What to Make of AT&T’s “Godzilla” Boxes in St. Louis?

{AT&T boxes on Kingsbury at Skinker – photo by Stephen Deere, St. Louis Post-Dispatch}

The Post-Dispatch has an interesting story on the utility boxes popping up around  St. Louis as part of AT&T's expansion of phone, Internet and cable service. The story got to the P-D after AT&T boxes were installed next to the historic gates of Kingsbury Avenue at Skinker in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood. They were apparently installed without the knowledge of local residents and Alderwoman Lyda Krewson.

The story reports that Krewson requested a list of approved permits from the City in April and has not received a response. City resident Margaret Hermes calls it "the uglification of the City." An AT&T spokesperson says, "First and foremost, we are sensitive to the concerns of the neighborhood." So what's going on?

You may think the issue is trivial, or another salvo in the fight to preserve the City's historic heritage; either way, several interesting questions are raised. First, who's in charge of where these are built? Presumably, AT&T requests a location and the City approves the permit. Why aren't resident's consulted, why not the relevant alderperson? Does AT&T pay for the easement? The company has lobbied to remove local control in some areas, making it easier for them to decided where to install the boxes.

The City is giving up something, however small you may see it as being, for a purely commercial purpose. Who decides this is a good decision and when was that decision made? The City, according the the P-D story, has said that they do not know how many boxes there are and AT&T will not say how many more are planned. In 2008 AT&T withdrew its application to install 850 of these utility boxes in San Francisco after residents voiced their opposition. 

At least one person thinks that the boxes violate the City Charter as they are structures being built in public parks. The City Charter says any structure built not contributing to a park's purpose must be subject to a public referendum. AT&T has bent a bit, giving $10,000 to provide landscaping around the boxes in Soulard's Pontiac Park. But they have balked at reconsidering box locations, reportedly stating that asking them to move a box is "neither appropriate nor fair." Obviously, this response is not sufficient for residents whom the City never consulted.

An excellent point made in the story is that residents in some areas of St. Louis City must get approval for pouring a new sidewalk, changing porch light fixtures or their front door due historic district regulations. These regulations serve a noble purpose, preserving our City's history. Yet, it's apparent that the City, without neighborhood consultation, can approve whatever it would like on City land within historic districts.

Why can't AT&T be required to paint the boxes in the same way as does Barnes-Jewish Hospital or Clayton? Why can't better locations, even if on private property, be found? Why does the City of St. Louis believe it's a good decision to allow concrete and utility boxes to be planted where a tree should be instead?

Ultimately, the question is – who controls our streets? Who makes decisions that affect City residents. This episode should, if nothing else, be a statement that there are St. Louis City residents who care intensely about this City. The City, in turn, should recognize the necessity of such people. If more people questioned who is in charge and how things are decided in this City, we would all benefit. Be sure to read the whole story here and tell us what you think.

{example of a painted utility box on Kingshighway near Barnes-Jewish Hospital}

{Kingsbury at Skinker before AT&T box installation}

{Kingsbury at Skinker after concrete was poured for AT&T boxes}