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Column: 'It's Time to Erase Albany's Cell Tower Color Line'

Albany Patch welcomes guest columns and letters to the editor via email at albany@patch.com. Click the "Keep me posted" button below this story for an email alert when we post about cell coverage in town.

At the most recent City Council meeting, the at 1035 San Pablo Ave. As an alternative, the council indulged in some vague discussion of another site at the .

In my allotted three minutes at the microphone, I urged the City Council not to follow a policy of pushing cell towers further west into “the colored folk's neighborhood.” While that sounds like harsh language, I meant exactly what I said, and I’ve created a map to show you why I said it. The map is attached here.

I started with the official zoning map of Albany, which you can download from the city’s website. I converted it to B&W and lightened it in Photoshop, and then added my own shading. The white areas on my map are single family residential neighborhoods. The brown areas are all the other denser residential neighborhoods. 

According to the census data, also available on the city’s website, the white areas on my map are disproportionately of white ethnicity, while the brown areas are the neighborhoods in Albany that are disproportionately non-white. According to U.S. Census data, the higher-density neighborhoods also tend to be lower-income. 

The purple areas are the areas where cell base stations are allowed under Albany’s current cell ordinance. These include the San Pablo Commercial Area and the CMX commercial mixed use zones. The Solano commercial area is a little more complicated. Especially on its western end, it contains several apartment buildings and has similar demographics to the denser lower-income neighborhoods on the other side of San Pablo Ave.

The red dots are existing cell base stations (there are 10), and the three green dots are recently proposed cell base stations, including the site at 1035 San Pablo opposite . The 1035 site was the one was voted down in City Council by a 3-2 vote, with council members Atkinson, Lieber and Wile voting against the AT&T proposal.

The cell tower issue has brought back something I thought I would never see again in Albany—the color line. When it comes to cell tower location, there is a distinct color line. All of the existing towers (except one cluster of three red dots) and all of the proposed sites (the green dots) are west of the San Pablo corridor.

Meanwhile, the east side of town is remarkably free of cell towers. That’s no accident. According to the advocates of Albany’s existing cell ordinance, which was championed by Lieber and whose members apparently include Atkinson and Wile, Albany’s relatively affluent white homeowners should be spared the indignity of living near cell towers. Cell towers , down in the colored folk's neighborhood.

Part of what drives this bigotry is sheer scientific ignorance. Many people in Albany mistakenly believe that living near a cell tower will cause cancer. There is no credible scientific evidence for this belief. There is much better evidence that using a cell phone too far from a tower is a bad idea. Public health experts suspect rural people suffer higher risks of tumors of the brain, ear and salivary glands from using cell phones far from towers. The further you are away from a cell tower, the more energy your phone has to put out to communicate with the tower. Much of that extra energy is absorbed by your head at much higher levels than the relatively weak signals from either cell towers or broadcast towers (AM, FM, digital TV, etc).

But all this is lost on council members Atkinson, Lieber and Wile. Although they have been charged with making decisions on cell tower technology in Albany, they seem willfully ignorant of the most basic fundamentals of how it works. A cell site at USDA is a bad idea. It’s really not hard to understand why.

Cell towers and cell phones communicate along a line of sight. The signals can be blocked by buildings and trees. For good connections, the towers and phones need to “see” each other, or at least be blocked by as few buildings and trees as possible. It is helpful for towers to be slightly elevated above the local terrain, so they can beam their signals at the horizon.

The problem comes when cell towers are at lower altitudes than the phones they are communicating with. For example, the USDA labs are about 20 feet above sea level. The eastern side of Albany is between 100 to 200 feet above sea level. If a tower has to shoot signals uphill, the signals are blocked by every house, tree and terrain change in between them.

If cell towers must be located on low-lying land, one solution is to put them on tall buildings or tall towers (or both). We could put a tall cell tower on a tall USDA building, and some powerful amplifiers and blast the signal clear across town, over the playing fields and over University Village.

That would be an ugly solution both technically and aesthetically, but at least the cell tower NIMBYs in the east side of town wouldn’t have to be near one. But what about the residents of the western part of town, especially those in University Village? Oh, I forgot. The people in University Village talk with funny accents and have skin darker than ours. They don’t count. They live in the colored folk's neighborhood.

