BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Updated Feb. 23, 4:20 p.m.: The city’s determined rollout of 5G megatowers in the West Village and Soho has, to hear some tell it, become one of the most heated issues in years in the Downtown area.
The city promises that the 5G towers will bring “ultra-fast network speed and expanded mobile coverage.” But residents are up in arms about lack of community process and notification behind the effort, of course the three-story-tall monoliths’ massive size and unsightly, giant microphone-like design — calling them glaringly noncontextual with low-scale historic districts — and their unsuitability for Soho’s hollow sidewalks, as well as health concerns about the potential electromagnetic impacts of the cutting-edge technology.
Meanwhile, the towers are redundant to similar 5G equipment that already has been and is currently being installed on rooftops and other poles, leading Community Board 2 to declare that there is “no immediate need” for the invasion of the 5G pod poles. A total of nine of the Brobdingnagian “Blade Runner”-style posts are planned in C.B. 2 — yet this would reportedly only be the first round of more waves to come. The organization CityBridge has the Link franchise for New York City.
Making the whole process seem both nontransparent and chaotic is a Byzantine set of guidelines. Meanwhile, making it feel despotic, the city claims the ability to override any efforts to restrict where the new towers go.
Work to install the contentious structures recently started at two spots in the West Village on Washington Street. The effort has been starting and stopping in spurts, though, in response to calls from local politicians — particularly Councilmember Erik Bottcher — who have raised a cry whenever the workers start up again.
Following a hearing at Community Board 2 on Jan. 17 on the 5G towers issue, the full board on Jan. 19 called for a moratorium on the poles’ installation in the district, voting nearly unanimously with only one “no” vote. However, only a few weeks later, on Feb. 1, workers started carving out a foundation to install a 5G pole at W. 12th and Washington Streets.
Backing up the board, on Feb. 1, a group of local politicians (Bottcher, state Senators Brian Kavanagh and Brad Hoylman and Assemblymember Deborah Glick) promptly fired off a joint letter to the Office of Technology and Innovation seconding the call for a district moratorium.
On Feb. 3, Bottcher, ratcheted up the resistance, demanding an immediate halt on the 5G installations. The work stopped.
Yet, less than a week later, on Feb. 8, work again resumed at W. 12th and Washington Streets, where workers now began digging a trench to run electric and fiber-optic connections to the new foundation they had created the previous week for a planned pole.
In addition, the workers had expected to start digging a similar street trench the next day, Feb. 9, for the 5G tower at Horatio and Washington Streets. “No Parking Thursday and Friday” signs had been taped up and cones set out to block off parking spots. But then nothing happened as, again, the work ground to a halt.
As of press time, work on the two Washington Street 5G sites is on hold. Bottcher and the Mayor’s Office have agreed to meet and discuss the situation. The Village Sun has reached out to Bottcher’s office for an update.
‘People are really concerned’
Zack Winestine, a filmmaker and veteran West Village activist who leads the group Save Gansevoort, said the level of local concern around the 5G towers is unlike anything he has seen before. He noted that he regularly sends out blasts on “controversial issues” to a large e-mail list of residents, but that the reaction on the towers has been huge.
“I would say the stuff I send out with these Link5G towers — there has been more response to that than anything I’ve sent out in the last 20 years,” he said. “I’ve had 15 to 20 people get back to me. People are really, really concerned about this.”
Winestine said fueling the outrage over the 5G towers is “the fact that they are so out of place in the West Village — and that there has been such a lack of consultation and communication. [Potential] health reasons aside, people are seeing this as a massive intrusion in their lives.”
As for concerns about whether the higher-frequency 5G waves are bad for human health, Winestine said, “I think the city has been explicit that they will not accept arguments about radiation or frequency in the siting of these. They say they’re following the F.C.C. guidelines.”
The poles sport around four or five bays on top. These bays will mostly be leased to 5G carriers (such as Verizon, T-Mobile or AT&T), so they can beam data service to users, while one bay will provide free WiFi.
Then, there is also lucrative advertising — which Winestine personally suspects is driving the West Village installation effort. The ad panels (two per pole) will be around the same size as the ones on the city’s existing, smaller-sized sidewalk Link WiFi kiosks.
“Many of these towers are going to have large, illuminated advertising displays,” he noted.
However, according to Village Preservation, ads on the 5G poles will only be allowed in commercial- and manufacturing-zoned districts. But the Washington Street zone actually is commercial, though allows residential use.
‘Digital equity’ argument
Yet, the city has also been pitching the 5G monoliths altruistically, as a way to level the playing field, in terms of increasing “free digital access to connectivity, information and telecommunications.” (“Playing,” literally, since the increased speed of 5G is touted as great for gamers, as well as movie downloads.) Around 3.4 million New York City residents currently lack access to home and mobile broadband, according to O.T.I.
