Reaching a Summit in Communication : Investor hopes to buy mountaintop site owned by Lockheed. He plans to lease space on five antenna towers.
One of the best views in Los Angeles has panoramic vistas of Downtown, the Westside and the San Fernando Valley. And it’s not owned by a movie mogul.
The mountaintop site south of Mulholland Drive in the Hollywood Hills (elevation 1,508 feet) is owned by Lockheed Corp., which built an antenna facility there during World War II for airplane communications. But the Calabasas aerospace giant has moved its legendary aircraft operations away from their longtime base in Burbank, and no longer needs these transmitting towers.
Enter David Maddox and the telecommunications revolution.
The Boston investor agreed last July to buy the nine-acre site from Lockheed for an undisclosed price. He made the deal contingent on city approval for a conditional-use permit, which he expects in another four to five months. If Maddox receives that city approval, he intends to lease space on five antenna towers to as many as 40 wireless communications companies. Those would include possibly cellular phone companies, but more likely paging and dispatch service operators, plus entrants to the new market for personal communications services (PCS).
Maddox, 52, and his newly formed Briar Summit Wireless LLC--named after the road where the facility is located--aren’t likely to make a huge fortune off the venture. With expected monthly rents of $300 to $400 per company, the antenna facility would generate less than $200,000 in revenue a year.
Nonetheless, industry insiders consider Maddox’s plan smart and timely because the explosive growth of wireless telecommunication, which many believe is just beginning, means that companies will be looking for transmitting sites to lease. Maddox saw that Lockheed’s Briar Summit facility was attractive because its height and clear views in many directions could allow customers to send signals long distances and into tough-to-access pockets of surrounding hills and canyons full of affluent homeowners. “We’re buying this because we know it’s going to service a lot of people,” he said.
Richard Somers, president of American Mobile Systems Inc., a Woodland Hills operator of mobile radio systems, said that he had unsuccessfully approached Lockheed about buying the Briar Summit facility around the time of Lockheed’s 1971 bailout by the federal government. Had Somers known it was for sale recently, he said, he would have bid on it.
Somers noted that the Briar Summit site wouldn’t serve well as a communications relay station like those atop Mt. Wilson, where signals are sent directly from a mobile unit to the antenna station, then to a main office. Mt. Wilson is high enough that it can send signals without interference, while signals from Lockheed’s current site could be partially obstructed by surrounding hills, he said. But, Somers said, the Briar Summit site would be ideal as part of a broad network of paging, cellular, microwave or other mobile communications. “It would be an excellent addition to a network of multiple sites.”
Maddox and others believe there will be enough demand for transmitting sites, in part because of the federal government’s recent auction of part of the broadcast spectrum for new wireless communications services known as PCS. The auctions have attracted hundreds of companies that have bid billions of dollars collectively for the right to offer new mobile phone services and data services such as faxes over the airwaves.
The PCS licenses “give new entrants to the marketplace the opportunity to build new wireless systems, and they would absolutely need a place to transmit from,” said Amy Damianakes, a spokeswoman for AirTouch Communications Inc., the San Francisco-based cellular phone company that was spun off last year from Pacific Telesis.
Many companies will also choose to lease space on existing towers because it can cost upward of $1 million to build a new “cell site,” said Mike Houghton, spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Assn. in Washington.
Maddox came upon the Briar Summit site largely by chance. A former Southern Californian who moved to Boston a decade ago to develop real estate, he had joined with other investors in 1985 to acquire 600 acres in Ventura County near Simi Valley. They donated 100 of those acres to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Maddox and his partners later split up, and he ended up with 300 acres. He is now seeking approval to develop part of the property into a residential housing development with six 10-acre estates.
During those dealings, Maddox heard about the Lockheed transmitting facility being offered for sale. Maddox currently owns a 1,200-foot transmitting tower in Boston that he leases to broadcasters and paging companies, so he recognized the potential of the Lockheed site.
Maddox said he will be joined by a small group of investors in buying the Briar Summit property, and he will be majority owner. He is currently interviewing companies to manage the tower site, and has met with local homeowners and environmentalists to try to allay potential concerns about his plans.
If Maddox succeeds in acquiring the site, he will use four existing wooden antenna poles, each about 80 feet tall, plus one 60-foot metal pole, all surrounded by scrub brush at the crest of the hill. The poles will be outfitted with up to 20 whip antennas, which look something like car antennas and are used to pick up and transmit over-the-air signals. Two antiquated antenna towers will be torn down, but two small buildings at the site will be kept for housing electronics. Maddox plans to add landscaping to screen them from view. Seven of the nine acres will remain undeveloped.
Maddox believes the antenna towers will appeal more to paging and PCS companies needing broad transmission areas than to cellular providers, who prefer to set up grids of low-powered transmitters spaced closely together. Paging companies include those that service fleet operations such as taxis and security patrols. The Rutherford, N.J., fleet dispatch communications company Nextel Communications Inc. is also building a mobile phone network in Los Angeles to compete with cellular phone companies.
The winners of PCS licenses from last year’s government auction are also beginning to set up their networks. Rick Kimsey, executive director of PCS development for Cox Cable Communications Inc., which won the license to deliver PCS in the Los Angeles area, said his company will probably use a combination of tower antennas and small antennas hooked to cable wires on telephone poles. Particularly in Los Angeles, where zoning changes are difficult to obtain, he said, “we’re going to be interested in any and all existing sites.”
What’s more, said Bryant Hilton, spokesman for the Washington-based trade group Personal Communications Industry Assn., as technology improves more transmitters and receivers will fit on one tower. So in the future, the Briar Summit site might accommodate two to three times as many companies, he said.
Though the Briar Summit facility will appear little changed after new ownership takes over from Lockheed, it will be a far cry from its World War II days, when Lockheed used the station to communicate with aircraft on test flights out of Burbank.
At one point, said Lockheed spokesman Keith Mordoff, 40 workers manned the communications station.
Now, Lockheed will be Maddox’s first customer at Briar Summit. However, Mordoff said the aerospace concern plans to lease tower space to use for a communications system for its fleet of trucks.