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Tower of trouble: city makes a bad call

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On a list of City Hall's recent decisions, allowing a 100-foot cellular-phone tower to be built in Ravenswood would have to rank near the bottom in terms of controversy.

It's not as potentially scary as some of the other projects the city has sanctioned in the last six months--say, building a school on a lot that might be soaked with toxins, or paving over a floodplain for some condominiums, or dumping tons of concrete behind the city's biggest high school.

But in giving the construction go-ahead on a Cellular One transmission tower at the corner of Ravenswood and Rosehill, city officials have once again managed to aggravate constituents.

"The city made no attempt to consult us in any way," says Jane Whicher, a member of West Edgewater Area Residents, a community group in the area. "It was just one day the tower was going up."

City Hall has known about the tower since November, when Cellular One requested a construction permit from the Department of Buildings. The proposed site was next to the commuter train tracks just east of the entrance to Rosehill Cemetery, whose intricately crafted gates are historical landmarks. The buildings department notified the Commission on Chicago Landmarks of the proposal, and one of Cellular One's lawyers wrote the landmarks commission informing them that they had no grounds to block the tower since it was being erected outside the cemetery.

The buildings department also notified the local alderman, Patrick O'Connor, as part of the monthly computer printout it sends him of all permit requests in the 40th Ward. O'Connor did not respond. Landmarks raised no objections. The tower seemed to conform with all zoning requirements. And so the permit was granted. Construction began in March.

"The first thing that went up was a small cinder-block building just east of the viaduct," says Whicher. "There was no sign or posted permit to indicate what it was for. And then one day a resident asked a construction worker what was coming, and he said the small building was related to a radio tower."

In late March or early April, residents saw the tower itself go up. They were outraged. To them it was an ugly intrusion on the cemetery's architectural purity. On top of that it was an affront that the city would allow a private company to erect a monstrosity like that without one word of warning.

"Imagine what would happen if they put this tower on Michigan Avenue next to the Water Tower," says Dennis Rattinger, president of WEAR. "It would never have gotten off the ground. And if it did, the city would have taken it down and heads would roll. What are we--orphans?"

City officials gently suggest that this section of Ravenswood Avenue, once an industrial corridor, is different than Michigan Avenue. The tower is across the street from a Commonwealth Edison substation and down the road from a vacant factory. And although the area is heavily residential, there are no houses within half a block in either direction of the tower. City officials admit that the public should have been notified, but their general attitude seems to be that if the city allowed too much participatory democracy nothing would ever get built.

Such arguments hardly assuage Ravenswood residents. "The reason you have public input is to see whether there's a more appropriate site in a neighborhood," says Rattinger. "You can't just trample over a neighborhood. They still haven't posted a permit on that site saying what's going to be built. How do we know they even have a legitimate permit? And that bit about the landmarks commission really bugs me. Who the hell is Cellular One to tell the landmarks commission what their rights are? And why the hell didn't landmarks stand up for its rights?"

On April 6 Cellular One sent lawyer Robert Pugliese to meet with residents. They told him that because the tower isn't enclosed by a fence, it's a danger to children, who might be tempted to climb it. They also registered concern about the potential health hazards of radio transmissions.

"Pugliese was civil, but he had no information and he didn't have the authority to make any commitments," says Whicher. "Because the company sent him instead of someone with knowledge and authority they delayed our ability to have a say in any of this."

On April 7 Whicher called a high-ranking lawyer she knows who works for the corporation counsel. "We could only talk briefly," says Whicher. "We made arrangements to talk again on Friday the eighth."

But Friday came and went and the lawyer did not call. "I called him on the 11th, 12th, 13th, and 14th of April," she says. "I left messages with him on his voice mail and with his secretary." It became clear that the lawyer wasn't going to return her calls, generally a bureaucrat's way of admitting powerlessness or indicating an irreversible decision has been made.

"I wanted to understand what legal issues the city had reviewed," says Whicher, who also happens to be a lawyer, for the ACLU. "I wanted to know whether there were any theories about the legality of the permit, whether all zoning and landmark issues were resolved. We still don't have any answers to these questions."

On April 14 about 60 residents met with Alderman O'Connor to hear his side of the story. He said that neither Cellular One nor the buildings department had properly notified him of their plans. Had he known the tower was coming, O'Connor assured residents, he would have stood tall on their behalf. Now that Cellular's permit was legal, "the best he could do would be to get someone in the buildings department fired, which really wouldn't help us at all," says Joe Hoy, another member of WEAR.

O'Connor also told residents that he had good connections with former corporation counsel Kelly Welsh, now a high-ranking Ameritech official. "He said at least three times that he was going to call this guy he knew with Ameritech," says Hoy. Which is when the residents realized that their alderman, the last bastion of hope against unwanted development, didn't even know who was behind the tower. "Someone corrected him. They said, "Not Ameritech, you mean Cellular One,"' says Rattinger. "Can you believe it? This guy was going to ask his friend at Ameritech for help in dealing with Cellular One."

O'Connor would not comment, but one of his assistants, Don Hohenadel, said the alderman recently met with Cellular One officials. "They said that they had too much invested in the site to move the facility," says Hohenadel.

Buildings department officials say they are willing to take the blame. "We sent [O'Connor] a list of addresses where permits have been applied for, but we didn't have this one marked in yellow," says Chris Lynch, the department's public information officer. "We didn't say, "Hey, look, this is a tower.' You really can't fault the alderman. The bureaucracy was to blame."

Pugliese also apologizes for not notifying O'Connor. "We did not sit down with the alderman and notify him in advance, as is our policy. This slipped through the cracks."

Hohenadel and Lynch doubt there's much O'Connor could have done to block the tower even if he had known about it. "If they don't need a zoning change, there's not much we can do," says Hohenadel.

Pugliese dismisses the tower's impact on the community. "It doesn't provide more traffic," he says. "There's no health hazard. This is a facility more and more people come to need--it offers phone assistance for additional security for people who are traveling. I know nobody likes to see the towers, but they provide a necessary function in a modern society."

Rattinger and other opponents, however, point out that last year Wilmette residents successfully rallied to prevent a similar tower from being erected. Members of WEAR hope to put enough political pressure on O'Connor to make him ask Mayor Daley to go to court to have the tower removed--a long shot.

"There's a warning here for other neighborhoods," says Rattinger. "This is what happens when your city officials aren't paying attention and your guard is down."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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