxes.

In a May 2 email, DeCaigny wrote about negotiations between Cohen’s office and AT&T. “[Chan] informed me that they are revisiting the proposed legislation, but do want to encourage/compel/require AT&T to allow murals on their boxes,” DeCaigny wrote. “AT&T remains opposed to the idea and so that negotiation continues.”

But by June, the discussion steered away from murals on the boxes themselves.

“I asked that it be made explicit that murals would not go on boxes so that we aren’t setting up missed expectations with the community,” DeCaigny wrote in the June 9 email about his conversations with Cohen.

The changes made by the committee on Wednesday specify that fees for opting out of the mural requirement would go into a Beautification Fund under the Department of Public Works.

The department would establish a process to review community applications for use of those funds. Public Works could collaborate with the Arts Commission for murals in the area such as through the existing StreetSmARTS Program, but the funds wouldn’t have to necessarily be used for murals.

Another amendment added that the surface-mounted facility fee would be $2,000 or $48 per square foot, whatever costs higher. AT&T is expected to install 24-square foot boxes, which would mean the $2,000 fee would apply.

The committee will next hold a Sept. 13 hearing on the legislation.

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