5G Wars: Preservationists KO Link5G Plans on UES for Now

After the state historic preservation office recommended against the siting of a 5G tower in Carnegie Hill, original plans for all but one of Link5G sites slated for the Upper East Side may now be suspended.

| 16 Feb 2024 | 09:27

The New York State Historic Preservation Office has recommended against plans for a Link5G tower at 1190 Madison Ave., near 87th Street.

This latest decision, first reported by the news site Patch, appears to be a major victory by neighborhood preservationists in their long running battle against the city and LinkNYC operator CityBridge, over the 32-foot 5G towers.

The site in question is the 10th proposed Link5G tower on the Upper East Side, and the last in Carnegie Hill, to be “removed from active installation timelines,” according to a statement by Manhattan Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright.

A CityBridge-administered map shows 11 Link5G sites on the Upper East Side. Nine of them are labeled as being “in remediation,” indicating that the original proposals are being reconsidered: potentially being revised or withdrawn.

Of the remaining two, one is the 1190 Madison Ave. site. According to Nuha Ansari, manager of the preservationist group Friends of the Upper East Side—a consulting party on the Section 106 review process—the nine proposals marked as “in remediation,” as well as the 1190 Madison Ave. site, have all been advised against by the SHPO. Straus News could not independently verify this information, and CityBridge’s spokesperson did not respond to questions regarding the status of these sites.

Now, just one proposed Link5G tower site on the Upper East Side remains undisrupted, according to the CityBridge map—though its future is uncertain.

Last April, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that all proposed Link5G towers located in historic districts must undergo a historic preservation review process known as Section 106 review. According to previous statements from CityBridge spokesperson Jack Sterne, since SHPO decisions are requests, not mandates, LinkNYC’s private operator CityBridge may choose to forward the siting plans to the FCC for further review.. In the case of the 1190 Madison Ave. site, CityBridge told Patch that “no final determination has been made.”

Anti-Link5G advocates declared the SHPO decision a victory for the preservationist cause. “New York City deserves better connectivity, but massive, out-of-scale, and unnecessary sidewalk cell towers were never the way forward in historic districts,” said Joanna Cawley, the Executive Director of Carnegie Hill Neighbors, a preservationist group that has vigorously advocated against the siting of the 5G towers in their neighborhood.

Politicians who have voiced opposition to the siting of Link5G towers in their neighborhoods also celebrated the decision as a victory. Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright, Council Member Julie Menin, and Council Member Keith Powers reiterated concerns about the visual incompatibility of the 32-foot metallic towers and the Upper East Side’s historic neighborhoods in a press release.

Preservationists’ say their opposition to Link5G is based upon the towers’ visual impact, rather than the 5G technology itself. Ansari, of the preservationist group FRIENDS, said in an email that they have been “very open to exploring and advocating for alternatives to the proposed 5G towers,” including “several, much less obtrusive solutions to expanding and enhancing the city’s 5G network.” Lawmakers echo this point: “Cities such as Los Angeles, Portland, and Denver already use aesthetically-pleasing smart pole technology and New York City can and should do the same,” said Menin in the press release.

Last October, Assembly Member Alex Bores released a report outlining solutions to ongoing community concerns about the Link5G program. It called on the city and LinkNYC to improve transparency in its design and siting process. It also recommended design alternatives that are less obtrusive than the tall towers, such as 5G cells that can be installed on existing infrastructure, and creative designs that blend into local contexts, like antennas hidden in church spires. CityBridge’s spokesperson did not respond to a question regarding whether the company has considered alternative Link5G designs.

Pushback against the pushback

When Patch first reported SHPO’s decision, Rep. Jerry Nadler tweeted that it was an “important victory for historic neighborhoods on both the east and west sides of Manhattan,” gesturing at the ongoing pushback against Link5G in other Manhattan neighborhoods. Upper East Side District Leader Kim Moscaritolo, however, called it a “stupid f—— decision,” and referenced a City & State article written by Brooklyn Assembly Member Latrice Walker earlier this month.

In the opinion piece, Walker champions Link5G as a solution to the digital divide, underscoring city data showing that a quarter of households across the five boroughs lack broadband service, and that the percentage is even greater among Black, Hispanic, low-income, and senior households. On the Upper East Side, 14 percent of households lack broadband access, according to the same report.

Walker argues that opposition to Link5G, which she implies is a form of NIMBYism, will disrupt a “citywide 5G network that depends on the installation of smart poles across the five boroughs to be effective,” and stall the city’s efforts to bridge the digital divide for its most underserved communities. 90% of the Link5G kiosks will be deployed in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and Upper Manhattan, according to the Link5G website.

Anti-Link5G advocates say that installing Link5G towers in commercial areas of Manhattan would do little to bridge the digital divide, and point out that the towers’ free Wi-Fi would not actually reach beyond a promised 750-foot range and into most homes. “We also believe that precious, taxpayer funded public space in our neighborhoods should not be ceded to private companies unless there is real payback in terms of equitable and effective 5G access,” said Ansari. Link5G is the product of a public-private partnership, and not funded by taxpayers.

The towers would host 5G transmitters for private cell service providers, as well as fiber optic cables, bolstering the city’s mobile broadband and fiber infrastructure, providing more reliable service throughout the five boroughs. Walker says that an expansive Link5G network could bring more cell and internet service providers to more neighborhoods, allowing for more affordable and reliable options.

Last tower standing

When the city first launched the Link5G program in 2022, 18 of the 5G towers were slated for the Upper East Side. The number was reduced after “neighborhood uproar,” according to Upper East Site, to the 11 sites marked on the CityBridge map.

The tower at 1712 York Ave., between 90th and 91st Streets, is near the former Municipal Asphalt Plant, now part of the Asphalt Green complex. The former asphalt plant — a hulking, concrete building with a dramatic parabolic arch — was declared a New York City landmark in 1972, and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Ansari says that installing a Link5G tower at 1712 York Ave. would “irrevocably alter the viewshed of the adjacent historic resources.” FRIENDS has already submitted public comments calling for an alternative design, should a 5G tower be installed there.