I’m a white male. I’m not exactly affluent, but I live in the far eastern part of town. Before that I lived in University Village. When I spoke to the City Council a few days ago, the word I used to describe the current situation was “revolting.”

By any measure of justice or fairness, we need to move cell towers further east in this town. This would also be better from a technical standpoint, because towers further east would be at higher altitudes and could be less intrusive. Cell phones and cell towers operate more safely and with less power when they are closer together. I would love to have a cell tower in my neighborhood.

This is not pie-in-the-sky. We have an obvious model of how well this could work, right here in Albany. sits in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Albany. The campus hosts three cell providers, Sprint, Metro PCS and T-Mobile. These sites were grandfathered in because they existed before Albany’s 2005 cell ordinance banned cell towers in residential neighborhoods. 

If the City Council had approved the 1035 San Pablo site for AT&T, and if we could duplicate the success at Albany’s private high school at Albany’s public high school (although with a different mix of providers), we would be a long way to solving our cell phone coverage problem. Albany’s public high school would also earn about $100,000 in rent annually from cell providers, as does Saint Mary’s. 

Of course, such a solution would take a few more City Council members with the common sense and problem-solving skills of council members Javandel and Thomsen. When it comes to common sense, Atkinson, Lieber and Wile’s skills leave something to be desired. Or perhaps they are driven by other motivations and irrational fears. Perhaps we should ask them. 

Good cell phone reception is an important issue in its own right. Good cell reception means a safer city, especially for our most vulnerable citizens. Blind and other disabled citizens have been pleading for years with the council to improve cell reception.

But, in addition to those considerations, there are issues of justice and fair play. Albany’s cell tower debates have revealed an ugly undercurrent to our NIMBY-driven politics. It’s time to erase Albany’s cell tower color line.

Click the "Keep me posted" button below this story for updates on cell phone issues in Albany. Read more on Albany Patch about the AT&T application here.

Read more about mobile phone issues in Albany

If there's something in this article you think , or if something else is amiss, call editor Emilie Raguso at 510-459-8325 or email her at albany@patch.com.

