The City Council voted to activate the Public Safety Building tower antenna Tuesday night after hearing public comment from city staff and police officers who said the tower is critical for public safety and from neighbors who argued it’s an eyesore and was erected without public process.
The council approved the activation by a 6-2 vote with councilmembers Dona Spring and Kriss Worthington voting no. Mayor Shirley Dean, who is currently attending the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C., did not vote on the issue.
The vote to activate the tower was taken after another motion by Spring to table the issue until the council’s Feb. 5 meeting failed to get the five votes necessary for approval.
Spring said on Wednesday that Tuesday’s vote does not resolve the issue.
“It’s not over, and I am bound and determined by hook or crook that the tower is going to be taken down.” she said. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take but I am strongly committed to it’s removal.”
Director of Public Works Rene Cardinaux said after the council’s vote that he is most concerned about the immediate future.
“I’m not arguing the long-term solution but for the short-term it makes the best sense from a safety perspective to turn the tower on,” Cardinaux said adding it should be activated within the next two weeks.
Councilmember Polly Armstrong agreed.
“It’s irresponsible of us to not vote for a resolution that will make the City of Berkeley safer,” she said. “We need to turn that antenna on and protect the citizens of Berkeley.”
The three-legged steel tower, which is located behind the Public Safety Building at 2100 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, has never been activated because of the controversy that erupted as soon as the tower was erected.
Neighbors have fought to have the tower either removed or redesigned during the last two years, saying its five-story design is inappropriate for a residential neighborhood.
In addition, neighbors say the tower never went through the city’s normal public process, which would have included review by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, Design Review Committee and the Zoning Adjustments Board.
But citing citywide safety concerns and the unreliability of the two, 60-year-old antennae currently used by the police and fire departments for radio communication, Cardinaux, the fire and police chiefs and the director of the Department of Planning and Development, urged the council to activate the new tower. Five police officers also called for the activation of the tower during the public hearing.
But nearly 30 residents told the council that the tower has lowered real estate values and has altered the quality of life in their neighborhood.
“The tower has changed the neighborhood,” said Carrie Sprague who lives nearby the tower. “When you come out your front door, you don’t think about your rose bushes or your tomato plants or whether the dog got out the front gate, you just get mad at that tower.”
Other neighbors focused on the lack of the public process.
“As near as I can tell the structure was built on a change order, which is appropriate for a light bulb but not a 170-foot tower,” he said. “In the end what we really need is a public process.”
Neighbors advocated for the city to replace the tower with two smaller, “flag-pole” styled towers.
City Manager Weldon Rucker, who was not city manager during the construction of the Public Safety Building or the tower, admitted that the public process may have been lacking.
“In the future we’ll have to be more open and consistent with the public,” he said. “But from a practical standpoint our recommendation is to activate the tower as soon as possible.”
Also arguing for the tower, five police officers addressed the council during the public hearing. They said the 60-year-old antenna system is unreliable. In fact, the antennae did not operate for two hours last Thursday when a gas generator failed to start during a power outage.
“Not being able to do our jobs because of aesthetic reasons troubles us,” said Berkeley Police Association President Randy Files, adding that radio communication is critical to officer safety. “I work with other officers and if one of them is in trouble, I need to know where he is, how he is and how to get to him.”
In addition to aesthetic concerns, Erica Etelson who was a member of the neighborhood Tower Committee formed by the City Council in October 2000, said the tower’s electromagnetic field could pose a health threat.
“Kaiser has recently released a study that shows these towers have been associated with a six-fold increase in the risk of miscarriage,” she said adding that they have recently been restricted in Britain and Spain.
But city staff cited a report prepared by MACRO Corporation that determined the tower’s electric magnetic field would not cause adverse health effects.
Spring said the tower will return to the council’s agenda on Feb. 5, and that she will ask that it be refereed to the Design Review Committee to begin the process of redesigning the tower, which is estimated to cost about $300,000.
“With the safety issues no longer in the way, I’m hoping the council will support going for some alternatives,” she said. “We have to make this right and there’s no ifs, ands or buts about it.”