'It's Quite a monument' but 'not the Eiffel Tower of the West'


Herb Caen: "I keep waiting for it to stalk down the hill and attack the Golden Gate Bridge."


Supervisor Dianne Feinstein: "This is undoubtedly one of the worst structures, visually, I have an opportunity to view."


Allan B. Jacobs, Director of City Planning, City and County of San Francisco: "It's pretty terrible - esthetically, environmentally, from about every standpoint you can imagine."


Richard Moore, general manager of KQED (which will broadcast from the tower as a tenant): "Well, it's not the Eiffel Tower of the West, I think, actually, it's rather brutal in its appearance. It involves an enormous investment by its owners, with the obvious intent of holding off cable TV in San Francisco for another decade. They fully intend to get their money out of it this ay. It presented a problem for KQED. It would have been much better if it hadn't been built, but we had to decide whether we were going to stay in the TV broadcasting business. It was a case where, in order to broadcast in the public interest, we had to go along with something that was not necessarily in the public interest."


Ron Pelosi, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (and chairman of the Planning Commission in 1966, when it approved the tower): "The tower that's built doesn't conform to the plan that was presented to the City. We were shown a relatively leek metal tower, not this one. I don't see anything good about it. But you're dealing with trade-offs, such as better reception. Also, we were told that the roof-top aerials all over the City could come down once the tower was built. The environmentalists who are screaming now weren't around in 1966. If the people could vote on it, I don't know how they'd come out."


Harry N. Jacobs, director of engineering for Sutro Tower, Inc. (on loan from ABC), the man who built the tower: "I think it's a reasonably attractive affair. It's all in the eyes of the beholder. A lot of people are not happy with it. A lot of people are not happy with anything. I think it's quite attractive. It's quite a monument."


Russ Coughlan, general manager of KGO-TV and current president of Sutro Tower, Inc.: "I like the way it looks. It's as attractive as anything that structural can be. I don't think it's an eyesore. I think it's attractive and has its own identity - and not just because I'm president of it. The service it will render to the public will outweigh everything else."


Supervisor Robert E. Gonzales: "In the fall of 1971, when it was one-fourth built, I called it Godzilla the Monster. Now it's Godzilla fully grown. I think it's ugly. When it was approved in 1966, no one recognized the magnitude and overpowering effect it would have. Coming through the tunnel from Walnut Creek or up the Peninsula, it sticks out like a goddam sore thumb. I hope someday some young scientist will invent something to put in your TV set to make the tower unnecessary, and then we can blow it out of there."

The Colossus of Mt. Sutro

San Francisco, May, 1973 (Volume 15, No. 5)
By Stephen R. Barnett

San Francisco's newest and highest landmark, which many also call its ugliest and most outrageous, the mind-blowing TV tower on Mt. Sutro, goes into operation June 1.

Nine hundred and eighty-one feet high, the tower is taller than the Bank of America and Transamerica buildings, is the tallest structure ever built in San Francisco. It rises, moreover, from one of the City's highest promontories - an elevation in the center of the City, previously distinguished for its residential and wooded character - and thus sneers down from 1811 feet above sea level.

The happy builder and owner is Sutro Tower, Inc., a consortium of the four companies that own the City's major commercial TV stations. These are Cox Broadcasting, owner of KTVU (channel 2), Chronicle Publishing, owner of KRON (channel 4), Westinghouse Broadcasting, owner of KPIX (channel 5), and the American Broadcasting Co., owner of KGO-TV (channel 7). All the other local TV stations will also transmit their signals from the tower, as tenants of STI.

The tower will not be completely finished by June 1. Within the next month or two, as required by the Federal Aviation Authority, the tower will be painted from top to bottom in 90-foot stripes of orange and white.

Russ Coughlan, general manager of KGO-TV, who is president of STI this year, said STI is hiring a public relations firm to conduct a major promotional campaign "to tell people everything they want to know about the tower, such as how to turn their antennas to get the better reception."

There are quite a few things about the tower, however, that STI and its PR firm will not be telling the public.

The tower has its critics. San Francisco's Director of City Planning, Allan Jacobs, for example, called it "pretty terrible" and said he would not have approved it if he'd been in office at the time.

The tower has its defenders too. Whatever damage it does to the City's appearance and environment is outweighed, they claim, by the better TV reception it will bring.

These people may not realize that perfect TV reception, along with a much greater choice of programs, can be obtained through cable television, albeit for a monthly fee. A main purpose of the tower, STI has acknowledged, is to hold back the growth of cable in San Francisco - and thus protect the tower's owners from competition.