Ulan McKnight July 20, 2012 at 05:33 PM
I remember when we moved out of the Village to a "good" neighborhood. All my friends lived in "the flats" and wondered if we would change as a family now that we were, like the Jefferson's, "Movin' On Up.". But it was, and still is as far as I can tell, an economic line, not a 'color line'. People from the 'outside' are not always welcomed. Barnes makes this point about out of district students. But I still believe, welcomed or not, that Albany did not have a strict 'color line'. Albany certainly did have some very conservative residents, many of which did not want people of color around. I knew plenty growing up who lived within blocks of me. But they did not have the power to stop my family from living in Albany. And to a large degree, they were civil. It is one reason civility is so important to me and why I always try to be respectful while making comments here on The Patch.
Michael Barnes July 20, 2012 at 06:35 PM
Ulan, you have an annoying habit of making ill-informed, technically incorrect statements, and then allowing someone like David Sanger or myself correct you. This is a way of having other people do you homework for you. There is plenty of existing information on these topics on the Patch and Wikipedia, which you can review yourself. If you want to be participate in this conversation, please, please try to get yourself up to speed on it.
Michael Barnes July 20, 2012 at 06:47 PM
Folks, I want to provide some more background for you. The issues I discussed in my op-ed echo those from a similar debate in Berkeley, the great 2007 UC Storage cell tower debate. The first link below has a map that looks oddly similar to the one I drew, except that the err, dividing line, University Ave. runs east-west, not north-south like San Pablo Ave. Can we all take it as a given that there are ethic and income differences between north and south Berkeley? What angered people near UC Storage was that many neighbors felt that south Berkeley had more than its fair share of towers, and the antennas on UC Storage would be used to blast signal towards north Berkeley and the Berkeley hills. I don't agree much with the author but this quote is telling: "North Berkeley Hills and Claremont Hotel had received less than excellent ratings due either to no service available or dropped calls. Why don’t the suffering Berkeley Hills residents get together and demand that at least a few antenna towers be placed in their neighborhoods?" http://www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2007-02-09/article/26306?headline=Commentary-We-Can-Make-a-Difference--By-Michael-Barglow (more below)
Michael Barnes July 20, 2012 at 06:49 PM
(from above) You may also find that this op-ed, also from the Berkeley Daily Planet, raises familiar issues. In particular note this paragraph: "Moreover, even those expert critics who warn us about the risks of cell phone technology concentrate their attention on the use of the phones themselves, not on the towers that broadcast to them. Louis Slesin, for example, a scientist who is perhaps the most well-known American doubter of cell phone safety, told me that he’s not very concerned about the towers, since even a small distance between a tower and a user greatly attenuates the signal strength. And ironically, if cell phone towers are more widely distributed in a community, then users of this technology will need phones emitting less powerful radiation to communicate with those towers, thereby reducing their risk." http://www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2010-04-20/article/35079?headline=Cell-Phone-Towers-Should-We-Fear-Them---By-Raymond-Barglow-a-href-mailto-www.berkeleytutors.net-www.berkeleytutors.net-a-
Caryl O'Keefe July 20, 2012 at 06:54 PM
I really appreciate the politeness of these posts. A point that bears repeating, because it is primary and allows more objectivity, is the track record of Albany's wireless ordinance.The track record shows this ordinance is seriously broken. No new facility despite need and application, a lawsuit and another one possible, a lot of time wasted by City bodies and City staff who don't have time to waste, poor cell coverage for many, health risks from cell phones not getting good signal, local businesses losing customers who can't get service in Albany, rationality replaced by FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt). Fortunately our ordinance did not come down from the mount on graven tablets,or even from Sacramento. Council enacted it and Council can, and should, replace it with something that focuses on getting everyone in Albany good wireless coverage, federal safety requirements and aesthetic design - promptly. Other cities have ordinances that work, we can adapt one of those. Yes some folks will find a wireless facility closer than they wish, but ditto busy streets, ugly landline phone poles, noisy playgrounds, etc. Worth the greater public benefits.
Damon Lisch July 20, 2012 at 07:02 PM
