Noe Valley Voice May 2013

AT&T Firming Up Locations for Utility Boxes

Residents Just Want Them to Stay Out of Sight

By Tim Innes


It looked like just another neighborhood history or architecture tour.

But the small group of Noe Valleyans trooping up the 800 block of Douglass Street one drizzly afternoon last month was not studying the neat rows of Victorians and Edwardians. No, their gaze was fixed on the sidewalk, particularly the area next to the curb. Stranger still, their leader was carrying a rod with a small orange wheel on one end. A measuring device, it turned out.

The man with the wheeled contraption was not a City Guide but Julian Chang, an AT&T community outreach representative. He and a colleague, Lynn Sousa, were there to answer neighbors’ questions and address concerns about AT&T’s plans to install as many as 32 electronics cabinets in Noe Valley, including one on the east side of Douglass just south of 24th Street.

The cabinets, which are 4 feet high, 2 feet deep, and nearly 5 feet wide, are a key component in AT&T’s program, announced in 2005, to bring its U-verse TV, high-speed Internet, and voice-over-Internet technology to San Francisco homes. The boxes provide the link between a new fiber-optic network and the copper wires over which each household and business receives service. Each cabinet serves about 400 customers.

While many consumers welcomed AT&T’s entry into a broadband market long dominated by Comcast, others were dismayed by the prospect of hundreds of bulky utility cabinets sprouting from sidewalks all over the city. Unable to persuade AT&T to put the cabinets underground or on private property, opponents led by San Francisco Beautiful sought relief in Superior Court and from the Board of Supervisors.

Although both challenges ultimately failed, opponents did wrest concessions from AT&T, which agreed to reach out to affected neighborhoods and to do what it could to screen the cabinets from public view. The deal was brokered by District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener, who told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2011 that while he would have preferred that no boxes be placed on the public right of way, he believed that “safeguards were in place to address neighborhood concerns.”

Wiener said people wanting technology upgrades “should have the opportunity to get them. People will also have the opportunity to object.”

It was an objection from Douglass Street resident Neil Gehani that prompted Chang and Sousa to schedule the April 4 meeting. “We want to get your input,” said Chang. “We want to work cooperatively with the community.”

Why Not Below Ground?

Gehani and several other neighbors peppered Chang with questions. “Why do we have to have so many boxes?” they asked. “Why can’t the switching (between fiber-optic and copper cables) be done in one box?” “Why can’t the boxes be put underground?” “For that matter, why can’t all the wires be put underground?” “Won’t the cabinets be magnets for graffiti?”

Responded Chang: “Undergrounding is a really difficult thing in a city like San Francisco. With all the other utilities in place, there’s nowhere to dig a hole big enough for a vault that meets OSHA regulations. There has to be space for technicians to work safely and have adequate ventilation. In addition, the ventilation equipment would have almost as big a footprint as a cabinet does.”

At Sousa’s suggestion, the group headed south on Douglass to scout for possible cabinet sites. She explained that cabinets have to be at least 18 inches from the curb and 5 feet from driveways and curb cuts. Further, they cannot require the relocation of gas or water lines or the removal of street trees. It wasn’t until the group had nearly reached Jersey Street that they encountered a clear patch of sidewalk. Still, the walkway was narrow and a cabinet would have been right below residents’ windows, raising security concerns.

Turning left at the corner, the group found itself on a much broader sidewalk in front of an apartment building at 560-580 Jersey, one without curb cuts or street trees. Chang noted that a cabinet could be placed midway between the building’s entrances, leaving easy access to both. Most importantly, the site was within the required 300 feet from the existing AT&T cross-connect box at 811 Douglass.

Another advantage to the spot: There’s space for a small garden on three sides of the box (the street side must be left clear so technicians have access). “We partner with Friends of the Urban Forest for our ‘Screening and Greening’ program,” said Chang. “AT&T pays for the plants, and they do the work.”

The group also identified an open patch of sidewalk across from 826 Douglass, but the spot was beyond the 300-foot limit established by AT&T engineers.

“It would be great if they could put screens around every one of these because they are really ugly,” Gehani said after the tour. “I still think they should be put underground.”

In a follow-up email, Gehani, a member of San Francisco Beautiful, said that while he appreciated AT&T’s outreach efforts, he didn’t think they went far enough. “Greening should be high enough to hide the boxes completely, not low to the ground as they have proposed.”

Gehani said he was also concerned that other firms might want to put boxes on the sidewalk as well. “Very quickly, the public right of way gets cluttered with these things all over the city,” he wrote.

Watch for Notices

Based on Chang’s and Sousa’s findings, AT&T engineers are drawing up new plans to present to the Department of Public Works for approval, said AT&T spokesman Lane Kasselman. DPW crews will post signs in the area around Douglass and Jersey streets and mail notices to residents within a 300-foot radius of the preferred site.

If no one objects, AT&T will apply for a building permit. If there is an objection, a hearing officer will gather information and make a recommendation to the Planning Department, which can either issue a permit or send the matter back to AT&T for revision, he said. Once a permit is issued, it takes three to six months to install a cabinet, Kasselman said, adding that residents in the area around Douglass and Jersey could start receiving U-verse marketing materials late this year.

Kasselman said AT&T had already installed 50 cabinets in the South of Market, Richmond, and Sunset districts and is currently at work in the Bayview, Hunters Point, and Visitacion Valley neighborhoods. (To see a list of proposed sites in Noe Valley, click on the May 2011 Voice story “AT&T May Have Noe Valley Boxed In,” at 

For those worried about tags, the cabinets have been coated with a light green, washable polymer finish. If graffiti appears, call 311 and the company will send someone out to remove it.

Kasselman said the company hopes to have all of San Francisco—the last major market in California to receive U-verse—online by the end of next year. Meanwhile, tours like last month’s on Douglass Street are likely to be repeated throughout Noe Valley as residents seek to provide input on the placement of cabinets.

Those with questions should call AT&T representative Luis Cuadra at 415-788-1000, ext. 207.