AT&T antennas likely to go on Oaks Theatre despite glitch

The proposed AT&T wireless installation on top of the Oaks Theatre. Project reps said antennas won’t be visible from the street. Photo: AT&T

Update, Dec. 26: The decision has been appealed and appears to be scheduled for the March 5, 2013, meeting of the City Council.

Original story, posted Nov. 9: AT&T wireless customers near Solano Avenue may be one step closer to better cell reception with the approval Thursday night of plans for 12 new antennas to be mounted on the Oaks Theatre.

The Zoning Adjustments Board approved the plans, which city staff said were in compliance with all relevant federal and municipal codes.

According to the project description prepared by city staff, AT&T would install 12 antennas and nine cabinets on a steel platform 12 feet above an existing walkway. (The Oaks Theatre closed in January 2011 after its last owner, Rama Sagiraji, was unable to cover his running costs, and the lease has been up for grabs since then.)

Eight of the antennas would be installed at the southeast corner of the building “behind new Radio Frequency Transparent screening” that would be painted to match the building. Four of the antennas would be installed behind a similar screen at the west façade.

Oaks Theatre AT&T wireless antenna project plans. (Click to view larger)

The application first was submitted in August 2011, and deemed complete on Oct. 5, 2012, after the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission gave the plans the go-ahead in April, ruling that the antennas would “not be readily visible” or negatively impact the building’s “architectural character.”

According to the city staff report prepared for Thursday’s meeting, the project was found to be in compliance with federal regulations related to radio frequency exposure, as well as local rules regarding visibility; the need for services due to a coverage gap; and noise.

Several members of the public said AT&T coverage in the area is dismal, and that getting new antennas built has become a matter of public safety. The lack of reception, they said, hurts residents and business owners and makes it hard to attract customers to the district, not to mention to receive vital services during emergencies.

The city received nine letters this week in support of the project, with residents saying they have no AT&T cell service in their homes, and often drop calls.

North Berkeley resident Jane Tierney told the board that, as a mobile signing agent and notary, she’s not able to serve many customers near Solano Avenue due to spotty cell service.

“I think most reasonable people would agree we need better coverage,” she said.

Polly Armstrong, CEO of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, described the issue as a “safety problem” as well as “a business problem.” She said she’d like North Berkeley “to feel like the 21st century rather than the 20th century.”

Many residents say cell coverage around Solano is abysmal. AT&T reports numerous complaints due to slow data, blocked calls and a complete lack of coverage. Source: AT&T graphic

Some neighbors, however, asked the board to delay its decision pending further review of project documents.

City staff acknowledged that, due to a notification glitch, neighbors were directed to a city web page containing old project plans, rather than the most recent edition. New plans were posted on the city website Nov. 1, said Assistant City Planner Pam Johnson, but neighbors who were notified by mail about Thursday’s meeting received a postcard with a web link to the project’s prior incarnation. It wasn’t immediately clear to them, however, that those plans were not the current ones.

(Staff told the board that the city has been transitioning to a new notification system and that steps have been taken to avoid such mishaps in the future.)

One North Berkeley resident, Kevin Sutton, described Thursday’s meeting as “a rush-job” and said neighbors didn’t know about it until two weeks prior. He said they didn’t have a chance to see the most recent plans until an AT&T open house a week ago, at which time the window had closed to submit public comment.

“We don’t even know what we don’t know yet,” Sutton told the board, in response to a question about possible neighborhood concerns about the project. He was one of 18 residents to sign a petition asking for more time to review the project documents.

Two other residents spoke against the project, citing health concerns and a lack of transparency from AT&T officials.

City staff said the matter likely could not come back before the board until January or later if the decision was delayed.

Board member Sara Shumer said that would not be “a significant delay” given the city’s notification problem, and that residents should have more time to look over the documents.

The rest of the board, however, voted to approve the project application, given that, according to city staff, it complies with Berkeley’s zoning rules. (Board members Robert Allen, Michael Alvarez Cohen and Sophie Hahn were absent Thursday night.)

Board member Elisa Mikiten said there weren’t many changes the ZAB would be able to make in response to neighborhood concerns, since the project appeared to be in compliance with city code.

Board member Steven Donaldson also noted that the board is not allowed to consider public concerns about health hazards because the project meets federal standards for radio frequency emissions.

As a result, he said, “What could actually be done to meet the concerns of the neighbors? Not much.”

Appeals may be filed within 14 days and cost $95.

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Correction: Kevin Sutton, a North Berkeley neighbor who asked for more time to learn about the wireless antenna application at the Oaks, was misidentified in the original version of this story. His name has been corrected. 

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  • Alina

    Thank you for covering this so to speak.  AT&T coverage on Solano and in North Berkeley in general is dismal, frustrating, embarrassing… Let’s hope this project isn’t delayed any further.
    On the plus side, as of a couple of days ago there’s AT&T reception in the Bart Berkeley tunnel.  Come on, Solano.  You can do it, too.

  • http://www.omnivorousfox.com/ Mfox327

    Your cell phone emits a larger amount of radiation trying to acquire a weak signal than it does if it has a strong signal. And your cell phone is located right next to you (most of the time). So basically, all of the crazies that have “health concerns” with the cell towers are actually hurting everyone more by preventing us from having stronger signals: http://news.cnet.com/8301-30686_3-20068419-266/cell-phone-radiation-a-self-defense-guide-faq/, and you can google for many more sources. It’s just a fact.

  • berkopinionator

    When will Verizon start providing service to its’ paying customers in the North Berkeley “dead zone”?