I guess it really all boils down to whether or not you believe that cell towers represent a heath threat or not. If not, then all of this really is waste of time, since it won't cost us anything to have one installed, and we'll get better cell phone reception. If they are a threat to our health, then maybe we should just abandon cell phone technology altogether, or at the very least make sure that cell towers are as far as possible from people. Since I don't think there is any credible evidence that cell phones, or cell towers represent a threat, I favor letting AT&T go ahead and put one up (and yes, near my house is fine, since I already have three non-AT&T towers a block away). My concern is that there is an endless number of fears and concerns that one can have if one is willing to abandon scientific consensus. I'm sure I could make up ten of them off the cuff that some study somewhere suggests I should be afraid of, and that would include any number of "natural" supplements that many of us are so fond of. My worry is that if we respond to every fear that every one of us has we will end up being utterly paralyzed. I"m not questioning anyones motives here, but I think at some point we have to collectively decide that some dangers simply aren't real and move on.
David Sanger July 20, 2012 at 07:08 PM
Ulan, since you are running for City Council, here are some questions for you: - what do you see as the role of City Council? - what do you see as the role of the Planning and Zoning Commission? - how do you see the relation between the City and State and Federal laws and regulations? - how do you ascern "the will of the people"? How do you work to reconcile differences of opinion? - do you intend to represent all Albany residents, or just some? and with respect to wireless , are you familiar with the relevant Federal and State laws? Do you think the Albany wireless ordinance adequately protects Albany residents against RF emissions?
Michael Barnes July 20, 2012 at 07:10 PM
Thanks to Peggy for suggesting a more appropriate colloquial expression--"wrong side of the tracks." I could have also used "poor side of town," which I recall is the title of a great Johnny Rivers song from the 60's. But I chose "color line" since I illustrated by point by using colors on a map. I respond to David Sanger's criticism (I respect him a lot) by stating that I am just concerned about cell towers, but about the larger issues of NIMBYism and political power in Albany. I do believe race and class are correlated geographically in Albany (and in Berkeley), and that both are correlated with cell tower location. If racism is too harsh a word for you, pick another one you like better. As for the existence of a color/class line in Albany, I have a hard time believing one didn't exist in the 40s and 50s, since I have listened to stories of older Asian-American vets (and their activist lawyer children) who returned from WWII and found that their war hero status and FHA loans didn't go very far in many neighborhoods in Berkeley. It could not have been any easier for WWII African-American vets looking four homes in the 40s in Albany. I'll try to put my money where my mouth is on this one. The obvious source would be the 1950s U.S. Census. The Census Bureau is putting older data online, I'll take a look and see what I can find.
montymarket July 20, 2012 at 07:14 PM
The John Birch Society used to be very active in Albany not so long ago, with a bookstore and then a flower shop on the 4-corners (San Pablo and Solano). A former neighbor once asked me why the police were always following her car around town (ie, running her plates to look for outstanding warrants, etc). I didn't have the heart to tell her it was driving while Black. She's moved since then, and times have changed -- in the police blotter one doesn't see the tell-tale "minor traffic stop -- outstanding warrants" so much anymore. Ulan. Thanks for plunging ahead despite the warning from the Patch that they'd be watching you in the future (as a possible candidate for City Council). I didn't understand Barnes's original premise that NOT putting a cell phone tower down in the flats (where I live) amongst the downtrodden is somehow worse than actually putting a cell phone tower in the flats. Nobody's talking about a cell tower up on Peralta, for example.
Ulan McKnight July 20, 2012 at 07:44 PM
I am not officially running for City Council. I am exploring the option. I will gladly let you know what I decide :) I do not want this thread to become a clearinghouse for me to respond to everything. I simply wanted to weigh in on Michael's assertion that Albany had a racial 'color line'. I don't think it ever did.  Is racism alive and well in Albany. I think so. Does Council's vote to deny AT&T's application exemplify and perpetuate racism? Nope. Does AT&T have legal options to place cell towers in Albany that it has chosen to ignore? Yes. Should Ciuncil ignore its own laws and harm Albany residents to help AT&T make as much money as they can? Nope. Doing this for UC is bad enough.  At some point, it would be nice if Council put the interests of Albany in front of Big Business. I am glad they did with AT&T. I wish they had with Whole Foods and Belmont Village. 
Ulan McKnight July 20, 2012 at 08:04 PM
Well NOW I think we are having a real discussion. Woot :) I agree with you about the wrong side of the tracks. I also agree with your charge of environmental/economic racism. It is part of our history and I believe it is active today. Yes! One need look no further than last years elementary school equity discussions.  That being said, I would love for some more history of housing in Albany. My parents moved out of UC Village and bought a house in Albany in 1970. My mom is a Swedish national who taught at UC and my Father is an African-American Navy vet who took part of the Cuba nuclear blockade. They used his proceeds from the GI Bill to both purchase the house and provide for his continuing education in mortuary science.  Their realtor explained that Albany was unique in the realtor world. A few local realtors had decided they were not going to participate in the current tradition of segregating housing sales. They went out of their way to ensure that at least one black family lived on every block. 
