Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Ravinia Festival to Build Cellular Hub for Crown Castle REIT

Please join your neighbors at a meeting tonight, October 20, at 7:30 pm at Highland Park City Hall with the Plan and Design Commission concerning Ravinia Festival’s proposal to build and lease a new 1500 sq. ft. structure in the “West Park” (the parking lot west of the train tracks).  Only contiguous neighbors were notified about the structure and that it will house a new Distributed Antenna System (DAS) for personal wireless telecommunication.  Unfortunately, most of us don't know what that means and are not familiar with its implications.  Also, there is no notification to the rest of Ravinia and Braeside residents, so few others know about this proposal that may have a profound impact on their lives, real estate values and our community.

In essence, the DAS structure will house a cellphone hub, functioning like a tower - just lower to the ground in a one story building.  The services provided from within this building will be sold to Verizon, AT&T and other cellular providers. The DAS hub will run 24 hours a day, every day, all year long.  DAS is usually associated with poll mounted nodes that are placed on existing infrastructure, such as electrical polls, street lights, and cell towers, pointing up, but the Ravinia Festival's proposal includes this 1500 sq. ft. structure.  The Commission will also review this evening extensive “Appurtenant Equipment” throughout the park (likely the poll mounted nodes but we’ve more to learn).  This is a complicated technical system and you may review the full proposal, including technical drawings, online at the HP City website (click here: http://www.cityhpil.com/Archive.aspx?AMID=70).

Let us not be fooled by a Trojan horse that appears with the face of a Ravinia Festival proposal.  The guts of this proposal is to build a structure housing Crown Castle, a publicly traded (NYSE: CCI) company that is the nation's largest provider of wireless infrastructure.  In January 2014, Crown Castle officially became a REIT - explained on their website as a conversion to align their business structure with their "long term commitment to provide the nation's wireless carriers with the prime real estate they need to meet the demands of their consumers."  Yes, it is undeniable that Ravinia Festival's West Park is prime residential real estate, but don't you think Crown Castle could buy some prime commercial real estate in Highland Park? So, let us strip away the image of this as a Ravinia Festival proposal.  This is a Crown Castle proposal.

You may well be asking yourself - what’s the problem with building a new DAS structure in the Ravinia Festival's West Park? Is it something we need? What are the problems associated with it? Let’s first consider the purported reasons for building it.  

Mayor Nancy Rotering issued an e-mail yesterday in support of the Ravinia Proposal. If you did not receive it, here is a link(click here).  She clearly supports the Ravinia Festival/Crown Castle proposal, primarily providing public safety concerns.  She informs us that more than a year ago she approached the Ravinia Festival with safety concerns about cell phone connectivity, along with the Highland Park Fire and Police Chiefs, and our City Manager.  She is concerned that "On busy Ravinia nights paramedics in ambulances cannot get telemetry signals (EKG’s) sent to Highland Park Hospital until they are near Lincoln School, losing critical minutes for communication with the Hospital’s Emergency Room.” 

In a recent August 2015 memo from Fire Chief Daniel Pease (in the proposal package and likely required by the Mayor for support of the Crown Castle proposal), he stated that “although phone communication is the primary and preferred method of communication for ambulance calls . . . all fire service vehicles are equipped with radios that can communicate with area hospitals.” 

Whether or not cardiac rhythm strips are sent from ambulances by cellphone or through the radio (more likely radio at this point in technology but moving toward cellphones), we can take, as a given, that it is very important for everyone to be able to use our cellular phones in an emergency to contact the authorities. So, I agree with Mayor Rotering, this qualifies as a life safety issue at some level and certainly one that should be concerned as more people drop their landlines.  (We can also pause for a moment to consider why the Mayor and City Council have been concerned that our current infrastructure is delaying the relay of vital health information to Highland Park Hospital, or that people without landlines might not be able to request an ambulance, yet residents have not been so informed.)

I have worked in the interest of public safety for my entire career.  Seeing that there is a life safety concern, there is no choice but to provide the necessary infrastructure.

However, wanting to fix the connectivity issues associated with busy Ravinia Festival nights doesn’t mean that the DAS structure is the only solution, nor does it require that it has to be placed in Ravinia Park (east or west).  It also doesn’t justify that the DAS structure will be running 24/7/365 when Ravinia Festival is only open for a few months, and within that time, there are relatively few “busy events.”  It would appear we are being sold a bill of goods.

Reading up on the technology, it appears that a DAS structure could be built remote from Ravinia Park on existing commercial property.  Additionally, if not alternatively, many DAS systems use existing infrastructure.  Crown Castle specifically states in its website, explaining why the company is an “ideal partner” to municipalities with regard to public safety:

“It’s already there: Using existing infrastructure gets you on the air quicker, saves you money, and puts you in accordance with federal mandates to leverage existing infrastructure.

