Little boxes

Will K Street news racks fight blight or worsen it?

Trashed pedestal-mounted newspaper boxes in Oakland. Is this K Street’s future aesthetic?

Trashed pedestal-mounted newspaper boxes in Oakland. Is this K Street’s future aesthetic?

Photo By stephen buel

There’s a black one, and a black one, and a black one and another black one. Little boxes, all on K Street, and they all look just the same.

That’s the tune for publishers who once freely distributed their newspapers in the public spaces along K Street. Gone are the untidy clusters of First Amendment funkiness. In their place are slick, shiny new city-owned newspaper kiosks, which publishers must use if they want to distribute their papers in the area. City officials are contemplating expanding the K Street program citywide.

The K street boxes have been on the drawing board for over a year, when they became part of Sacramento’s $4 million streetscaping project now under construction in what sometimes seems to be a perpetual redevelopment area between Seventh and 12th streets.

Sacramento borrowed the kiosk idea from Bay Area cities, where corralling newspaper publishers into city-owned boxes was all the rage for years.

But Sacramento may find it’s behind the curve, as some Bay Area cities are beginning to pull out these “pedestal mounted” boxes where they’ve become magnets for vandalism and theft.

That’s what’s happened to many of the boxes in Oakland and Berkeley and at Bay Area Rapid Transit train stations. “We’re having to clean the program up a little bit,” acknowledged Gary Sue, with BART’s real-estate division. Recently the agency has started eliminating those boxes that have become too ugly and too troublesome to maintain. “We don’t have a new policy yet, but we have been removing some of the racks that have become abandoned and broken and unsightly.”

If Sacramento’s experience is anything like that of the East Bay, the city may end up with buyer’s remorse.

“Ped mounts now seem like the worst possible choice for a city,” said Stephen Buel, who is both editor and distribution manager at the East Bay Express, an alternative weekly newspaper based in Oakland. Buel sent SN&R several pictures of East Bay newspaper boxes that have been broken into, graffitied and generally beat to hell.

Sacramento downtown development representative Denise Malvetti said city staff did several months of research into similar programs in the Bay Area and other cities and found no reason to be concerned about vandalism. “What we heard was really positive feedback,” Malvetti explained.

Malvetti said downtown merchants pushed to get rid of the clusters of individual news racks, which came in all sort of colors and shapes, and often in varying states of disrepair. The boxes are often graffitied, stolen, knocked over and bashed in. But readers can easily find their favorite newspapers—that branding will be largely lost with the more homogenous black boxes.

City staff didn’t seek input from newspaper publishers. “It was presented to us as ‘This is what we’re going to do,’” said SN&R’s distribution manager Michael Billingsley.

But city staff did anticipate some of the publisher’s concerns in a report to the city council last year: “The desire to beautify K Street and protect the public’s health, safety and welfare must be balanced with the publisher’s First Amendment right to distribute newspapers and periodicals.”

As it turned out, the desire to beautify K Street won out pretty easily. The new boxes are pristine and coated with a layer of graffiti-resistant paint, and Malvetti said she’s been hearing oohs and aahs since the boxes were installed.

On the upside, Billingsley said, the city is now on the hook for the cost and hassle of maintaining the racks, replacing broken windows and coin boxes, painting over grafitti—no small burden for independent newspaper publishers.

That’s similar to how it works in the Bay Area, though in San Francisco, the city has started to charge newspaper publishers for the (compulsory) privilege of using city-owned boxes.

Billingsley says his drivers now have a little pool going, betting on which of the new K Street boxes, with their wide, blank surfaces, will be first to be vandalized. “They’re shiny and black. It’s an open invitation to taggers,” Billingsley said.

Sacramento’s new ped mounts cost $32,000, a fraction of the overall K Street streetscape bill. SN&R asked what the city has budgeted annually for maintenance of the new racks, and Malvetti replied, “It’s not really a line item. It’s not expected to be very costly.”

That’s not how it turned out in the East Bay. Buel said things got really ugly when the economy turned sour. “Now you almost can’t deliver papers to a ped mount without seeing that someone has vandalized it to get to the coins.

“Six months ago, I thought every city in the Bay Area was going to have ped mounts,” Buel said. “Now the trend seems to be just the opposite. This thing that once looked like a solution now looks like the problem.”