Former KLOS radio personality Gayl Murphy almost tossed the generic white envelope she assumed was junk mail. Then she noticed the familiar map of her street, drawn out by the little-known L.A. Central Area Planning Commission, and realized her fight wasn’t over yet. AT&T was appealing a city decision that she and her neighbors had won three months earlier, stopping a multi-antenna cell tower atop an apartment building in their Hollywood neighborhood.
“They want this building,” Murphy says of AT&T, which rejected three other potential cell tower locations nearby, one of which was commercially zoned. “They want what they want, when they want it. They don’t give a shit who they have to roll over to get it.”
On the Saturday before AT&T's November 25 appeals hearing before city zoning officials, she gathered neighbors from the five-story salmon-colored apartments across from her condo on La Mirada Street in Hollywood. AT&T wants to erect a 10-foot-tall wireless tower — made up of four antennas and eight radio units — on the roof of the 17-unit apartment building, home to many Section 8 low-income renters. The tower would raise the building’s height from 50 to 60 feet, which is why the city initially denied AT&T's application to install the wireless telecommunications facility, referred to in official documents by its unfortunate acronym, WTF.
When AT&T fought back, Murphy launched a full-time, neighborhood-wide campaign. The entertainment journalist-turned-media coach, rather than teaching celebrities how to speak to the media, coached her mostly Spanish-speaking neighbors how to speak out at court.
She had a friend translate the city's public hearing notices into Spanish, got more than 200 signatures opposing the tower, and made sure her neighbors knew that the little white envelope wasn’t junk mail at all.
“Sooner or later I would like to retire and sell my condo,” says Murphy, but few people want to live in, and especially not buy, a place close to a cell tower. Says Murphy: “I don’t want anyone to take that away from me.”
A 2013 survey circulated online by the National Institute for Science, Law and Public Policy into public attitudes toward cell towers found that 79 percent of respondents would never purchase or rent a property within a few blocks of a cell tower or antennas.
The American Cancer Society says fear that such towers’ radio frequencies could cause cancer or birth defects are not supported by science. Still, nobody wants radio waves emitted from their rooftop, even if their frequency levels have been regulated by the FCC.
Eleven-year-old Lizbeth Zesati, who lives in the building with her parents and five other siblings, explains, “They told my sister about it and she almost started crying. She doesn’t like anything that might concern her health. If they put [the tower] on, it will separate our family.” Her father Raul said the family will have to move from their home of 20 years if the tower facility goes up.
Others residents, like Ricardo Herrera, who lives there with his wife and kids, says the four antennas are just too tall and too close for comfort, commenting, “Having a big structure on top of something that it wasn’t built for, I believe the entire building may be in jeopardy.”
The city's problem with the proposed tower facility is that it's ugly — too industrial-looking for a residential neighborhood. The city Zoning Administrator wrote, “It is difficult to see any benefit that the proposed structure (antennae and screening) would have on the visual quality of the adjacent and somewhat distant neighborhood.”
As wireless carriers like AT&T, Sprint and Verizon race to blanket the city with WTFs, residents such as Murphy are increasingly citing perceived health risks caused by electromagnetic frequencies, as well as a widely agreed decrease in property values and the fact that they're a total eyesore. Residents in neighborhoods including Beverly Hills, Northridge, Baldwin Hills and Echo Park have all stopped cell towers.
The apartment building in this case was built in 1989, a 50-foot-tall complex that went up just before a new ordinance limited buildings in the area to 30 feet. Now, building heights and earthquake faults are the hot-button issues in the highly activist Hollywood neighborhood, where Mayor Eric Garcetti’s proposed Hollywood Community Plan to erect skyscrapers was tossed out by the courts.
Longstanding city height restrictions are helping communities stop WTFs. Nearby residents like actor Nick Steele worry that if AT&T wins its appeal on La Mirada Street, that would encourage the Los Angeles City Council and city zoning officials to back cell towers wherever the telecom firms want them. Steele notes, “It’s setting a bad precedence for any developer that says, ‘We want to get cell phone reception in this area, and we’re going to put cell phone towers on top of an already too-tall building.’”
“I can hear the door opening as we speak: Sprint, Verizon,” Murphy adds. “I get as pissed off as anybody when I cant get a signal. I just don’t want it in a residential neighborhood with my neighbors.”
Just before Thanksgiving, Murphy wrangled about a dozen neighbors to show up at the hearing before the L.A. Central Area Planning Commission at City Hall, the same night Ferguson protesters had swarmed the place and police presence was high.
The only people who didn’t show were those who’d submitted the city appeal: AT&T.
It turns out the wireless provider had forfeited the appeal only minutes before the hearing.
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So the Hollywood neighbors lined the hallways, talking and repeating lines from their planned speeches, admittedly a little disappointed that the opposition would never hear them. They'd already gotten the support of Councilmember Tom LaBonge and the Central Hollywood Neighborhood Council, which wanted to recruit Murphy to its board.
“Even though we have language barriers and cultural barriers, we got together and we did something,” said Javier Rodriguez, who works in construction and lives in the building with his wife Liliana.
“We’ve just got to keep being on the lookout” for outsized development, said Liliana Rodriguez. She predicts that local efforts to fight cell towers are “going to double and triple in size.”
Murphy isn’t ready to break out the champagne just yet. AT&T has its sights set on expanding wireless coverage in Hollywood, and any of her neighbors could be next to receive that generic white envelope in the mail.