Oread cell towers raise concerns

The four tallest towers on The Oread are individual cell towers for companies like AT&T, Sprint and other telephone companies. This view of the hotel is taken from the north side of the building, which faces the Kansas University campus to the south.

They may be the most unusual cellular telephone towers in Lawrence.

As the Oread hotel development takes its place in the Lawrence skyline, the four 50-foot cellular telephone towers atop the building are generating attention — and some questions about whether the design of the hotel building was properly presented to city commissioners for approval.

City planning director Scott McCullough confirmed Tuesday that official drawings submitted to the city showed the towers — which also will double as flagpoles — being 33 feet shorter than what they actually are.

“We probably should have asked for a better depiction of what the maximum structure could look like with the flagpoles,” McCullough said.

But McCullough said the towers are legal. That’s because in addition to the drawings, the developers submitted several notes that were attached to the final development plan. One of the notes — one of about 55 presented in footnote form — said the towers ultimately could increase the total height of the building to 156 feet.

McCullough said the written notes take precedence over the drawings.

“We knew of the note,” McCullough said. “We were not surprised by the height of the towers.”

But at a March 3 City Commission meeting when the plans were presented, commissioners were not clearly told that the height of the building was growing so significantly.

Instead, city commissioners were provided a staff memo that said the new height of the building would be 123 feet, up from 114 feet because some elevator equipment needed to be added to the roof.

The issue of adding the four cellular towers was addressed in another part of the memo. But the memo did not mention how much height the towers would add to the building. Instead, it showed a drawing that depicts the towers being about the same height as the elevator towers. In reality, the towers are about 33 feet taller than shown in the drawing.

Read the fine print

McCullough agreed that the only way commissioners or the public would have known that the height of the building — including the towers — had increased from 123 feet to 156 feet is to have read the one technical note on the plan.

“If we didn’t highlight the note, it is because it was a very large project and we didn’t highlight every detail of it,” McCullough said.

But the height of the building had been a hotly debated topic with the public. City and planning commissioners struggled for months over how tall the building should be. The idea of adding cellular towers to the top of the building was proposed late in the process, after city and planning commissioners already had approved most of the project.

“I think the staff did not do its job here, or was just plain intimidated,” said Dennis Domer, dean emeritus of the Kansas University School of Architecture and critic of the building’s design.

He said the towers are such a prominent feature of the building that the public should have had the opportunity to see and comment on what it would look like.

“They add significantly to the silhouette of that building and the skyline,” Domer said.

Other concerns

Some neighbors, though, said they didn’t mind. Carol vonTersch, who lives near the hotel, said the towers had not created significant discussion among members of the Oread Neighborhood Association.

“It certainly grew from the time the neighborhood association first looked at it and supported it, but that is not to say that the neighborhood association is displeased,” vonTersch said.

She said neighbors were more concerned with parking issues, which they believe have been addressed well by the project.

City Commissioner Mike Amyx said he also was fine with the tower issue. He said the fact that the information about the potential height of the towers was included in the notes was enough.

“Do they take away from the facility?” Amyx asked. “In my opinion, they do not. I think it is a gorgeous facility and will fill a lot of needs.”

Nancy Longhurst, general manager for the hotel, said she didn’t have specific information about how the cell phone towers were designed. Attempts to reach Thomas Fritzel — who leads the hotel’s development group that includes Lawrence businessmen Tim Fritzel and Todd Sutherland — were not successful. An attempt to reach the project’s lead architect with NSPJ Architects also was not successful.

The hotel is scheduled to open in January.