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Guest Opinion: The big 'cell'

In Palo Alto, the need for advanced communication has been additionally burdened by large, ugly, metal street enclosures

Cell towers (the installation of small cell equipment on existing utility poles in Palo Alto) have been a hot topic for a couple of years now. Elaborate technical drawings describing a network of transmission equipment on existing wood poles in residential areas and metal poles in downtown with the potential of vaults under the street have been presented to the Planning and Community Environment Department, partially reviewed by the Architectural Review Board and finally voted on by the Council.

Telephone companies were given the green light to proceed in recent years, even as the city has continued to refine its preferred design for the new equipment.

But once the train has left the station, how will it be stopped? A report from the planning department that evaluated the appropriateness of the designs is not likely to provide any substantive new directives. The Architectural Review Board was mostly marginalized during the review process, although members voiced significant concerns regarding the aesthetics, as well as the functionality of the varied telecom cell tower designs and their impact on the immediate physical environment.

From my personal experience as an architect in New York City tasked with improving the streetscape in local commercial districts and as a resident of a landmark brownstone neighborhood, I have become keenly aware of the value of street space as a precious shared public commodity subject to, and limited by, the requirements of public utilities. Only since the need for advanced communication has street space been additionally burdened by large, ugly, metal street enclosures installed by private telecom companies without consideration of the constriction of the pedestrian space or urban aesthetic. This is also true here in Palo Alto.

At the several Architectural Review Board hearings of the different telecom presentations, it became obvious that there are differences between one company's equipment and another's. For one thing, some manufacturers of the small cell equipment are concerned enough to minimize their antennas and related radio equipment. City Planning had requested an analysis of one telecom's proposals by an outside consultant, and they were given the opportunity to accept their consultant's advice and demand that the telecoms use the most miniaturized equipment. No such directive was considered. I believe this was because the City's legal counsel was concerned that this might require litigation and that the telecoms had the right to impose any design on Palo Alto by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulation. This is why the Architectural Review Board has been sidelined from continuing their review of this entire cell tower issue and the many voices that, for one reason or another, have objected to these installations have not been heeded.

Even if this miniaturization happened, I am still bothered by the use of the public wooden neighborhood poles to host these new cell towers and thus suggest that the companies are required to install all new metal poles, which probably should be located on the opposite side of the street from the existing wood ones so that there is a fair distribution on each block. Consider some of the positive outcomes of this unexplored concept:

• Some of the equipment and all of the wiring would be internal to the pole.

• There would be no conflict with other utilities as there is at the top of the existing 40-foot-high wood poles.

• Because these new poles will be structured on new concrete footings, they will be structurally sound.

• The height would be determined by engineering requirements rather than space availability.

• The poles could be selected from a variety of appropriate manufactured designs and painted to look appropriate in their residential neighborhood.

• The communication systems could be easily modified for future upgrades (such as to 5G).

• Liability issues would be simplified.

• There would be more flexibility to coordinate pole locations to avoid legitimate neighborhood concerns.

So either this alternate concept should be considered or an immediate review of the entire group of telecom standards ought to be developed so that the imminent installations are sized to have a minimal impact on the Palo Alto neighborhood streetscape.

I can't imagine a citizen revolt to take back the public space or restrict the telecoms in New York City, but this is Palo Alto where public expression counts. Improved telecommunications are needed, but how they are achieved ought to be given the broadest design review and public consideration.

There is a larger subject in the lesson here. A few years ago there was a competition to build a bridge across U.S. Highway 101 and several of the entrants, architects, provided wonderful, creative solutions. These died when the reality of funding the construction was considered. But the process should not be discarded. Whether it is planning proposals such as for Cubberley Community Center or the North Ventura neighborhood coordinated-area plan or a bridge across 101 or a critical analysis of cell towers, there should be a moment when planning and engineering stops and creativity takes charge. It happened at the Magical Bridge playground.

David Hirsch is a fairly new Palo Alto resident who was an architect in New York City, designed schools and other public structures, and specialized in affordable/supportive housing. He serves as the most recently appointed member of the Architectural Review Board. He can be reached at davidlhirsch@gmail.com.

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