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Tower Compromise Near?

Tuesday December 02, 2003

Berkeley City Council crafted a possible solution to the lingering Public Safety Building antennae tower controversy Tuesday night, holding off threatened legal action by downtown area residents. 

On a motion from Councilmember Dona Spring, Council voted 6-2-1 (Worthington and Wozniak voting no, Shirek abstaining) to investigate putting up a single 160-foot pole to replace the current 160-foot multi-antennae tower. The compromise was passed after councilmembers were assured that the replacement pole would only be studied, with no commitment from Council to do anything more until the city’s present budget crisis is over. Council also required that nothing would be spent for outside consultants on the upcoming study without Council’s specific say-so. 

The study will be undertaken jointly by the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board, Design Review Committee, and Landmarks Preservation Commission. 

“I think that the commissions can evaluate what would have been appropriate for that site like they would have done in the beginning had it gone through the correct process,” said Councilmember Linda Maio. “[Our current fiscal crisis] shouldn’t stop us from doing the right thing when we’re able to do it.” 

The tower was built atop the Public Safety Building on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in 1999 to replace two existing 130-foot antennae. Neighbors immediately dubbed the tower a “monstrosity,” saying it was out of character with the historic downtown neighborhood, never properly noticed to the public in the project’s Environmental Impact Review, and never subjected to the city’s commission evaluation process. They had earlier asked that the tower be torn down and replaced with the original 130-foot pair. 

City public safety officials countered that the larger tower eliminates some of the city’s so-called “communications dead spots” along the edge of the hills and in some West Berkeley neighborhoods where police with hand-held communications devices could not exchange messages with police headquarters under the two-antennae system. 

Some councilmembers had argued that even if the larger tower was improperly erected, the present lean economic times made it impossible for the city to correct the problem by tearing down a “perfectly good communications tower.” 

A report on the ongoing controversy, which has gone through several studies and hearings, filled nearly 400 pages in last Tuesday’s Council packet. 

If the 160-foot monopole antennae proves to have the same communications coverage as the existing 160-foot antennae tower, it would allay the concerns of city public safety officials about cutting back on communications efficiency.  

Speaking for downtown residents, many of whom signed petitions and filed appeals against the tower during the past four years, Berkeley schoolteacher Zoe Kalkanis earlier told City Council that neighbors of the Public Service Building didn’t want to cause the city any financial problems. “We simply want to work with the city in developing the most effective public safety system possible while respecting the character of our residential neighborhood and without defacing our historic civic center,” she said. 

Calling the present tower an “oil derrick,” Kalkanis urged Councilmembers to “submit alternatives to the present tower to the standard review process.” If not, she added, “our attorney informs us we have clear grounds for legal action. It’s not the route we want to pursue. But if the city forecloses other relief, it is the course we’ll be forced to take.”