The public's opinion of the tower was, in any event, irrelevant. By the time the public learned what was happening on Mt. Sutro, in late summer of 1971, the tower was rising and couldn't be stopped. For more than five years before, the project was cloaked from public view by a media blackout, a conspiracy of silence hatched by the TV stations that own the tower and joined by the Chronicle and Examiner.

The plans to construct the TV tower on Mt. Sutro and the objections it aroused were big news in San Francisco in 1962. The FAA then was holding a hearing on alternative sites for a big TV tower to serve the stations here. ABC, owner of KGO-TV, was pushing for the Mt. Sutro site, where it owned the land, while Chronicle Publishing wanted the tower placed instead on Mt. San Bruno, where KRON had an antenna and Chronicle had an interest in the land.

The hearing, and the objections to the Mt. Sutro site, got prominent coverage in the Chronicle. For example, on July 11, 1962, the paper reported that KRON's lawyer, had asked KGO's general manager, "what would happen should a Mount Sutro tower fall down," pointing out that "there's a new grade school within a thousand feet of that tower."

On July 12, the Chronicle reported this position taken by its own ownership: "The Chronicle Publishing Co. will never try to persuade city zoning officials to permit construction of a 980-foot television tower atop Mount Sutro, General Manager Harold P. See of KRON-TV declared yesterday.

"'The Chronicle has deep roots in San Francisco, and this is a matter of the community's esthetics. The proposed tower does not belong in that area.' See testified."

ABC won the case before the FAA, which declared the Mt. San Bruno site too dangerous to aviation. Then in March 1966, ABC asked the Planning Commission to grant a conditional use permit - needed because the area was zoned residential - for construction of the tower on Mt. Sutro.

Prior to the public hearing before the Planning Commission, ABC invited residents of the Mt. Sutro area to two "town meetings" at which plans for the tower were discussed. The lack of neighborhood opposition to the tower was then stressed by ABC, before both the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors.

ABC cowed the neighbors with a threat. KGO's general manager, David M. Sacks, told the local homeowners that if the tower couldn't be built on Mt. Sutro, ABC would sell the land it owned there and the buyer would presumably be a developer, who would eliminate the existing open space. Sacks told his audience of two or three hundred people at the Clarendon School on February 2, 1966, for example, that their choice was between "a tower in a park" and "no tower with no park."

What Sacks and the others representing ABC didn't tell the audience - as Sacks admitted under cross-examination at the Planning Commission hearing - was that much of ABC's property on Mt. Sutro was included in the City's Park Plan, as part of the greenbelt running between Twin Peaks and Mt. Sutro. So there might indeed have been a park without a tower.

At the Planning Commission hearing on March 10, 1966, Chronicle - which was appealing the ruling on Mt. San Bruno - continued its opposition to the Mt. Sutro tower. Its lawyer, Robert Raymer of Cooper, White & Cooper declared:

"This structure is not the kind of structure that we in this beautiful city or the country or perhaps the world should have in our midst."

But the commission - headed by Ronald Pelosi, now President of the Board of Supervisors - voted unanimously to grant the permit for construction of the tower.

Chronicle then appealed to the Board of Supervisors, with Raymer calling the tower "outlandish" and charging it "would make an industrial area of the Mt. Sutro residential area."

Raymer also claimed the tower would have to be painted in orange and white stripes, contrary to what ABC had told the Planing Commission. But ABC's lawyer, Gilbert C. Wheat, senior partner in Lillick, McHose, Wheat, Adams & Charles, denied this.

"It is ridiculous to assume the FCC will require the entire tower to be painted with alternate stripes of white and orange." Wheat declared. It "will doubtless be painted a neutral color consistent with the surroundings," he assured the Supervisors.

At their meeting on May 16, 1966, the Supervisors voted six to four against the tower - two votes short of the number needed to overrule the Planning Commission.

At this point, with the die apparently cast, coverage in the Chronicle notably diminished. The Supervisors' decision was reported in a one-column story on page 42,. And except for a Sunday magazine article in December 1967, neither the Chronicle nor the Examiner printed anything more about the tower until September 1970, more than four years later.

In September, 1970, STI had to go back to the Planning Commission for final approval of the tower plans. This time the Chronicle Publishing Co. - notwithstanding its "deep roots in San Francisco" and its concern for "the community's esthetics" - was aboard. Indeed, STI was now represented by Robert Raymer of Cooper, White & Cooper, who urged the commission to renew its approval of the tower.

The tower's design in September 1970 had changed considerably from what the Planning Commission and the Supervisors had approved in 1966. Now it was conceded the tower would be painted in orange and white stripes. The top would be wider and the platform eliminated and the waist broader.

Apart from the design changes, it was pretty clear, under the prevailing interpretation of the City Planning Code, that the conditional-use permit granted in 1966 was good for only three years. Since construction on the tower had not begun within three years, a fresh permit, based on a new public hearing, should have been required in 1970.

