LinkNYC Operator Withdraws Westbeth 5G Tower Plans

Facing community pushback and after a review by the New York State Historic Preservation Office, LinkNYC’s operator is withdrawing its plan for a Link5G tower in front of the landmarked building that once housed the Bell Telephone Laboratories Complex.

| 14 Dec 2023 | 12:28

CityBridge, the tech and wireless consortium operating LinkNYC, will withdraw its proposal for installing a LinkNYC 5G tower at 445 West St., following a review from the New York State Historic Preservation Office and after receiving pushback from local preservationists.

The block-long building complex in the West Village is of national historic value: It was formerly the Bell Telephone Laboratories Complex, a National Landmark, and now hosts Westbeth Artists’ Housing, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and designated as a city landmark.

In public comments opposing the siting of the Link5G tower from early November, Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservationists, which often goes by Village Preservation, said that the 32-foot structure would partially obscure the “delicate details” on the north facade of the complex’s oldest building, which was built in 1860. The preservationist group had previously pushed for the complex’s landmark designation, which it received in 2011.

On Dec. 1, Village Preservation said that the New York State Historic Preservation Office had “also come out against siting a 5G tower here, and has called for it to be removed.” It celebrated the agency’s recommendation as “a victory” — an indication that the plan would be withdrawn. Jack Sterne, a spokesperson for CityBridge, said in an email to Straus News that the SHPO had “requested that we change the location, which we agreed to do by withdrawing it. That said, it was a request that we did not have to agree to.” He noted that instead of withdrawing the plans, CityBridge could have forwarded the siting plans to the Federal Communications Commission for “further review.” The SHPO did not respond to Straus News’ fact-checking request.

On Dec. 4, a CityBridge spokesperson confirmed to Straus News that it was planning to withdraw the 445 West St. Link5G tower. To CityBridge, the withdrawal was an indication of its 60-day public review process working as intended.

“Siting any piece of mobile telecoms infrastructure is an inherently iterative process, and Link5G smart poles are no different. We review all potential sites with Village Preservation and over 40 other community groups across the city and work with local leaders to adjust sites where there are concerns. We appreciate the Village Preservation’s comments on these sites and are exploring how we can incorporate their feedback. We look forward to continuing to work with Village Preservation and all of our community partners to deploy the Link5G network and deliver the connectivity and digital safety net New Yorkers need while minimizing impact on historical sites,” said the CityBridge spokesperson in a statement.

Village Preservation remains critical of CityBridge’s review process. “Once the SHPO finds that the tower would have a negative impact, CityBridge doesn’t have a lot of options. So I wouldn’t necessarily congratulate them for dropping this one, given the finding. It’s also worth noting that CityBridge tried to avoid this entire Section 106 historic preservation review process altogether, which only moved forward once they were forced to participate,” said Andrew Berman, Village Preservation’s executive director, in an email to Straus News.

Link5G towers became subject to historic preservation review after a FCC directive issued in April. Prior to that, advocates criticized CityBridge for lack of transparency in its siting and installation process. Village Preservation was among the eight Manhattan-based community groups that sent a letter to city hall in January, calling for greater transparency and room for public feedback in the Link5G project. Many of those groups now serve as historic preservation consulting parties for the project.

Mayor Eric Adams has been supportive of the drive to bring 5G connectivity to neighborhoods across the city. But in April, Congressman Jerrold Nadler, who represents the UES and UWS urged FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel in to review of the towers under the National Historic Preservation Act.

Nadler, along with Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, N.Y. Sen. Liz Krueger, Assembly members Alex Bores and Rebecca Seawright and Council members Keith Powers and Julie Menin, co-signed a letter to the Landmarks Preservation Commission urging further review.

Despite the public review process, Berman remains critical of the Link5G rollout. “These 32 ft tall metallic towers, some with large video screens, are unnecessary, ungainly, and don’t belong in residential neighborhoods, in historic districts, or near landmarks. It’s unfortunate that it has fallen upon the public to fight them one by one, but that is what we are doing. The entire system for siting and rolling out these huge towers in a haphazard and illogical manner is highly flawed, and we continue to call for the plan to be scrapped. This is one small but important victory in a larger war against this inappropriate and problematic program.”

CityBridge spokesperson Jack Sterne disagreed with Berman’s assessment of the Link5G towers as “unnecessary,” citing media coverage on how cell service in city is getting worse. CityBridge has said the Link5G towers will “bring better cellular service, increased opportunities to connect to free Wi-Fi, and improved options for in-home broadband internet access.”

He also pointed to a survey conducted by the market research firm HarrisX for LinkNYC in July, which found that 76% of respondents “support the deployment of LinkNYC’s new Link5G smart poles in their communities to expand access to free high-speed public Wi-Fi, free nationwide calling, free device charging, connections to essential government services, and dependable 5G cellular service.” The poll surveyed 1,617 New York City residents, with representative samples from the five boroughs and a margin of error of plus or minus 2.4%.

LinkNYC describes its 5G towers as “smart poles” that provide public goods: free Wi-Fi, phone calls, a kiosk with access to city services, as well as 5G and fiber optic cable infrastructure that will improve cellphone and internet connectivity citywide. Preservationists see the Link5G towers as eyesores that encroach on public space and diminish the value of their neighborhoods.

Many more proposed Link5G sites, some of which are in historic districts or near landmarks, are set to undergo public review. The Westbeth site is just one instance of an ongoing negotiation between CityBridge and disapproving community members, during what will be a yearslong Link5G rollout.

Meanwhile, according to the New York Post, another company called Comptek has proposed a 5G tower design with a smaller pole, and is trying to get Adams to consider that tech firm for some of the projects.