Ulan McKnight July 20, 2012 at 08:05 PM
I would very much enjoy more information in this. I remember it made a BIG difference to me growing up as I knew many of these families of color and always felt safe walking in Albany because of it. Even when confronted, as I too often was, with racism in my own town, I always felt I knew a nearby 'safe haven' should the need arise.  This may sound crazy to some, but rest assured, there were large swaths of El Cerrito and Berkeley that were 'No Go' zones for children of color in the 70's. Albany was always considered safe (as long as you avoided the police.)
Ulan McKnight July 20, 2012 at 08:19 PM
I stand corrected. I am sorry I annoyed you. I stayed up past 3am last night trying to find information on this. Funny, I never tried Wikipedia.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Albany,_California I don't see any information here. If you have a better link, I would like to see it. I think you are technically wrong about a bunch of things. I enjoy explaining why and am not upset when I do 'your homework' for you. I go to different places than you and find different facts. It is all part of the dialog. Case in point, Albany has more cell sites per capita than El Cerrito or Berkeley. Someone stated that AT&T needed a tower to provide service. I could go on but suffice to say that anyone making an argument will be wrong about some things. I try to own my mistakes.  Again, I do not mean to be annoying and apologize for my ignorance. 
Michael Barnes July 20, 2012 at 08:48 PM
Ulan, There is that big think paperback that was self-published about 15 years ago on the history of University Village. I have a copy somewhere. I can't think of the title now, but I'll look for it. Have you seen it? It's pretty good background.
Michael Barnes July 20, 2012 at 08:55 PM
Bill, let me make this simple for you. For both technical and ethical reasons, cell base stations should be low-powered and should serve the needs of the nieghborhood where they are located. This is not the case in Albany. Currently, cell base stations located further west beam signal further east into neighborhoods that are more affluent. Same goes for Berkeley, but there the towers are in the low-income neighborhoods to the south and beam signal to more affluent neighborhoods to the north. If a neighborhood needs better reception, it should get it--by hosting a tower in their neighborhood if necessary. I am not in favor of beaming signals around Albany at the whim of politically-connected NIMBYs.
Ross Stapleton-Gray July 20, 2012 at 09:07 PM
"The John Birch Society used to be very active in Albany not so long ago..." How long ago was "not so long?" I've been here for more than a decade now, and Albany has never felt like Bircher territory.
Peggy McQuaid July 20, 2012 at 09:11 PM
Michael, the book you mentioned above is A Selective History of the Codornices University Village, the City of Albany and Environs b Warren and Catherine Lee. Very interesting reading
Michael Barnes July 20, 2012 at 09:12 PM
Ulan, you are working way too hard to pigeon hole what is really a practical problem into preconceived ideological boxes. The primary issue is that regular folks in Albany just want their cell phones to work. People who are blind or in wheelchairs REALLY need their cell phones to work. Elderly folks rely on them as well. You can't get cell phone coverage from your local mom-and-pop store. I'm fine with shopping locally. I buy my food at the corner market with occasional trips to Costco. I don't even shop at Trader Joe's, and I doubt if I'll shop at the new Whole Foods. I recently switched my home phone/DSL service from AT&T to sonic.net, a Santa Rosa company that is expanding south. David Sanger says he has been using them for years. I highly recommend them--good service, good price, and they are as local as you can get for phone/DSL. But there are no local options for cell phone providers. They are all national corporations. The gasoline we all put in our cars is manufactured by big corporations, too. There isn't much getting around that fact. What I resent is council members like Lieber who fancy themselves as some sort of new age anti-corporate, anti-cell phone mullahs who put their personal ideological beliefs above the common good of the citizens of Albany who just want their cell phones to work.
Winifred Owen July 20, 2012 at 09:56 PM
It was a loooong time ago. I've lived here for 43 years. Even when they (JBS) WERE here, I wouldn't call them any major influence. They had a bookstore, but that's been defunct for a VERY long time, and a local dentist was a vocal member, largely consisting of his writing letters to the editor of a couple local newspapers. Other than that, it was practically invisible. It certainly was never any noticeable force. For the most part, Albany has been a diverse and accepting town, without going to the silly extremes of Berkeley (which actually is not all that "tolerant" in the true sense of the word). And, by the way, I am a Berkeley native. I moved here specifically because I wanted my kids in a "best of both worlds" setting: Good education that was diverse (including kids from all over the world, courtesy of the UC Village kids going to Albany schools), yet in a comparatively safe, small-town setting with a reasonably sophisticated, overall well-educated population. That is why I picked Albany over some of the outlying suburbs.
Michael Barnes July 20, 2012 at 10:08 PM
