Television station WJLA (Channel 7) can move its studios three blocks south on Connecticut Avenue, but it better not bring along its ugly white satellite dishes, because the neighbors don't like them.
The National Capital Planning Commission, in a surprise move, yesterday denied permission for WJLA and its landlord, the Intelsat organization, to keep six 6-foot dish antennas, plus seven rooftop antennas and a garage on a hillside next to the station's new studios off Tilden Street NW.
The commission, by a 6-to-5 vote, told its staff to retain an independent consultant to study whether the dishes can be placed elsewhere in order to address objections by residents of a large cooperative apartment building across Tilden Street.
The action will not prevent WJLA from moving to the Intelsat complex, located at Connecticut and Van Ness Street, but the vote may delay the station's move to its new $25 million studios there.
"We're disappointed and surprised by NCPC's action," said Tony Trujillo, spokesman for Intelsat, an international consortium that arranges global satellite communications. "We're hopeful we can have a compromise. We're trying to be sensitive to the concerns of everyone here."
The station's move from its cramped quarters in a shopping center at Connecticut and Albemarle Street, where it has been located since the 1950s, has prompted numerous controversies. Some residents fear increased traffic congestion on Tilden Street -- though station officials say that won't happen.
Some District officials question whether a commercial operation such as WJLA should be there at all. They cite an earlier act of Congress that mandated that the land where Intelsat is located was to be used for foreign governments' embassies and international organizations.
Residents of the nearby Tilden Gardens apartment complex expressed relief at the commission's vote. "It's wonderful that they've seen the necessity of hiring an expert," said resident Stephanie Grogan, who also has criticized the Intelsat project's architecture. In a recent commission hearing, she testified that living near the huge Intelsat project -- with its futuristic-looking cylindrical metallic "pods" -- was "like living on the launch pad of Battle Star Galactica."
While it didn't comment on Intelsat's looks, the commission's staff had said WJLA's request was reasonable, especially because the station had plans to hide the dishes with shrubbery.
John McCurdy, WJLA's building contractor coordinator, said the dishes -- used for receiving satellite transmissions -- must be near the studio and near the ground or else the transmitted television images become blurry.
McCurdy said WJLA feels uncomfortable causing controversy. "We want to work with the neighborhood," he said. "If the community likes us, they'll watch us."