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NIMBYs Blocking Civic Improvement Is Sad S.F. Tradition 

Wednesday, May 11 2011

On April 21, Richmond District landscape architect Kathy Howard warned members of the Board of Supervisors about a new kind of urban blight: Out-of-towners, she wrote in a letter, planned to erect "monsters in our neighborhoods permanently."

"This is not a NIMBY issue," Howard insisted, employing the classic initials for Not in My BackYard. "It is a DTOC — Don't Trash Our City — issue."

Howard was among neighbors, associated civic groups, and sympathetic politicians raising an alarm about a plan by AT&T to install 726 broadband-Internet-equipment boxes next to its telephone-service boxes throughout the city.

This would allow AT&T to provide bundled phone, Internet and high-definition TV service as an alternative to Comcast, named last fall the Worst Company in America by the Consumerist for what the site's managing editor called its "consistent dedication to providing low-quality service at ever-rising prices."

However, San Francisco customers may not have the option of switching, or at least threatening to switch, to AT&T. That's because DTOC fretting is this city's favorite participant sport. It enlivens every Board of Supervisors hearing, government committee meeting, and gathering of DTOC-focused community groups.

Such battles involve issues as diverse as blocking apartment buildings, bike lanes, and — apparently most abhorrent of all — improvements in technology infrastructure. The question is always the same: Should San Francisco allow changes benefiting the city at large? Or should politicians block whatever individual neighborhood groups declare a nuisance?

Such questions are about to become more than mere civic entertainment as the city heads toward what seems to be — gasp! — an economic recovery. As social media and related companies expand, office buildings are changing hands and tech companies are seeking more local space.

The last time San Francisco experienced this kind of economic good news, DTOC activists flared with antichange rage, fighting technology investment as if it were a hostile invasion. The Board of Supervisors followed with prohibitive ad hoc zoning and other laws designed to block construction.

As fond as those protest memories may be for some, repeating the dot-com backlash would be disastrous. Five-year financial projections show a $829 million San Francisco budget shortfall, with services for the poor and unemployed the hardest hit. As of March, San Francisco unemployment was at an official 9.1 percent — so bad that a recent McDonald's hiring event drew an around-the-block line. In this context, Don't Trash Our City should mean inviting, rather than prohibiting, technology investment.

The work of a committed DTOC activist never ends. Howard, for example, boasts online of her active role in such groups. The Planning Association for the Richmond is a neighborhood improvement group whose goals include blocking the AT&T broadband plan as well as proposed new bike lanes in Golden Gate Park. The Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods counts itself as an AT&T broadband opponent and a scourge of cellphone antenna permit applicants everywhere. And Howard is on the steering committee of the Golden Gate Park Preservation Alliance, which seeks to block construction of a water treatment plant and to obstruct a plan to renovate and expand soccer fields.

This may sound like a busy to-do list. But it's not unusual here. Resisting proposed changes in the city's landscape is a pastime that occupies thousands of San Franciscans' time. And they seem energized by repeated success. Five days after Howard's letter joined other complaints about AT&T, the board heard hours of public testimony over whether to reverse a Planning Commission decision to allow the boxes to be installed without requiring a lengthy and expensive environmental review. The board voted to postpone its decision, as Supervisors Scott Wiener and Sean Elsbernd urged their colleagues to step back and take a broader view.

If past antitechnology moves are a guide, however, the narrow DTOC perspective may prevail. This is the second time, for example, that AT&T has attempted to bring its U-Verse broadband package to San Francisco; DTOC groups such as San Francisco Beautiful blocked the company two years ago. So the company put its boxes in 260 other California cities and came back to try again. They've stepped over tech-proposal corpses along the way.

Last September, Bernal Heights residents gained Board of Supervisors support blocking mobile broadband antennae from being installed on an existing tower. They feared, groundlessly, that earthquake vibrations might redirect the antennae to smite residents with concentrated radio waves. This Luddite victory, alas, was of a tradition:

In 2001, investors spent $31 million to turn the former National Guard Armory into an Internet switching center. Neighborhood activists filed an appeal and other protests against the project, and it was eventually scotched. Now the building is an S&M porn studio.

During the late 1990s, activists took to the streets to protest proliferation of dot-com businesses. Soulless technology firms might ruin San Francisco's character, they cried.

In 2006, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom negotiated a deal with Google and EarthLink whereby the two companies would blanket the city with free Wi-Fi service. Residents complained that the corporations would zap us with radio waves. The Board of Supervisors took up the cause, delaying implementation until the project fizzled.

At that time, political consultant Jim Ross expressed bafflement to me that apparently, "You can't give away free beer on a warm day, or free Wi-Fi in one of the most technologically savvy cities in the country."

If optimistic forecasts about the city's economic future are true, local activists will have plenty of new reasons to sound the DTOC alarm. Start-ups related to mobile devices and social media have got money flowing to San Francisco again. These aren't the pie-in-the-sky operations that came and went during the 1990s; they're profitable businesses like Twitter and Zynga and many smaller firms with actual products, customers, and futures. Recent job growth among these kinds of companies has pushed tech employment to near the 2000 dot-com peak. Yet they occupy half the space they did a decade ago.

They'll seek more room. Developers will oblige by filing for permits for new office space and housing for workers, and maybe even for additional local broadband and wireless capacity to make those companies' offerings more accessible.

The fog of financial desperation might lift over jobless and underemployed San Franciscans.

And DTOC activists will fight back, opportunities be damned.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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