Like many of his constituents in the Castro District, Supervisor Scott Wiener has an idyllic — even fastidious — vision for San Francisco. He wants to carve away at the wide boulevards that resemble "semi-freeways," install better, brighter signs, and make the sidewalks more "walkable." And he wants to do away with a set of large green utility boxes that look like weapons bunkers — or at least paint over their surfaces and festoon them with greenery.
The boxes, which contain equipment that helps power AT&T's U-verse Internet service, have become a battlefront for anyone with a vested interest in city beautification. Cranky residents have long denigrated them as ugly, industrial warts on an otherwise pristine landscape; in 2011, a group called San Francisco Beautiful sued the city's Department of Public Works in an effort to eradicate the stumpy fortifications. (San Francisco Beautiful lost the suit, but has continued crusading against utility boxes and other unsightly structures.)
Now AT&T is striking back with a lawsuit of its own, in which it accuses the city's Department of Public Works of "illegally" denying permits for 26 boxes, and of allowing 67 additional permit applications to languish beyond the mandatory 60-day period. AT&T's lawyers say the company needs to install up to 726 new boxes throughout the city in order to store all the equipment for its expanding fiber-optic network. They insist the boxes are neither exceptionally ugly nor obstructive, citing a 2011 Planning Department Report that exonerated them from most aesthetic barbs.
Three years later, city officials seem decidedly less sympathetic to the needs of telecom companies. And much of their anti-box vitriol appears to be emanating from Wiener. At a May 7 Board of Appeals meeting, the Department of Public Works acknowledged that it was abandoning its own utility box protocol, because Wiener had intervened.
"I don't want the boxes at all," Wiener says, "but I also know that state law requires us to put them on the sidewalks." In an effort to minimize the "challenges" these structures create — graffiti, sidewalk obstructions, a general assault against taste — Wiener has introduced new legislation to give residents more say in the cabinet installation process, to allow local artists to decorate them with murals, and to require AT&T to fund small gardens around them. He also asks for an annual evaluation on the prospect of putting all these boxes underground — which AT&T has roundly opposed, saying they would be impossible to access.
"We want to make them as attractive as we're able to," Wiener says. He's currently stumping for similar legislation that would prevent the fire department from widening San Francisco's "suburban-style" streets.
Shrubs and other decoration aside, this may just be the beginning of our woes if a more beautiful San Francisco now stands in conflict with a more connected one.