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14th May

First Published in The New York Sun, May 14, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

  Seattle has its Space Needle, Toronto its CN Tower, Paris the Eiffel Tower. These may be useless structures. But they have come to represent their cities and the aspirations of the people who live there. The Bronx also has a tower, and just like the counterparts in these other cities, this tower is also a symbol of the time and place. This is the Fordham University radio tower, which lies half-completed on the eastern end of the Rose Hill campus. 

    It has been this way for 10 years, a monument to bureaucratic inertia and the power of activists to stop projects. Yet it now appears that the standoff may finally be ending,though I won’t believe it until the tower is gone and the replacement operational. 

    Fordham’s radio station, WFUV-FM, is authorized to transmit at 50,000 watts, the most powerful signal allowed by law. But their antenna, which used to sit atop Keating Hall, was not high enough for them to enjoy the benefits of their strong signal. 
    The university came up with a plan to build a 480-foot high tower that would ensure that WFUV would be heard throughout the metropolis. It was to be largely financed by leasing space to other radio stations that could also benefit from the tower’s position. 

    Alternative sites were investigated, but the university decided that the safest route to getting their tower built was to situate it on its own campus.After all, who could object? 

    Were they ever wrong. 

    They found a spot on the edge of the campus, alongside the Vince Lombardi Sports Center, near the football field where the Fordham Rams play their home games. Construction began just over 10 years ago. 

    When the tower quickly rose to about half its final height, the folks across the street at the New York Botanical Garden realized that its new neighbor would be visible from every corner of its 250-acre site.They protested and, when that couldn’t stop the tower, brought in lawyers and began a public relations offensive. 

    It seems that Fordham had located the tower 25 feet too close to the edge of the campus, a technical violation of the zoning regulations, thus giving the garden’s attorneys the slender thread by which they were able to halt the construction halfway through.

    Since then, every conceivable environmental and technical objection has been raised, paralyzing the project. 

    Unquestionably, this is an ugly structure.The decision by Fordham to locate it in this spot was ill advised. But the dispute, between two nonprofits arguing over aesthetics, the value of the Fordham broadcasts, and arcane construction issues has become even uglier than the tower. 

    The resolution of the matter being talked about now appears tenuous. The idea is that the tower will come down and the view from the garden will be restored. 

    Less certain, in my opinion, is the plan to situate the transmitting antenna on a 140-foot tower built atop the roof of a 300-foot high apartment building owned by Montefiore Hospital and used by its staff. This particular building is at one of the highest points in the city and is visible for miles. 

    In an age where the city, pressured by activists, has even rejected income that could be generated by placing low-power cell phone antennas on the rooftops of schools for health reasons, it seems to me that there are bound to be objections to transmitting 50,000 watts from the roof of an apartment building, across from a busy hospital, in a densely populated neighborhood. 

    Three years ago, residents of City Island complained when WCBS wanted to expand its back-up transmitting tower located on neighboring High Island. 

    The islanders charged that this tower, a tiny fraction of the height and transmission power of the Fordham installation, interferes with television, telephone- and cell-phone reception. It makes one wonder whether the residents in the Montefiore building will be getting radio reception through the fillings in their teeth. 

    Rational individuals understand that we moderns will be surrounded by radio waves. Gizmos that didn’t exist even a decade ago,like the wireless network card in the laptop on which I’m typing this column, are shooting radio waves around us, through us, on top of us all the time. 

    The advantages are clear to most of us, the supposed health risks largely debunked. The events of September 11, which crippled television and radio transmission, should have been a lesson. But nothing will stop the naysayers. 

    Those who feel that the tower settlement has ended this saga are most likely deluding themselves. I suspect that a new round of lawsuits and activism is about to begin. 

    The half-finished tower may be with us forever, the Bronx’s Eiffel Tower. Perhaps, instead of tearing it down, we should declare it a landmark.

© 2004 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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