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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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...