  • Berkeleyan

    The Oaks is a beautiful art deco Egyptian revival theatre on the inside.  Won’t someone restore it and open it up again?  There could be a deal with Andronico’s to use their parking lot after 8 pm.  It’d be GREAT!

  • http://foster-boondoggle.myopenid.com/ Foster Boondoggle

    Let the EMF fear-mongering begin!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/RECDFG624DO7FWRCCST25Y62PU Linda Brand

    It’s astounding that Berkeley is able to move quickly and decisively on this issue and Albany cannot.  I hope the signal extends
    down to lower Solano – hell will freeze over before Albany does anything about AT&T service.

  • Guest

    OMG! BREAK OUT THE TINFOIL HATS! WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!

    (Will that do? :-D )

  • sparroww

     Yep, we’re the kings of NIMBYism. We don’t want no stinking antennas, large store or anything else that will pollute our pure little town. We’re counting on you guys to deal with this stuff.

  • neocles

    OMG, I was just about write the same comment, but you beat me to it! When did the most radical naysayers migrate north of the border, anyway??

  • Iceland_1622

    Tells us all more.  I have been with AT&T going back there companies and *all* of the disaster services as well as police and fire are supposed to be on the same system, unless that has changed across time.  AT&T actually installed a new cell site that took years and endless delays @ Shattuck and Lincoln and now cell coverage in the Gourmet ghetto is full scale.  I was going to move over to Verizon as AT&T city wide is a full flaming nightmare even just a few short blocks from Shattuck Ave. and Cedar.  Would you believe zero bars at even 3 am.  

  • Peggy

    Berkeleyside, do you see all of the Albany commentors?  We followed Emilie – please know how lucky you are to have her writing for you. 

  • Iceland_1622

    I was and am stunned to read this article.  And the reason is thus.  Years ago I fought with AT&T internally for converge here ( on Solano ) and was told that it was on the way and was to be up over the Oaks theater.  One day the bars on the phone came up and I was able to make one long call long distance before……well…..you know….the infamous silent disconnect.  Then all went to hell and the signal strength never really came back up.  So was that all a hoax and this project was never ever installed years ago?  I thought when the theater closed that the cell site ( not a tower BTW. ) was somehow deactivated.  Solano Ave is a full and compete dead-zone even for 911 calls.  Forget it.

      Worse walk over to Hopkins at say Carlotta even at 1 am. and you will have zero bars.  That entire area also is a full AT&T dead zone.  Even 911 calls cannot be understood.  My primitive understanding and intuition tell me that it will take at least 3 ~ 6 years of hard work to get Berkeley’s AT&T coverage anywhere near up to ‘scale’ with demand as even if you have a site with 17 user plates or collectors, you will be knocked off their system if call # 18 requests the system, that with the storied iPhone bandwidth demand and drain.  Total trash, this AT&T as well as other cell carriers as they all went for the $$ first and customer third.  They all sold too many tickets to the train and now we are all paying the price.  Just refuse to pay your bill for month on end until they fix the system and then request a reduced rate plan or have your phone set to ‘sleep’ or inactive until they catch up.  It is not like this in say Napa county as per the lowered system stress, population and demand.  I have no ( as in none ) answers for this problem locally.  I use my wire line phone portable at home even with an AT&T micro-cell site ( VOIP ) as it also is buggy, noisy and people cannot understand me even with 6 bars and it’s toast after 40 feet or less.

  • http://twitter.com/captfuzzbucket CaptFuzz

    First world problems…

  • Frances Dinkelspiel

    We know how lucky we are to have Emilie! We followed her work on Albany Patch and always thought she was a tremendous community asset. We are so happy she has joined us here on Berkeleyside. We appreciate, too, that many of her admirers are now reading her work here. Thank you so much,

  • NIck Taylor

     We finally had to switch to Verizon and pay an early termination fee to AT&T so we could get better coverage with the competition. It was pitiful, even with an M-Cell in the house, we could only get one half bar, and more than half the incoming or outgoing calls would drop. Around the neighborhood, it was worse. I don’t really fault AT&T though, they’ve been trying for years to fix it, to no avail. Couldn’t get past a small minority of neighbors right near the theater. With Verizon, in Thousand Oaks, we get 3 bars consistently and no dropped calls. I don’t know why it’s such Swiss cheese reception, but it seems the naysayers have had their way for awhile. Well, time marches on! Are we marching with it?

  • Jane Tierney

    I believe John Gordon, the owner, would like to make a theater that serves beer and wine, for which he now has a permit. I heard this through local officials, and if anyone has any other information, please do share.

  • 3rdGenBerkeleyan

     That would be awesome!

  • iicisco

    Where is this dead zone you speak of? I live in North Berkeley and if anything my cell service (vzw) is excellent in N. Berkeley and in the downtown and south area. Then again I have a signal booster installed, that captures the radiation not being used efficiently by my device and redirects it through the antenna installed but even without it I usually have about 4 bars. 

    I have to say I feel sorry for several of the at&t customers. The service is slow and spotty in the downtown area. You get what you pay for. Sincerely a former At&t, T-Mobile, & Sprint customer! Just switch to Verizon already.

  • emraguso

    I would love to be able to do stories regularly that would be of interest to Albany and Berkeley residents alike… You know where to find me. :) 

  • P_springer

    I don’t know where the source of information about the antennas comes from.  I make no such comments as cited in the article.  George Springer

  • emraguso

    I will follow up by email. 

  • emraguso

    My apologies — I have followed up with George and, after additional research, discovered it was actually Kevin Sutton who made the comments in the article above. I will correct the story and make a note of the correction. Many thanks to George for letting me know about this! 

  • emraguso

    Just noticed on the city’s website that this appears to be scheduled for an appeal before the City Council in March 2013.