BTW, I know that assessment of Lieber sounds harsh, but I'll work on getting the relevant city council video posted here.
Winifred Owen July 20, 2012 at 10:31 PM
Not to worry, Michael. When I read it shortly after it was posted, I thought that was just about the best description of Lieber I'd ever seen. You nailed it.
Ulan McKnight July 20, 2012 at 11:25 PM
I have recommended Sonic.net to clients for at least 5 years. I have used them at my Solano office and for two employees. Their Fusion product is quite nice. Their customer service is stellar.  As for the City Council make-up, Lieber is out in November. I encourage you to consider running as you are well versed and care deeply for local issues. I am sure your views would be welcomed.
Michael Barnes July 21, 2012 at 01:04 AM
Here is the first of two Lieber clips: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KzWL73D1Fpk
Kathryn Javandel July 22, 2012 at 04:59 AM
It is generous of you to offer to count Farid as "white" but I doubt Farid would be willing to give up the rich tapestry of his Persian ancestry. I know for a fact that he declined to change his name to Frank to avoid racial animosity against Persian and Middle Eastern people while running for office after 9/11, as was helpfully suggested by a well-intentioned supporter. It was Farid's idea that both of our sons have English first names, Persian middle names and, of course, the Persian last name of Javandel - reflecting their combined heritage. Historically, neither Farid nor Mahatma Gandhi would have been considered "white" with regard to racial discrimination laws against colored people. As reported in the West Contra Costa County Times (which lists the birthplaces of candidates running for office but only if they were born outside the United States) he was born in a country located in the Asian continent although Persians are generally not included in the Asian ethnic minority. Farid is "white" on his mother's side but he looks more like his "colored" Persian father. Kind of like how President Obama might be considered to look "colored" like his African father even if you offered to call him "white" due to being born to a white mother.
Michael Barnes July 22, 2012 at 07:54 AM
Kathryn, Generous doesn't quite fit the concept. But this is really interesting, thanks. It's the kind of stuff I wish I'd had the nerve to ask Farid, but I've never found quite the right moment. He doesn't seem like a Frank. Of course, racial identity of mix-race folks is a big topic these days, since we are producing so many of them. My son Max looks and identifies as Asian, even though he is hapa (short for the Japanese-Hawaiian slang term Hapa-Haole, or half-white). This had led to many humorous moments, like when Max was on the swim team in high school and his Asian-American buddies would drop him at home. If I came to the door while he was getting out of the car, I'd inevitably get that confused look from his friends, as though they'd pulled up in front of the wrong house. Next came the look of dawning recognition when they remembered Max was hapa and therefore that white guy at the door was probably his father. I was surprised when I back east in grad school that you could still tell the Irish-American and Italian-American students apart. I suspect it hasn't been that long since, at least in certain NYC neighborhoods, that if you had an Italian father and an Irish mother, you would have been consider mixed race. Having cut my teeth on Greek classics like Herodotus in college, it always cracks me up when U.S. reporters refer to Persians as Arabs. Notable exception, The Daily Show, which did some hilarious, if poignant, episodes about visiting Iran.
Michael Barnes July 22, 2012 at 05:23 PM
Kathryn, Sorry, I forget to mention this earlier, but here is how to find the high-res pdf P&Z map. You can zoom down all the way to house number, it's a great map: http://www.albanyca.org/index.aspx?page=26 Planning & Zoning » Important Planning & Zoning Documents
Michael Barnes July 25, 2012 at 05:12 AM
Council member Lieber didn't have a cell phone when he was a kid, and your kid doesn't need one either: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EHvz1eFj7rc Lieber says four years is nothing, we often waste even more time that that, and I appear to be proud of it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Acji5PxNmUw There is much that can said about the rest of the video, but that would be a long rejoinder.
Ross Stapleton-Gray July 29, 2012 at 01:09 AM
I suppose things could be worse with cell towers: http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Phallic-cell-tower-gets-a-makeover-3741742.php
Emilie Raguso August 03, 2012 at 07:54 PM
An update on Albany's color line, via Michael Barnes: http://albany.patch.com/articles/column-the-lost-tribe-of-albany
Make It Right September 02, 2012 at 01:32 AM
Michael- I am with you on cell towers and 5 years being long enough to drag UC through the permit process for a grocery store. Can't understand why staff didn't finesse them into adding solar and bike lanes so Arkin, Nick Pilch and Preston Jordan wouldn't sue to stop the project. Also if Beth Pollard had served to represent the city well she would have got the the corner Gill Tract fields protected as open space. We had leverage we will never have again. So get ready for Occupy the Farm Round two when UC proposes their ultimate final development. If Farhid and Peggy Thompson had been stronger on standing up to the University it could have been done.

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