Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Ravinia Festival’s Cash Cow – Crown Castle – Has Escaped to a Greener Pasture

You probably haven’t read in the Chicago Tribune, or any of the other local newspapers, about the outcome of the residents’ battle at City Hall over the Ravinia Festival Association’s (RFA’s) attempt to build a 1500 sq. ft. structure to house a “head-in” cellular hub for Crown Castle International Corp. – smack dab in the middle of a residential neighborhood. The structure was to provide connectivity for a proposed Distributed Antenna System (DAS) comprised of node antennae to be placed throughout Ravinia Park during concerts – which is still on the table and likely to be passed at the Plan and Design Commission meeting March 15, 2016.  Yet, the cellular hub would be used all year long to provide distribution services to all the major cellular phone providers, such as Verizon, AT&T and Sprint.  Both the RFA and the City of Highland Park asserted that the cellular hub structure was essential for public safety, while the residents in opposition denied this.

Frankly, some of our local newspapers seem determined to prevent residents from accessing news, unless the news has been issued directly from City Hall.  Consider that the Chicago Tribune published an article articulating the City’s support of Ravinia with their headline article, Fixing Ravinia Cell Logjam A Matter of Public Safety, Highland Park Mayor Says the very same day as the October 20, 2015 hearing at the Plan and Design Commission. Published before the meeting, not after. Not a single resident was interviewed for that article.  Yet when residents directly requested that the Tribune investigate and report on the issues further, the response was that this was too complex for the newspaper.  If our small city politics is too complex for the Chicago Tribune, heaven knows how they handle Chicago! 

To be fair, I waited a few weeks since City Hall notified Ravinia’s neighbors by letter about a crucial decision concerning the Ravinia’s proposed cellular hub to see if would be reported in the local press. Their report is simply not happening – likely because the City of Highland Park didn’t furnish the information as a press release – so here is all the news about the Ravinia Festival/Crown Castle Proposal that is fit to print but our local newspapers won’t deliver to you.


In a surprise move, Crown Castle decided to take the “head-in” function – its cellular hub – out of Highland Park. It will lease space at an undisclosed location, according to reports, no new structure is planned. The Ravinia neighbors who fought the Ravinia Festival Assocation (RFA) and the City of Highland Park may claim this as a victory, as surely their tireless work at least resulted in several delays before the HP Plan and Design Commission, extending the process to nearly one full year.  

This is very good news for the Ravinia neighborhood (not to be confused with the Ravinia Neighbors Association that refused to assist the 60+ active Ravinia neighbors who opposed the RFA proposal). This is also a positive outcome for any Highland Parkers who care about Ravinia’s cultural and historic importance, as well as the environment and preserving open spaces.  Yet, overall, this is a monetary loss for Highland Park, and it didn’t have to be that way.  It could have been a win-win resolution if Highland Park had been more sophisticated and strategic. Ultimately, Crown Castle made its own decision without Highland Park.  Who can blame them? After all, providing cellular connectivity to Verizon, Spring, and AT&T is a very lucrative business and every day that cellular hub wasn’t up and running was costing them money – no matter how good the deal was that they struck with the RFA.  
The cellular hub never belonged on RFA property for several reasons, not the least of which was the moral, ethical, environmental and, perhaps, legal obligation to support the legacy of the RFA’s major benefactor, Mrs. Elsie Eckstein, who donated all the property subject to certain legal covenants. Without Mrs. Eckstein’s brilliant foresight and generosity, the RFA would likely have ceased to exist long ago.

When Elsie Eckstein gifted this prime and valuable land to the RFA, she prohibited the building of commercial property on it, requiring the new owner to maintain its natural open space as a park. She gave the property a distinct not for profit purpose. She didn’t give the land away so other people could make a profit on it. If that were her intent, the she could have sold the property to developers for residential or commercial purposes.  When Crown Castle abandoned Ravinia, the legacy of Elsie Eckstein was upheld, not by the Ravinia Festival Association, not by City Council, and not by the Ravinia Neighbors Association, but by the neighbors who live around the property.  They actively set out to preserve the unique history of our community, and were vigilant and tireless in defense of Ravinia as it should be.

The departure of Crown Castle is also good news for the neighbors, some of whom live as close as 230 feet (that’s less than a football field away) from where the cellular hub would have been built. Serious noise would have emanated from six five-ton HVAC units in the building, at least half of them running 7/24/365. There was another large noisy generator to be put into place on an outside cement block whenever power would go out.  The City never required Crown Castle to disclose the decibel levels for that generator that could run as long as several days based on past power outages in Highland Park.  It could have been deafening, yet no one protected those residents. Records indicated that neither the City nor the Plan and Design Commission was concerned that the nearest residents would have been subject to, at least, a decibel level equivalent to a living room conversation at all times, night and day. With Crown Castle out of Ravinia, these neighbors will now be able to continue enjoy their backyards and bedrooms without an incessant hum, and their property values will remain intact. They also so not have to worry about being bombarded with additional radiofrequency radiation, although the cellular hub would certainly have been installed according to federal standards. Still, who wants to live next to cellular hub?

