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Iconic 'Cube' Supporters Urge Landmark's Preservation

Cupertino's Quinlan Center Wednesday night was packed with military personnel and other supporters who oppose destroying the radar tower.

The turnout at the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District July 18 meeting regarding the "cube" atop Mt. Umunhum was large, and perhaps reflective of the growing support by community members who wish to preserve the 85-foot radar tower that the district has proposed to demolish.

"This is going to be big," said Basim Jaber, Mt. Umunhum and Almaden Air Force Station historian. He was right.

Tipped off byand in the San Jose Mercury News and , and a petition by Jaber himself, the attendance at Cupertino's Quinlan Community Center was so massive that extra chairs had to be brought out to accommodate the number of visitors, twice. And still some could only stand.

"This turn out is very unusual for us," said Meredith Manning, the district's senior planner. "But we welcome it."

The cause, which drew so many from across the South Bay, was to inform the district of the historical and cultural significance of the Cold War radar town.

"Of all the public comments, the radar tower provided the most content by far," Manning said.

Built to support an 85-ton spinning radar "sail," The Cube is a lasting reminder of the role the Almaden Air Force station played in U.S. national defense. Established in 1958 by the U.S. Air Force, the Almaden station provided a radar umbrella 200 miles out over the Pacific Ocean looking for incoming Soviet nuclear bombers. The radar information gathered atop Mt. Umunhum was fed directly to NORAD by the largest computer system ever built, IBM's SAGE system.

The SAGE system could calculate an intercept course for detected bombers and immediately send that information to the NIKE missiles waiting throughout the Bay. If the Cold War ever heated up, the men of the 682nd radar squadron who manned the Almaden station would be the first and only line of defense against nuclear war.

But besides residing as a modern day watchtower, Mt. Um's Cube has significance outside of military veterans and historians.

"People say 'the military guys want to keep the tower but no one else cares,' " said one commenter, "that simply isn't true."

Another asked, "How many of us would be here if we were talking about Mount Mount Thayer?"

Many more spoke of the tower's history in the valley, from its construction to its orientation power as a landmark.

Of the more than 40 people who addressed the district's board members, many were not from the military and spoke of The Cube as something that was uniquely theirs, despite resting on land owned by the district.

"You know you're home when you can see that tower," said one commenter.

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I think The Cube is beautiful," said another.

Speakers reminded the district's board about how important the iconic landmark was to inspiring curiosity about The Cube itself and Mt. Um's history both militarily and in the lives of the Ohlone people.

That is not to say that everyone who spoke to the board wanted to keep the tower, just the majority of them.

"This is a monstrosity," said Cathy Helgerson of Cupertino. "We can't afford to pay for our kids' education, but we can afford this?"

Another speaker said he would feel as though he were in downtown San Jose if he were standing next to The Cube, and wanted to enjoy a panoramic view of the Bay on top of the mountain.

Valley residents have also described the intact structure as "an eyesore" upon the mountain ridge. Though others point out that a flattened Mt. Um top would stand out more.

For the majority, however, the answer was clear: keep the tower. Some even proposed new options.

From turning the tower into a museum or visitor's center to gutting the building to save on costs; Hella Bluhm-Stieber of San Jose voiced her son's, perhaps facetious suggestion to install a climbing wall on the tower's sides.

Comical perhaps, but in light of the district's plan to erect a hang-glider's hut, possibly not far fetched.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the future of Mt. Umunhum hung in the balance Wednesday night.

In actuality, the fate of the mountain top's concrete monolith will be decided later in the year during a fall meeting that has yet to be scheduled.

Wednesday's meeting was to decide the criteria that would be considered when making the final decision to keep the tower destroy it or keep its first level, only.

The criteria the district will consider when making its decision on the tower are:

  • Refers to the board-adopted polices, including the mission statement, the basic policy and the policies regarding improvements on district lands.
  • Is the structure under consideration believed to be compatible with and/or add to the character of the site and surrounding landscape?
  • Does the structure have historic, cultural or architectural significance at the national, state or local level?
  • Does the opportunity exist to partner with other agencies, community organizations and individuals to retain and/or manage the structure?
  • What financial cost commitment is necessary, both short and long-term, to upgrade and manage the structure to provide for safe public enjoyment?
  • What beneficial and reasonable uses could the structure support?
  • What feedback has been received from the public regarding the structure?
  • How will action taken on the structure impact other district priorities?
  • Does the structure add value to, or detract from, the visitor experience, whether up close or at a distance?

Of course, there is a cost associated with keeping the tower, almost $2 million to be exact.

During the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake the tower suffered "significant" damage, according to Bret Lizundia, one of the district's consultants.

"[The Cube has] 38 percent less capacity as a result of the quake," said Lizundia. "This puts you over a trigger, which is 20 percent, and California building code requires repair."

In addition to new paint, a new roof and the sealing of windows, doors and cracks in the building, not to mention the maintenance for the next 20 years, the district's cost to keep the building is estimated at three times the cost of destroying it.

With a total site clean up estimated at just shy of the $13 million provided to restore the mountaintop, the district isn't exactly flush with cash.

Although not everyone trusts the current cost estimates.

"[The district] is inflating the costs," said Jaber.

to build the radar tower originally and that "something about the costs struck me as odd" when presented with the $1.8 million price tag for keeping the tower.

Perhaps the conflict at the heart of the situation can be explained simply by the written comments the district allowed to be publicly submitted.

"Destroying the tower would be vandalism," wrote one commenter. "But leaving it up would generate vandalism."

For more information about the Mt. Umunhum project, please click here.

Martin Towar July 19, 2012 at 08:01 PM
Attention everyone! All work and no coffee ect, I've made a few mistakes I'll be correcting here. 1. I don't know how I missed this but it's the 682nd Radar Squadron not the 862nd. 2. It's Mount Thayer not Bear. According to Basim Jaber there is a building there and it will be demolished without fanfare. 3. The $97,000 was not the original cost of the cube but instead the amount of money spent on the meeting's table-sized "paper model" which was the centerpiece of the meeting. Thank you, carry on.
Sheila Sanchez July 19, 2012 at 08:23 PM
Thanks for covering the meeting, Martin, and for the edits. I've made the changes.
Pam July 20, 2012 at 12:15 AM
Isn't the cube on a superfund cleanup site?
Basim Jaber July 20, 2012 at 02:08 PM
Pam, it's not.

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