Building a DAS at Ravinia Park is definitely not the solution to Highland Park's public safety issues.  There are alternatives but they have not been presented to the community, and apparently not pursued by our city's leadership.

There are many reasons for not building the DAS at Ravinia Park but here are a few:

  • The health effects, if any, from this structure will affect the closest neighbors - many of whom didn't receive a notice of the proposal. Additionally, those neighbors may find their homes devalued when they go to sell.  It's one thing to say you live next to one of the finest, oldest and busiest concert venues in the world, it is another to say that the house is next to or near a large communications hub.
  • Ravinia Festival pays no real estate taxes on this property.  In effect, they will be passing through this benefit to Crown Castle.
  • Ravinia Festival’s property is R-5: Moderate Density Residential District. Residential districts are not intended to allow commercial, industrial, governmental, recreational, or like uses. Yes, there are exceptions for certain organizations and not for profits, like the Ravinia Festival, but the use of the property must always preserve and protect the residential character – and a DAS structure completely fails in this regard. 
  • The property was generously gifted to the Ravinia Festival by Mrs. Elsie Eckstein with certain restrictive covenants in the deed to specifically prohibit its use for commercial enterprises.  While the Ravinia Festival has many commercial enterprises in the park, primarily serving food, such services are a normal part of an entertainment venue.  Ravinia Festival, a not for profit, could never deed any of this property to Crown Castle, a publicly traded company, so why are we looking at setting up a lease arrangement as a get around? Perhaps this is being done in collusion with the City of Highland Park as there is a very close relationship between Highland Park and Ravinia Festival leadership. As we usually say in our neighborhood, “Ravinia will get whatever they ask for, whenever.”
  • The West Park of Ravinia has always been open to the public, 365 days a year.  Parents teach their children to ride their bicycles in that park.  Families take leisurely walks there in each season. I happen to enjoy the dragonflies throughout the summer. It’s a fine open space, soon to be despoiled by ancient oak trees being felled and a new building emitting RF and electromagnetic waves every day, every hour, every minute.  Additionally, some of the neighbors believe that after the new structure is built, Ravinia Festival will close off the property to all, except for parking for performances.
  • The DAS structure will displace numerous cars that would otherwise park in the lot.  These cars will place more of a traffic burden on our community in various ways, such as using up spaces in the uptown and Ravinia shopping district - displacing shoppers.
I refer to Ravinia Park as “my backyard” because my backyard is edged by the entrance to Ravinia off Green Bay Road.  In the 25 years I have owned my home, I have taken great pride in the Ravinia Festival, and have been a good neighbor.  I have never objected to any of their proposals, even if not entirely in agreement, thinking it was for "the greater good." I should also make it clear that this DAS structure will be relatively far away from my home - much closer to other people’s homes on the north end of the park. It’s really not about me – this should be an issue of importance to all Highland Park residents and the people who have a stake in the Ravinia Festival as a not for profit.

This proposal is not for "the greater good" of the Ravinia Festival, except a unrelated business taxable income, and they should be earning their revenue by selling tickets and associated entertainment, not by foisting a commercial enterprise into a residential neighborhood (for shame!).  Let's make no mistake - allowing this proposal to proceed in any manner (other than placing DAS nodes on the polls at Ravinia) will set a terrible precedent.  This is the camel's nose in the tent.  Wait 'til you see the camel.

This is the time for everyone to object – tonight (Tuesday) - even if you’re not a neighbor, even if you don’t live in Ravinia or Braeside.  This isn’t just about ensuring that the Ravinia neighbors can have daily access to the park.  It is about ensuring that the City of Highland treats every neighborhood respectfully – that residential property remains residential and not commercial.  If you wouldn’t like this building next door to your home, it’s important that you stand with others who will be impacted.

This is also about requiring Ravinia Festival to live up to its charter as a not for profit and to honor its legacy.  If they proceed with this, we should inquire further about the real business of the Ravinia Festival. As a not for profit, it currently enjoys a real estate tax exemption yet, certainly, the City of Highland Park, Lake County and the State of Illinois should be paid real estate taxes from any commercial enterprise. Crown Castle may lease the building from Ravinia Park, but Crown Castle has designed the building for itself, and will use it to sell its services to Verizon, AT&T, and other carriers. A rose is a rose.  Crown Castle isn't a large REIT for nothing.  In essence, though not in deed, Crown Castle will own that building.  Just look at the attached proposal. As a City, we are about to be had if the Plan and Design Commission approve this proposal to build a structure.

Many of my friends complain to me, after the fact, that they don’t like certain decisions made by City Hall, particularly with regard to its impact on real estate zoning. Write an email today to HP's city manager (gneukirch@cityhpil.com) or the mayor and city council members, to express your thoughts and join your neighbors at City Council this evening.

And, please share this report with your neighbors.

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