The Royan Hotel on the corner of 15th and Valencia streets offers formidable views, but the tenants with the best view are 11 wireless antennas hidden away in the penthouse – a solution to placate the aesthetic objections that can make city approval far more unlikely.
Three more panel antennas could join them on the penthouse roof if the Planning Commission approves a T-Mobile proposal. It’s unclear what will happen, but the debate at the Planning Commission on Thursday is one that will be repeated hundreds of times over the next five years in San Francisco and thousands of times across the country as wireless carriers vie to expand. Each antenna represents another victory in a market worth $160 billion as of Dec. 2010, according to the CTIA Wireless Association.
Major carriers already have at least 3,325 wireless antennas in San Francisco including about 192 spread out across 32 sites in the Mission. In a battle full of contradictions, some 294 new cell phone antenna sites are planned for the city over the next five years, 13 of which are in the Mission.
Although fear of the health risks can delay a project that will ultimately fail to convince officials to deny a permit because the waves emitted from the antennas are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission and meet the agency’s standards. Cities can only deny a permit on aesthetic grounds or if the provider already has ample coverage in the area.
“That’s the only hook that municipalities have,” said Diego Sanchez, a staff planner with the city, referring to the basis for regulating wireless antennas. “I have not seen too compelling arguments over aesthetic use.”
And in most cases – as was true of the delay in the Royan panels, it’s health that residents object to most.
Abe, a cashier at the E & M Market next to the Royan Hotel, is typical of the reaction of many.
“They want to kill us, huh? If it’s bad for me, I don’t want it.”
On the other side is the reaction of residents like Todd Lappin, the editor of the Bernalwood blog who lives in nearby Bernal. Campaigns to stop the installation of additional wireless antennas are based on a fear and a lack of understanding of the science involved, he said.
“We don’t have enough antennas,” Lappin said. “There are a lot of people consuming a lot of data with not enough antennas.”
Studies to date show no conclusive short term – or long term-health risks, but opponents say there’s simply not enough data. Moreover, in some cases, companies are getting close to exceeding the limits on emission at the rooftop where the panels stand.
For the property owners including public buildings and private owners, the argument is economic. Take Bharat Bhakta, the Royan’s owner. Already, he makes $700 a month from T-Mobile to store remote radio cabinets in the hotel basement. He’ll receive double that amount should the antennas be approved.
“Just like if you have a vacant store, if someone asks you to rent it you won’t refuse the empty space,” he said with a heavy accent. “There’s extra income in it. Anyone would do it. It’s not going to harm anyone.”
And others, said, it complies with the aesthetic and need requirements.
The three proposed wireless antennas at the Royan will be disguised as chimneys on the penthouse roof to blend into the urban landscape. And T-Mobile needs to expand to meet increased demand by mobile users, particularly for data, and to fill gaps in service, said Rod De La Rosa, a T-Mobile External Affairs official.
The company, which is attempting to merge with AT&T, has 29 antennas spread across eight sites in the Mission, and has plans to establish three additional sites over the next five years.
“We know what people want is to use their phones everywhere,” he said. “That’s the expectation.”
Still, T-Mobile radio frequency engineers spoke with Royan residents in May and July about the impact of adding three more antennas. It’s unclear whether tenants were satisfied.
Pratibha Tekkey, Lead Organizer at The Central City SRO Collaborative, said the tenants will meet today to discuss their stance on the proposal before Thursday’s Planning Commission meeting.
A report submitted to the city by T-Mobile stated that radio frequency levels at ground level at the Royan would be less than one percent of the ceiling established by the FCC.
However, the engineer hired by T-mobile to draft the report to the city, pointed out that the roof-based antennas, which currently emit less than 64 percent of the ceiling, will reach the FCC limit within a 17-foot sphere of the antennas after T-Mobile installs the proposed antennas. Although that area will not impact any publicly accessible areas, warning signs must be placed at roof access points and workers will not be able to go within five feet of the antenna, according to a report by the Department of Public Health.
Such developments – where more antennas can get close to exceeding the limits in certain areas – and the lack of long term studies on radio frequency exposure make some Mission residents leery. Moreover, they’re not alone. Burlingame recently approved a moratorium on new cell phone towers.
“If someone came by and asked me to sign a petition to not have (proposed antennas) there,” said Jennifer D’Angelo, “I would sign it.”
D’Angelo, 35, who owns Nooworks across the street from the hotel, said that health concerns already prompted her to fight last summer against the installation of wireless antennas near her home in the Western Addition.
“I have questions, because I’m not aware what it’s going to do to me,” added Lindsey Rios, 27, a server at Little Star Pizza across the street from the hotel. “I’ve wondered if it was harmful.”
It’s also what keeps the opposition going.
Doug Loranger, founder of San Francisco Neighborhood Antenna-Free Union, wrote in an email that Missionites have successfully stopped wireless antenna installations at St. Matthew’s Church, on 24th St. and Harrison, at the PG&E substation, and at Safeway in the Outer Mission. In some of victories residents showed that the wireless carriers already had sufficient coverage in those area.
“The major wireless carriers…engage in a certain amount of speculative business practices,” Loranger wrote. “In such instances, the Planning Commission is under no obligation to grant a permit for new antennas.”