From lanky poles masquerading as light fixtures to modest spikes hiding in the rooftops or jutting out of utility poles, cell antennas have been proliferating in Palo Alto over the past year, trying to keep pace with the city's growing population and swelling digital demands.
They come in different shapes and sizes and they target just about every neighborhood, from Downtown North to Greenmeadow. Some plans go through years of revisions and stoke neighborhood debate before winning approval, such as AT&T's proposal for a "distributed antenna system" two years ago and Verizon's recent plan for a cell tower at a ballpark on Middlefield Road.
The latter, which the City Council approved on Dec. 15, proved particularly thorny, with five years of revisions and an appeals process that pitted neighbor against neighbor in south Palo Alto. The council's vote allows Verizon to replace a 60-foot-tall light pole with a 65-foot-tall pole that would support three antennas in the Palo Alto Little League ballpark. The new pole's diameter would be 18 inches, 6 more than the existing pole's.
Last month's swift council decision came after a torrent of comments from both advocates of the plan, who slammed the opposition for stoking speculative fears about the dangers of cell equipment, and critics, who charged Verizon with placing tiny sluggers and schoolchildren in danger.
Joe Caporaletti, a member of the Adobe Meadow Neighborhood Association, which supported the antenna plan, accused opponents of "imaginative fears."
"It's become clear to me that the (opponents') purpose is to stop it permanently," Caporaletti said.
Kristen Foss, board president of Palo Alto Little League, said tower opponents had been trying to delay the project with a variety of strategies, from complaining about the light impact of the new pole to attempting to designate the ballpark a historical structure. The latter proposal even involved the grandson of baseball legend Ty Cobb, but it fizzled in front of the city's Historic Resources Board.
"They've been trying anything they can find to try to shut Little League down," Foss said.
Opponents countered that a baseball field is not the proper location for a cell tower. Willie Lai told the council that he would not consent for his children to be "part of a long-term experiment." Jason Yotoupolis, who filed an appeal against Verizon, said that the company failed in its obligation to find the least intrusive location for its new equipment.
"The radius coverage of a tower this high is many miles, so moving such a wireless facility just a quarter mile down the road to an industrial warehouse facility shouldn't be much of an inconvenience," Yotoupolis said.
In December, some 100 people showed up at the council meeting to ask that the council have a full discussion of the topic, rather than merely vote on it through the consent calendar.
While eight council members agreed to keep the item on consent, Greg Schmid dissented, observing that it's very rare for the council to see that many people in the audience for a consent-calendar item.
"There is a pretty clear division between those who support and those who oppose," Schmid said in advocating a full discussion. "It's been a divisive issue, and I think it's very important that we reach closure on this."
The bitter dispute over the Verizon tower is precisely the type of controversy that the council had hoped to avoid when it approved an $81,000 contract last April for the creation of a citywide master plan for wireless facilities. The company, Anthem Telecom, was charged with assessing the city's wireless communication needs, create a plan for meeting those needs and develop a strategy for implementing and managing an infrastructure program for the needed facilities.
In urging the council to reject Verizon's application, Yotoupolis argued that the city should wait until the master plan is completed before considering such proposals.
"The city is spending $80,000 on a wireless-communication plan and yet at the same time proposing an ad hoc 'Ready, fire, aim' approach," he said.
But when it comes to wireless equipment, the city's planning effort is struggling to keep up with the telecom companies. The city's contract estimates the consultant's work to take 72 weeks and the planning staff expects the report to be completed by the end of this year, said Jonathan Lait, the city's assistant planning director.
"They (the consultants) are interested in understanding more about some of the other utilities in the area and what their expansion needs are in the Palo Alto," Lait said. "They are conducting that research and doing that work now."
Meanwhile, applications continue to file in. When the new year launched, eight applications for wireless equipment were in the pipeline. On Jan. 6, the city approved two of these applications, at 3600 Bayshore Road and at 925 Commercial Street. Each included three panel antennas and radio equipment. As of last week, the city had applications pending at 1891 Page Mill Road (two rooftop antennas); 180 El Camino Real (16 rooftop antennas at the Pottery Barn building at Stanford Shopping Center); 675 El Camino Real (three rooftop antennas at a hotel); 2701 Middlefield Road (replacement of three rooftop antennas); and 801 Middlefield Road (AT&T antennas on a utility pole).