by Ann Kessler
Almost 50 years ago, the Forest Hills neighborhood united in stopping what would have the tallest structure in the city: a TV tower on Connecticut Avenue.
In 1969, The Evening Star Broadcasting Company wanted to build a transmission tower at 4411 Connecticut Avenue for its TV station WMAL-TV (today’s WJLA-TV, Channel 7). The tower, which would have been nearly twice the height of the Washington Monument, was to be located on a vacant lot next to the WMAL studios in the former “Ice Palace” at 4455 Connecticut.
The thousand-foot-tall structure would have been part of a five-story facility housing a news studio and offices. A December 8, 1969 WMAL-TV letter to neighbors touted community benefits such as the development of an “unsightly” trash-filled vacant lot and the inclusion of ground-floor retail and a civil defense shelter.
“…[I]n design, construction and detail, the proposed new complex would be handsome, dignified, and, we believe, a considerable asset to the neighborhood and the community,” wrote Frederick S. Houwink, vice president of Evening Star Broadcasting.
While the building of the tower required no change in zoning, WMAL-TV did need an exemption to the city’s 60-foot height limit for such structures. Here, the Forest Hills Citizens Association found an opening to raise its objections.
Mayor Walter Washington decided that a hearing would be held on December 15, 1969, but it was postponed at the request of then-FHCA President Shari Kharasch (later Shari Barton). She argued that the association needed more time to study WMAL’s documents and the impact the tower would have on Connecticut Avenue.
Shari Barton, who died in 2014, was an active member of the FHCA for more than 40 years. A well-connected Democrat and a fierce fighter for the Forest Hills neighborhood, she knew it would take more than a petition drive to topple the tower.
At a January, 1970 meeting, Forest Hills Citizens Association members passed a resolution opposing the tower on the grounds that it would be both a safety hazard and unsightly for a residential neighborhood. Barton then led the effort by a few members to privately retain attorney Walter N. Tobriner to represent them at the scheduled hearing on the tower.
Tobriner was previously the president of the city’s Board of Commissioners, the governing body which ruled DC before the conversion to a mayoral form of government in 1967. He had also served on the Board of Education during the integration of the schools in 1954, was chairman of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority from 1966 to 1967 and was ambassador to Jamaica from 1967 to 1969. Tobriner had just returned to the private practice of law in 1969 when the Barton-led group hired him to represent them against the Evening Star Broadcasting Company.
The hearing was finally held on February 2, 1970, with Julian Green, the assistant superintendent of the License and Permit Division, presiding. More than 30 nearby residents testified in opposition to the tower. As about 100 of their neighbors listened, those testifying argued that the tower would be a threat to a residential neighborhood as wind might cause it to topple. They also argued ice falling off the tower would be dangerous to passersby, there could be interference with their reception of other TV stations, the tower would be an air traffic hazard. And, of course, they opposed the tower on aesthetic grounds.
Frederick S. Houwink, the vice president and general manager of the Evening Star Broadcasting Company, spoke on behalf of the station. He testified that WMAL-TV was forced to move its tower from its location at American University because FAA regulations did not allow a taller tower to be built on an official airway path to National Airport.
The Connecticut Avenue site, he said, was selected since it was adjacent to the TV station, had the proper zoning already and was expected to be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration for its height. As for the aesthetics argument, he said passersby wouldn’t even notice the tower after awhile.
WMAL-TV’s attorney also displayed letters from various businesses in support of the tower.
Other arguments given by WMAL-TV to support the tower included: that TV reception would improve; that the new office building and complex would be attractive and an asset to the neighborhood; that it would look far better than the vacant lot there now; that it would add $4 million dollars to the DC tax base; that it would provide security to the area with the possibility of including emergency communications for the city and federal governments; and WTOP and WTTG already had tall towers in the area.
In the summer of 1970, the Forest Hills Citizens Association learned that Mayor Washington had denied the Evening Star Broadcasting Company the exemption it needed to construct the tower at 4411 Connecticut Avenue. He agreed that the tower would have had a negative impact on Connecticut Avenue and its surrounding community.
Something was eventually built on that vacant lot where Evening Star wanted to put the tower: The Park Connecticut apartments arrived in 2000. WMAL-TV became WJLA-TV in 1977 and left 4455 Connecticut Avenue in 1988. And in 2013, the former Ice Palace/Van Ness Square was torn down to be replaced by Park Van Ness.
“Around Town: TV Tower Proposal,” Washington Post, Feb. 16, 1970.
Basham, William. “WMAL-TV Tower Plan Is Debated at Hearing,” Evening Star, Feb. 3, 1970, p. B4.
“Hearing Delayed on WMAL Tower,” Evening Star, Dec. 12, 1969, p. 26.
Kessler, Ann. The History of the Forest Hills Citizens Association: Service to the Neighborhood for 75 Years. May 2004
Levy, Claudia. “WMAL Seeks Tower Permit,” Washington Post, Dec. 5, 1969, p. A20.
Morgan, Jeanne. “TV Tower Opponents Plan to Retain Tobriner,” Evening Star, Jan. 20, 1970, p. 17.
“Subject: Building a Better Service,” WMAL-TV Report, Dec. 8, 1969. (Copy found at the Kiplinger Research Library of the Historical Society of Washington).
“TV Tower,” Washington Post, Dec. 8, 1969, C.24
“TV Tower Plans Protested,” Washington Post, Feb. 3, 1970, p. C3.
“WMAL Hearing,” Washington Post, Dec. 24, 1969, p. B2.
“WMAL-TV Hearing,” Washington Post, Jan. 16, 1970, p. C2.
“WMAL-TV to Build Station and Tower in City Northwest,” Evening Star, Dec. 5, 1969, p. 25.