Planning Director Allan Jacobs, who had taken office in 1967, told the commission at its meeting on September 10, 1970, that he "could not recommend that the project be built," but that he didn't see how the commission could say no after approving it in 1966.

The commission proceeded, without a public hearing to give final approval for construction of the tower.

In reporting the commission's action, neither newspaper said a word about Jacobs' statement, or the design changes since 1966, or the previous vote of the Board of Supervisors. Neither suggested the tower might be controversial.

The Chronicle's story appeared at the bottom of page 15 and consisted of three sentences.

Final steps toward construction were then taken. A site permit was issued in December 1970, a steel erection permit in February 1971, and a building permit in March 1971. Construction work at the site began in February 1971.

But none of this was reported. The story didn't surface again in either newspaper until August 19, 1971, just before the tower began to rise.

During the crucial period when the tower might have been stopped - the more than five years between the vote of the Board of Supervisors in May 1966 and the start of steel construction in August 1971 - the story was thus suppressed by both the City's newspapers. And it was blacked out on TV as well - because the four stations that own the tower had agreed among themselves not to publicize it.

In August 1971 - the story was effectively suppressed by both the City's newspapers and by the TV stations that own the tower. The station owners agreed among themselves not to publicize the tower.

This came to light in February 1971. An engineer employed by KQED, who lived on Twin Peaks, noticed that bulldozers had begun tearing down trees on Mt. Sutro. "Newsroom" cameraman Charles Rudnick and reporter Tom de Vries went to see what was going on. When they arrived at the site, Harry Jacobs, STI's director of engineering, came out to them and said something like: "What are you doing here? Don't you know you're not supposed to be filming this There's an agreement between the stations not to cover it."

Rudnick said Jacobs told him: "This tower is going to be good for everybody. You know the way people are these days about trees and stuff. It's best that it not be publicized."

Russ Coughlan of KGO-TV, the current president of STI, admitted there was a "gentlemen's agreement" on publicizing the tower but denies it was intended to suppress news of the project. Its onlypurpose, he said, was to prevent one of the partners in STI from getting a jump on the others in crowing about its participation in the tower.

But TI, in court, was unable to cite any coverage of the project by any of the four stations between June 1966 and August 1971. And Jacobs admitted telling Rudnick and de Vries that KQED's coverage would violate the agreement.

KQED broke the story that night nonetheless, but the two newspapers and the other TV stations refused to pick it up. They kept the lid on for another six months.

The blackout succeeded not onlyin lulling public opposition to the tower, but in protecting it from legal attack.

When professors and law students from the University of San Francisco filed suit in November 1971 to stop the project, Superior Court Judge Clayton Horn threw the case out. Judge Horn did not deal with their legal arguments against the tower - such as their claim that the 1966 permit wasinvalid because construction had notbegun within three years. His decision was based, rather, on the technical ground that Prof. Joseph T. Henke, the plaintiff, had failed "to exhaust administrative remedies which were available to him." Specifically, Judge Horn ruled, Henke should have appealed from the issuance of the site permit for the tower on December 7, 1970, or from the issuance of the building permit on March 17, 1971.

Judge Horn didn't explain how Henke - or other members of the public - were supposed to have learned of these events in time to appeal from them. The judge did rule that the required legal notice of the permits had been posted by the Bureau of Building Inspection. But he passed over the facts that the notice was posted on an obscure mailbox, bearing no name, located at the end of a dead-end street about 400 feet from the tower site and - as STI admitted - not located on STI's property as the law required.

The lawsuit was not the only attempt made in the fall of 1971 to stop construction of the tower. The other effort was made by San Francisco Supervisors Ronald Pelosi and Robert Gonzales.

In November 1971, Pelosi and Gonzales met at KRON with representatives of the STI stations to see if they could get the tower stopped. They asked first if the stations would consider voluntarily halting construction on Mt. Sutro and putting the tower elsewhere. The stations refused, saying they had "spent millions on the project already."

Then, Gonzales says, he and Pelosi considered whether the City should just "revoke the permit" for the tower and stop construction that way. But Gonzales, a lawyer, said he decided that while "the City had jurisdiction to do this," it woul produce a lawsuit aginst the City that STI might well win.

Gonzales and Pelosi thus gave up their effort. Asked why they never let the publicin o it, Pelosi says it was "a private meeting" with the stations, while Gonzales says the notio of publicity "never occurred to me" and "didn't make practical sense."

The public - including lawyers who might have disagreed with Gonales - was thus left where it had long been, in the dark. As Harry Jacobs says, Mt. Sutro tower is "quite a monument."

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