San Francisco’s Sutro Tower is in the middle of a dispute between its owners and the city.
A dispute between city planners and the owners of the famous Sutro Tower over the illegal removal of steel cladding on the bottom part of the historic transmission structure could cost Bay Area television stations tens of millions if a deal is not worked out by next spring, according to testimony presented Thursday at the San Francisco Planning Commission. Composite Floor Steel Decking Sheet
In a report presented Thursday, staff stated that the owners, Sutro Tower Inc., in 2019 had removed the structure’s “vertical cladding without a building permit, without CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) review, and without the Commission’s authorization.”
The tower owners don’t deny having pulled down the cladding — a layer used to insulate or change the appearance of a tower’s structure — which everyone involved agrees was cosmetic rather than structural.
As a property that the city planners in 2019 deemed eligible for individual listing in the California Register of Historical Resources — the evaluation called it “the most recognizable broadcast tower in the greater San Francisco Bay Area and arguably one of the most recognizable broadcast towers in the United States” — the removal of the cladding should have gone through an environmental review.
Because the review was not done prior to the work, it will have to be done now.
The situation is particularly high-stakes because Sutro Tower is running out of time to come into compliance with federal regulations. The tower is in the midst of an upgrade required by the Federal Communications Commission. In order to be reimbursed from the federal government for the required work — about $50 million in total — all the contracts have to be submitted by June 3.
If the situation with the cladding removal can’t be ironed out by that deadline, the Sutro Tower owners — KTVU, KRON, KPIX and KGO — could be on the hook, as could other stations that pay rent to use the transmission tower.
On Thursday, Darren LaShelle, president & CEO for Northern California Public Media, said that the public stations it owns could be on the hook for millions, and its ability to keep airing shows like “Sesame Street” could be in jeopardy should the deadline be blown.
“For us the re-cladding of the tower is not a theoretical construction project, or an aesthetic discussion, but rather an existential threat,” he said. “It isn’t every day that municipal infrastructure decision (affects) the future of free, beloved and popular educational services for children and families. But today is that day.”
Jim Rose, vice president and general manager of KRON, said it could face more than $6 million in expenses, which he called “a significant portion of our operating budget.”
In its 49 years, Sutro Tower has gone from eyesore to icon, from the target of lawsuits by neighbors to a symbol of San Francisco pride, poking up out of thousands of foggy Instagram posts.
Neighbors in adjacent Midtown Terrace and Forest Knolls have clashed with the Sutro Towers owners — unsuccessfully suing in the late 1990s to block a retrofit of the tower. But unlike past disputes, it was clear from Thursday’s hearing that residents, politicians and Sutro Tower owners are all united in the belief that getting rid of the cladding, while illegal, was a swell idea.
“When I found out that Sutro Tower had removed the vertical cladding from its structure, I wanted to send them a bottle of champagne and a thank-you note — not a notice of violation,” said Christine Linnenbach, who was a leader in the 1990s fight against the tower.
The stability of the panels at the bottom of the tower always seemed precarious, according to residents. Neighbors described instances where one of the 80-pound metal panels blew off the tower and landed on the pathway below, almost hitting a dog-walker.
Supervisor Myrna Melgar, who represents the West of Twin Peaks neighborhood, said she has lots of love for Sutro Tower, a picture of which was on her campaign literature when she ran for office. But she is not particularly taken with the tower’s metal-clad legs.
“Nobody even noticed,” when the cladding was removed, she said, “until it was pointed out, and then the neighbors were like, ‘Great, now it’s not going to fall on us if there is an earthquake or high wind.’”
Everyone in San Francisco who watches television “benefits from the services that tower provides,” she said, adding that it behooves the city to allow the tower to make safety upgrades, so “we don’t have enormous pieces of metal slicing through the air and cutting someone’s head off.”
Sutro Tower engineer Ron Hamburger said the cladding that was taken down was not a structural component of the tower, but was “decorative.” He said it made the tower less safe because fog would seep into the spaces between the cladding and the tower footings. If the city were to require Sutro Tower to replace the cladding, it would have to be three times as strong in order to meet current codes.
“Sutro Tower is iconic,” said Walter Kaplan, a Forest Knolls resident who has been a liaison to the tower. “The embellishments, the cladding on the tower, is merely an embellishment. I don’t believe it would be on the tower today if it was built to today’s building codes.”
In order to get an environmental impact report done by June, city planners would have to work at unprecedented speed. Most similar environmental studies take 18 months.
“We will make every effort to truncate the schedule and expedite it,” said Planning Director Rich Hillis.
But while the city’s planning department is a punching bag for the city’s notoriously slow and obtuse planning process, in this case it was the Sutro Tower owners who are to blame for their own predicament, said Planning Commission President Rachel Tanner.
“We are here because of actions Sutro Tower took, without building permits, to remove cladding,” she said. “It’s very frustrating having people come here after the fact, after things are already done, and we have to figure out how to solve the problem.”
Whatever happens, the city should make sure the old cladding is not slapped back on the tower, residents said.
“We don’t need 300,000 pounds of sheet metal hanging over the public’s head,” Linnenbach said. “Which is exactly what you are going to require if you make them put that paneling back on at the end of this dog and pony show.”
J.K. Dineen is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com
Roof Edge Profile J.K. Dineen covers housing and real estate development. He joined The Chronicle in 2014 covering San Francisco land use politics for the City Hall team. He has since expanded his focus to explore housing and development issues throughout Northern California. He is the author of two books: "Here Tomorrow" (Heyday, 2013) and "High Spirits" (Heyday, 2015).