San Antonians that live near “network huts” celebrated a small but complicated victory Wednesday afternoon following the Historic Design and Review Commission (HDRC)’s unanimous vote to send design plans regarding two Google Fiber “network huts” back to the drawing board.
The complicated part is that the huts, which act as a distribution point for the super fast internet service, have already been constructed in Haskin and West End parks. The huts are about 10 feet high, 30 feet long, 10 feet deep, and are surrounded by security fencing. Several neighbors used the term “eyesore” to describe them during the meeting.
“I’m a bit confused by this whole process,” HDRC Chair Michael Guarino said, noting that the commission typically oversees projects that have not yet been completed.
Google Fiber will submit more specific fencing and landscaping plans for these first two huts within the new year. The commission was not impressed by the thin application provided to them on Wednesday. In the future, structural designs for the next 15 huts will first need to pass through HDRC. The original huts didn’t have to go through this process; instead they were batch-approved by City Council as part of a 20-year, $1 million master lease agreement with Google.
John Whitsett, who lives across the street from Haskin Park in Oak Park-Northwood in District 10, has been on a crusade to have the hut removed – or at the very least moved to a more discrete location in the one-acre park.
“The park is functionally cut in half,” Whitsett told commissioners, listing out other issues the hut has brought to the neighborhood including a new park closing time, potentially loud air-conditioning units, and reduced park visibility. “We weren’t even told this was coming,” he added.
In response to such complaints, the City created a 14-member Fiber Deployment Management Team to track fiber permitting and installations and enhance community outreach on hut construction and locations.
“All of the 15 hut locations are now under review,” Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni told the Rivard Report after the meeting, acknowledging that the City may have been “rushed in the thrill of getting Google Fiber and trying to meet their timeline which, at the time, was pretty fast-paced.
“I don’t think anything was knowingly skipped, but the due diligence wasn’t put into the process at the time and things were inadvertently bypassed,” Zanoni said.
Whitsett accused City staff of breaking procedural rules, among other offenses. Huts are a separate, commercial “use,” he argued, so they should be presented to the Zoning Commission and HDRC one by one for review.
“The only reason they (the City and Google representatives) are here in front of you is because I’ve been beating them up with letters for five months,” Whitsett told commissioners.
The lease does specify that the hut specifications should be brought to HDRC for review. But once Council approves a design, it is technically a done deal. So that contract sends a mixed message procedurally because HDRC is an advisory commission to the Council, Zanoni said.
“The impetus for today was to work out the (fencing and landscaping) details,” he said.
Five of Google’s huts were planned for public parks, two for libraries, five for fire stations, one for a police station, one for a vacant parcel, and one near a drainage feature. All are located on City property, and there is at least one hut location in each Council district. The hut design was outlined in the Council-approved lease agreement which also identifies their locations.
The City’s Information Technology department was handling fiberoptic deployment at the time. However, its staff has very little experience with land use and community engagement.
“That’s not part of their regular business,” Zanoni said. The deployment team is now under the Transportation and Capital Improvements department.
“Google huts are considered a utility,” Zanoni clarified to commissioners. “(Therefore they) are exempt from (Unified Development Code) review.”
SAWS, CPS Energy, AT&T, and Spectrum all have easements on public land, including parks, he added.
Google Fiber announced in August 2015 that San Antonio would become the ninth Fiber City in the U.S., but its local network is not yet operational. Google has not revealed when it will begin providing its gigabit internet service. Its main competitor, AT&T, already has its version of super fast internet up and running. It is expected to take four to five years to fully deploy Google’s network.
The network hut in West End Park in District 1 was slated for installation inside a soccer field at West End Park. It was instead built seven feet away where it now sits surrounded by a chain link fence. There will likely be an art element installed.