The operators of Sutro Tower removed some of the cladding on its legs without proper approval in 2019. City Hall retroactively approved their removal Thursday, but shot down a plan to let artists paint the removed panels, and instead they’ll be producing a “virtual tour” of the tower.

The ugly-but-we-love-it Sutro Tower is the primary television communication facility for the Bay Area's four local TV stations, and the 977-foot tall steel communications tower has served that purpose since 1973. And since it’s now 50 years old, it was overdue for some structural improvements, which have already started. The Federal Communications Commission was set to reimburse Sutro Tower operators for the $50 million worth of changes,

Image: SF Planning Commission

One of these changes was the removal of metal cladding panels on the surface of its legs, the locations of which are seen in the right-side image above. The panels were removed in 2019. But things hit a snag, xbecause as the Chronicle reported last October, Sutro Tower did not get the necessary local permits to remove those panels. And since the tower is eligible for (but not on) the California Register of Historic Places, the SF Planning Department defined the removed panels as a  “character-defining feature.” So as we’ve seen with the Castro Theatre, these historical designations create crazy red tape for the operators of said location.

That's why the tower’s operators Sutro Tower Inc. (STI) were forced before the SF Planning Commission on Thursday to both ask for a retroactive permit for removing panels they already removed, and to provide a few historical preservation concessions to sweeten the deal. The sweeteners that were approved were an “interpretive installation” paying homage to the tower’s history, and a “virtual tour” of the tower so people can check out up-close this restricted, hard-hat area.

But the Planning Commission shot down two ideas, one of which would have given the panels to local artists to make them into artwork for the interpretive installation, and another that would have had an annual open house for the public at the site. But most importantly, to Sutro Tower at least, was the commission did retroactively approve the removal of the panels, so Sutro Tower can get its $50 million reimbursement.

“Sutro Tower is safer without architectural siding on its legs,” STI attorney Kristin Thall Peters told the commission. “Permanent removal eliminates weight, reduces significant wind load, and decreases the number of components which could fail, or simply loosen and rattle to the annoyance of our neighbors.”

But yeah, unfortunately, local artists will not be handed the removed panels to turn them into art, because the panels are coated with hazardous lead paint. “I don’t understand why we are saving the salvaged panels,” commissioner Sue Diamond said Thursday. “I’m not comfortable putting out lead panels to the public.”

The Planning Commission also shot down the idea of an annual neighborhood open house at the tower. “It’s pretty easy to appreciate this tower from the publicly accessible trails that exist right now,” commissioner Derek Braun explained before the vote.

STI now has 60 days to present their plan to submit plans for the interpretive installation and other conditions for which they got their retroactive permits.

Related: Ask A San Francisco Native: What's The Big Deal About Sutro Tower? [SFist]

Image: SF Planning Commission