32-Foot LinkNYC 5G Towers Get Pushback from Historic Preservation Advocates

While a Link5G spokesperson insists the new towers have already undergone a “rigorous” public review procees, preservationists in Manhattan historic districts continue to argue that they’ll do more harm than good to their neighborhoods.

| 24 Nov 2023 | 07:35

New Yorkers may have seen a new fixture on their sidewalks as of late. At 32 feet tall, with metal columns and slightly translucent pole toppers, the new Link5G towers are certainly noticeable. They also look like they’re from the future: in the sunlight, they gain a specific sheen, giving them a surreal, AI-generated look. They’re set to be installed in the historic districts of Greenwich Village and SoHo, as well near landmarks in the neighborhoods of the East and West Villages.

Advocates are fighting against their installation, leading with concerns about historic preservation.

“The LinkNYC structures are poorly designed, massive, and will clutter the city’s streetscapes, detracting from historic districts and individual landmarks,” reads a January letter to the Mayor’s office, signed by eight Manhattan-based preservation groups. The towers are too big, they say, competing with the look of small-scale historic buildings and taking up too much room on narrow sidewalks.

A spokesperson for LinkNYC counters, “Link5Gs have gone through a rigorous public review process for the past three years, including presentation of alternative designs to the Public Design Commission, and we are in the midst of deploying them across NYC. We remain focused on bringing this important benefit to many more communities where there is an urgent need for free public WiFi and high speed broadband.”

But it has not calmed many community activists. The letter is part of advocates’ ongoing efforts to get the LinkNYC program to integrate more public feedback into its design and rollout process. They say the processes have been opaque, allowing LinkNYC’s private operator to push forward with its installations with little oversight and at residents’ expense.

For instance, in a Nov. 20 letter about a proposed site at 184 E. 7th St. in the East Village, advocacy group Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation wrote that a tower would obstruct the view of the “highly detailed, well maintained historic buff brick facade with intact limestone details” of an adjacent building, and from certain vantage points, “visually impede on sightlines to Tompkins Square Park.”

The preservationists, alongside other critics of the Link5G rollout, have made some headway. In April, the Federal Communications Commission issued a directive for all Link5G towers to be subjected to historic preservation and environmental reviews under federal law. As a result, several of the historic preservation advocacy groups were brought onto the project as “consulting parties,” and the installations of many towers were stalled.

Yet the consulting parties have encountered bumps in the road. In a joint letter from September, several wrote that FCC procedures were unsuited to the “large urban undertaking,” and that the project “seems to be proceeding in a haphazard manner.”

Adams’ Office of Technology and Innovation appears to be reviewing an alternative design for the LinkNYC 5G towers, reports the New York Post. It was first proposed in October by the wireless infrastructure company, Comptek Technologies. Comptek’s design has a smaller pole that can be attached to existing lampposts, blending better into the city’s existing infrastructure. It has also been endorsed by eight of the preservation advocacy groups.

Aside from this potential alternative, there is no quick solution on the horizon, it seems. Earlier this month, residents of the Upper East Side neighborhood Carnegie Hill rallied against the installation of 5G towers, also expressing concerns about disrupting the neighborhood’s historic character.

From Failed Kiosks to 32-Foot Towers

Like the MTA’s ticket machines, the LinkNYC kiosks have become a familiar feature of the city’s public infrastructure. (They’re both designed by the same firm, Antenna.) With charging ports, free public Wi-Fi, free domestic call capabilities, and a tablet for accessing city services, they’ve provided connectivity as a public service — a boon, especially, to unhoused New Yorkers. Accessibility is a major component of the kiosks’ intended use: LinkNYC’s original launch in 2016 was promoted as part of former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office’s efforts to “bridge [the] digital divide.” The first version of LinkNYC failed, falling “into delinquency” after it failed to install the number of kiosks it promised and eventually owed the city “tens of millions of dollars,” according to The Verge.

The kiosks also attracted bad press. A few months after the program’s launch in 2016, LinkNYC’s operator removed web browsing from the kiosks after reports of people using them to watch porn. Over the years, the program has also faced accusations of data harvesting and violating its own privacy policy. In July, the New York affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union called it “a privacy disaster.”

A public-private partnership, LinkNYC is run by a tech consortium called CityBridge. The Link5G towers are the product of a new financial model—while the previous iteration of LinkNYC kiosks were funded by advertising revenue, they failed to generate enough to broaden the program’s reach throughout the five boroughs. The 5G transmitters are intended to provide an additional source of revenue, by hosting equipment from cell carriers like AT&T and Verizon.

Bridging the digital divide?

Mayor Eric Adams’ office has championed the Link5G towers as a solution to digital inequity in the city. In a July 2022 press release about the program, Adams is quoted as saying, “Accessible broadband and phone service isn’t a luxury — it’s a necessity. These new LinkNYC 5G kiosks are going to finally help to close the digital divide and expand and improve mobile technology coverage all over this city.”

The city says that the bulk of the Link5G towers will be installed above 96th Street and outside of Manhattan. A total of 87 Link5G towers have been installed, 12 of which are in Manhattan, according to data published by the city, last updated in June. Five of those towers are installed in Chinatown, three on the Lower East Side, and two in the East Village.

Advocates say that too many of the proposed sites for Link5G towers are in wealthy neighborhoods that are already “digitally connected.” On its website, Village Preservation alleges that “the true motivation for siting seems to be monetizing data collected by the towers or space on or within them, rather than actually bridging any digital divide.”

A June letter to Mayor Eric Adams, written by citywide business leaders in support of the Link5G towers, characterized the anti-Link5G groups as reflecting the interests of “certain privileged, wealthy communities.” The letter went on to say, “Their requests all share the same message: ‘not in my backyard.’” But 2022 reports from Hell Gate and the New York Times indicate that the Link5G towers in less wealthy neighborhoods seem to have been met with lukewarm reception, too.

There appears to be one point of general consensus: the Link5G towers are not that nice to look at. The sticking point, then, is whether they’re worth the eyesore.