What about our public safety problem?  Again good news – the absence of this cellular hub has no impact on safety whatsoever, even though Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering said the DAS structure had to be built as a matter of public safety (see, News from Nancy and Chicago Tribune). Her public safety argument was that on busy RFA nights, later established to be 8-12 nights per year, the cell phone activity of Ravinia’s patrons overwhelms the nearby cell towers, compromising the ability for ambulances to communicate with the Hospital’s emergency room.  (We should note that city’s Fire and Police chiefs were unable to provide any documentation of this at the October 20 hearing, and, if it is so, the residents should be asking them to keep records to support public safety.)  Mayor Rotering reported that she personally approached Ravinia, along with the City Manager and the HP Fire and Police Chiefs, to address these safety concerns. In her press releases, she stated that the DAS system was simply the best solution and “to install the DAS, Ravinia will need to build a new building on its property.”  Not so.

As stated in my report on October 20, 2015, and as I testified at City Hall later that day, it was always clear the “head-in” cellular hub did not need to be on RFA property.  While the cellular hub needs to communicate with the DAS antennae nodes proposed to be placed throughout the entertainment section of Ravinia Park, the cellular hub could be off-site. It’s all about RF – Radio Frequency.  No cords, no cables, just RF. That’s why they call it wireless.

Exactly how far away can a cellular hub be from DAS nodes?  Frankly, I can’t answer that technical question because the City of Highland, the RFA and Crown Castle would never answer that simple question.  I wrote to the City of Highland Park on October 27, 2015 with several important questions, including:

“Technically speaking, how far away can a “head-in building” be from the nodes intended to be placed on Ravinia Festival rooftops and other places at the Park?...What is the farthest from Ravinia that it can be placed and still effectively serve the nodes?”

Months later, with that question and others unanswered, I met with the City Manager and staff on January 4, 2016.  How far away could the cellular hub be? Staff replied that this was unknown but it was asserted that it could not be too far, because it would be difficult to “lay the fiber optic cables.” My reply, “There are none. It’s all about RF – Radio Frequency.”  As I explained to another city leader on October 20, “there are no cables, take a look at your cell phone, it’s the same principle.” After nearly a year of review at the City, no one could answer a very simple question – how far away could the cellular hub be?  

The answer, if given to me in October 2015, would have enabled me to provide assistance to Highland Park in resolving this contentious matter. We could have located other suitable local sites to propose to Crown Castle.  Sites that would not have been on land owned by not for profits who pay no real estate or revenue taxes, such as the RFA.  Sites that might have been on City of Highland Park, District School or Park District property – open real estate that could have been monetized for the betterment of Highland Park.  Or, sites in Highland Park’s commercial buildings where the income earned by Crown Castle from Verizon, AT&T, Sprint could be taxed. Highland Park’s commercial properties need lessees. Whatever the other location, it would be intended to help reduce our tax burden in Highland Park. Crown Castle doesn’t just provide DAS services, it is a Real Estate Investment Trust that monetizes land, and the City of Highland Park should have recognized this.

It seems Crown Castle was the only one who knew how far away from the Ravinia Festival the cellular hub could be built. According to HP City Staff, they don’t know where Crown Castle will be. It wouldn’t be surprising to find it in Glencoe, just south of Lake Cook Road. There is a fine golf course there with a corner for mechanics there.

Unfortunately, City Hall did its utmost to ensure that the RFA, a not for profit organization that pays no real estate or income taxes to the community, would reap the significant financial benefits of the cellular hub. Crown Castle is a substantial REIT, publicly traded on the NYSE:CCI, yet the City of Highland (including its lawyers), along with the RFA, continued to represent at public hearings that a cellular hub providing services to Verizon, AT&T and Sprint was not a commercial endeavor, and that there were no significant zoning issues for placing the cellular hub on property zoned residential.  Indeed, the Highland Park lawyer in attendance on October 20 specified that the Plan and Design Commission could not consider the legal covenants on the land while several other resident lawyers there would argue with that position. Neighbors have been left to wonder what the underlying motivations were in this scenario.  So, another unfortunate outcome from the Ravinia/Crown Castle Proposal is that there are more Ravinia neighbors who have gained a healthy cynicism about the City and Ravinia Festival Association.

To some it appears the leadership of Highland Park was so focused on assisting the Ravinia Festival Association that they neglected to understand either the relevant technology or the commercial opportunity associated with the Crown Castle/RFA proposal.  Crown Castle, the cash cow, has now escaped the barn or, another metaphor, Highland Park failed to see the forest for the trees.  Another community will enjoy the taxes benefits.

The good news, the bad news, and an opportunity lost.

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