Fresno Council Cuts T-Mobile Lease Short Amid Spiral Garage Debate
The Spiral Garage may be old, but is it a historical landmark?
Fresno City Councilman Miguel Arias floated the idea at last week’s City Council meeting. The discussion came under the item to extend a lease for cell phone provider T-Mobile to use the garage for its equipment.
“The city should not be using historic buildings for the placement of these antennas. It’s not in our best interest,” Arias said.
Arias cited the desire to declare the downtown garage a historic landmark as one of the reasons to prevent technology providers from using the space.
Speaking at the council meeting, T-Mobile representatives warned that cell coverage, especially for thousands of Fresno Unified students who use its equipment, would be in jeopardy.
T-Mobile first entered into a 20-year contract with the city to utilize the Spiral Garage in 2002. With the lease expiring, the company requested another 20-year lease. Instead, through Arias’ urging, the City Council voted 4-2 for a two-year renewal. Mike Karbassi and Garry Bredefeld voted no; Esmeralda Soria recused herself because her fiancé, Terance Frazier, owns property in the area.
The lease was for $436,000 total for the 20-year renewal (the fees would increase over time). Now, it will be $17,500 a year.
Arias Makes His Case
The city built the garage in 1968 for $3 million — $26 million in today’s dollars according to the federal inflation tool. It was leased to retailer Gottschalks until 1988 when the store closed its downtown Fresno location. A 2018 deal to sell the garage (and adjacent Gottschalks building) to Club One Casino eventually fell through.
The deal at the time brought complaints from other developers, namely Terance Frazier. His company planned to build a mixed-use development across the street. That deal fell through earlier this year.
Arias cited several reasons for wanting T-Mobile, and eventually AT&T — which also leases space — to vacate the Spiral Garage. He said space currently occupied by cell phone equipment is needed for future vehicle parking.
“That garage is all the parking that we have for all the future housing in downtown Fresno. At some point, we’re going to be maxed out on parking and we’re going to need those parking spots,” Arias said.
City staff, though, said only two spaces are used.
“We didn’t believe that caused enough of a concern,” city planning director Jennifer Clark said.
Arias said there were plenty of alternative sites in and around the area, including the use of city traffic signals. He cited $80 billion in profits for T-Mobile, enough to find another spot. Two years is plenty of time to find a new location, he said. And, the city would be mandated to approve plans for a new tower.
He said he intends to seek historic protection for the garage within 90 days.
“My office intends to seek the historic designation of the Spiral Garage, given the significance architecturally and to the city’s history and its role as an anchor building for the historic district,” Arias said from the dais.
City staff pointed out that a historic designation would not preclude leases for cell phone equipment.
A city staff report said an attempt to declare the Spiral Garage a historical area was made before.
“The Spiral Garage was evaluated in April 2011 by Historic Resources Group; at that time it was determined that the property was not eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. While the Fulton Corridor Specific Plan found that the building could be a contributor to a potential local district, no district has been adopted in the Fresno Local Register of Historic Places. The property is not individually listed on the Local Register of Historic Places,” the report said.
Arias noted that revenue from the cell leases goes into the general fund and is not necessarily re-invested into the Spiral Garage.
T-Mobile, Councilmembers Skeptical
Maps provided by T-Mobile show a significant coverage decrease if cellular antennas are removed from the Spiral Garage.
Several T-Mobile employees spoke in favor of the 20-year extension.
Cia Parker, T-Mobile’s director of networking engineering and operations, told the City Council that 8,000 Fresno Unified students use company equipment, part of a program to provide broadband services to underserved communities. Those services would be at risk if T-Mobile has to move its cell equipment.
“There is not an adjacent cell site that we can place right now,” Parker said. “If this site is removed, it will create a hole in the coverage that will not be replaced by the surrounding sites. So it will cause the loss of coverage.”
Public safety could also be affected. T-Mobile official Rodrigo de la Rosa said 868 calls to 911 were made in the last year from the Spiral Garage alone.
“(It is) a really key place situated where there’s a lot of emergencies that need to be answered. Without that site, they would go unanswered,” de la Rosa said.
AT&T currently has a lease to use the Spiral Garage through 2042.
“I don’t feel comfortable treating one company different than the other. I don’t understand why,” Karbassi said.
Councilmen Luis Chavez and Garry Bredefeld echoed similar sentiments.