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Neighbors, Spring fight against tall radio tower

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Tuesday January 22, 2002

Neighbors of Berkeley’s new Public Safety Building will get a chance to sound off tonight on the 170-foot emergency radio tower they say is not only an eyesore but was erected without proper public review. 

Neighbors, who are supported by Councilmember Dona Spring, say they will ask the City Council during tonight’s public hearing to reduce the tower’s visual impact by breaking it into two, smaller “flag pole” style towers. The tower is located behind the Public Safety Building at 2100 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way. 

But they face opposition from the City Manager’s Office and the Department of Public Works, which are recommending the council leave the tower as is and activate it immediately to support police and fire department radio communication. 

The three-legged, five-story, steel structure, which neighbors compare to an “oil derrick,” was constructed in early 2000. The tower is designed to withstand a major seismic event and to continue providing critical communication during a major disaster response by multiple police, fire and medical agencies. 

City officials claim the tower, which has never been used, is located in position to best serve all sections of the city. It will also be valuable for daily emergency responses. 

“In an average calendar year, Berkeley police and fire departments each receive approximately 10,000 emergency calls,” a Department of Public Works report reads. “Wireless communication allows field personnel to effectively and efficiently respond to these incidents.” 

But neighbors say the tower is too large, and its design is inappropiate for its location next to a residential neighborhood and a historic district. Neighbors also charge that the tower was erected without the proper public review and permits. 

“This is Berkeley’s version of Tower Gate,” said Spring. “The process was a scandal, and it would be an assault to allow (the tower) to remain in place.” 

Spring said the tower should be broken into two or more parts and relocated atop the Martin Luther King, Jr. Civic Center. She also supports dismantling the existing tower and replacing it, in the same approximate location, with two “flag pole” styled antennas, which would be more visually appropriate for the neighborhood. 

MACRO Corporation studied the situation last year, which cost the city $50,000, and found the best alternative to the existing tower would be two towers, approximately 110 feet tall in the general area of the nearby, old Hall of Justice, its report said. The consultant estimated the cost of the redesign to be $300,000. There was no estimate of the cost to relocate the antennas on the roof of the Civic Center. 

Neighbors also claim the tower never went through the city’s normal approval process prior to construction.  

“This is a historical district and the tower is right next to Old City Hall, which is one of the finest examples of public architecture in the East Bay,” said Vito Lab, who lives across the street from the tower. “And this project never went to Design Review, never went to the Zoning Adjustments Board and never went to the Landmarks Preservation Commission.” 

But according to the Department of Public Works report, there was public input on the tower design. The report cites a design competition for the Public Safety Building, in which drawings were available for public viewing and a backyard presentation, which included computer-generated images, at PSB neighbor Deborah Green’s home. The report also says the tower was described in the PSB Environmental Impact Report. 

Lab said any description of the tower was lost in the overall presentation of the PSB plans and argues the public review process was clearly lacking. 

“I would say this tower is the second tallest structure in Berkeley and you don’t just trot out a plan in front of three or four people in Debbie Green’s backyard and say that’s a public review,” he said.