“The Office of Technology and Innovation is saying this is an equity issue and these towers will be built in digital deserts,” the West Village activist noted. “But this isn’t a digital desert, so why are these towers being built here?”
Indeed, speaking last July at the installation of the city’s first 32-foot-tall 5G pole — in the Bronx — O.T.I. Commissioner Matthew Fraser declared, “Today’s Link5G launch represents a dramatic leap forward in New York City’s efforts to bridge its long-standing digital divide… . Ninety percent of the 2,000 kiosks that will go live will go to the neighborhoods that have been historically underserved. Equity is at the heart of the 5G rollout.”
According to the C.B. 2 Quality of Life Committee’s resolution from January on the issue, “CityBridge is required to site 90% or more of new Link5G terminals outside of Manhattan below 96th Street in order to fulfill its mandate of providing broadband equity and closing the digital divide, with additional requirements to site a certain number of terminals in identified ‘equity community districts.'”
(To read the city’s Link5G proposal, which outlines the structures’ design and the program’s goals, click here.)
Meanwhile, Winestine noted that the Village area’s existing fiber-optic cable network (landline) is reliable and its bandwidth more than adequate for most residents’ needs.
“We just get the platitudes from the city that New York is a digital desert and that we have to move forward,” he scoffed.
‘City flouting its own rules’
Not all the proposed tower sites are listed in publicly accessible open data, he complained, adding that O.T.I. is blatantly flouting its own rules about not siting the unsightly structures next to individual landmarks.
According to Village Preservation, however, only Link5G towers earmarked for spots that were not pay phones prior to 2014 or within historic districts must be listed in open data. Any spot that was once a pay phone is apparently fair game for a towering 5G transmitter. And yet, Winestine noted, none of the proposed West Village locations that were missing from open data are former pay phone sites.
Six of the proposed nine C.B. 2 locations are within landmarked historic districts, with two (820 Greenwich St. and 771 Greenwich St.) in the Greenwich Village Historic District, two more (568 Broadway and 110 Prince St.) in the Soho-Cast Iron Historic District, and two others (113 Horatio St. and 108 Gansevoort St.) in the Gansevoort Market Historic District a.k.a. the Meatpacking District.
Winestine noted that plans for the two 5G towers in the Meatpacking District call for advertising panels, which violates O.T.I.’s guidelines prohibiting these ad displays within historic districts.
In addition, at least two 5G towers are slated for installation next to individual landmarks, another violation of the guidelines. One of these is proposed at 445 West St., at Bethune Street, right next to Westbeth Artists Housing, and the other at 113 Jane St., next to the landmarked Jane Hotel. The latter installation site currently is listed on open data — yet is conspicuously not among the spots that CityBridge told C.B. 2 about.
As for the two Washington Street sites where work has started, they’re currently the only ones earmarked for the West Village that are not in a historic district or adjoining an individual landmark — although they are directly across the street from historic districts.
“It’s very hard to respond or organize a community response to this amorphous mess,” Winestine protested. “This gets back to what the hell is going on with O.T.I.? Their inability to follow their own guidelines.”
As for where things stand with work on the stalled Washington Street 5G sites, Winestine shrugged, “The situation remains fluid.”
Winestine and Village Preservation members have vigilantly been keeping Bottcher’s office posted whenever they spot work starting up at the two sites.
Like Winestine, Andrew Berman, Village Preservation’s executive director, accused City Hall and CityBridge of trying to flout the poles’ siting guidelines, as well as other commitments.
“The city has stated publicly at community meetings and in writing that the towers shouldn’t be sited next to individual landmarks or in historic districts without going through full Landmarks Preservation Commission public review,” Berman said. “They have attempted to violate those guidelines in several cases and been called out for it, usually resulting in work or progress halting. They had also begun foundation work for a couple of sites on Washington Street recently, even though they told the public at C.B. 2 that nothing was finalized or imminent and they were continuing to accept comments about siting. We and others immediately reached out to city officials, including Erik Bottcher, to object to this breach of commitments and the city halted work. The status of these two possible tower installations is unclear.”
Village Preservation has been generating hundreds of letters to city officials, urging a halt to the program, and in January Berman also wrote directly to city officials, accusing the 5G siting process of being “shrouded in secrecy” and characterized by “disturbing opacity.” Though O.T.I. publicly says it wants a “robust public review” of the plan, in reality, stakeholders’ input is “purely advisory,” and any “limitations” regarding siting can simply be vetoed by O.T.I. Chairperson Fraser, Berman noted in his letter.
Echoing Winestine, Berman told The Village Sun that the opposition to the humongous towers has been particularly strong.
“I can tell you that there are few things in recent years we have heard from so many about,” he said.
(Village Preservation has created a resource sheet on the 5G tower plan.)
Mounting concerns amid the murk
According to an O.T.I. spokesperson, the “LinkNYC team” first pitched the proposed Link5G locations to C.B. 2 on Oct. 17. Amid growing calls for basic information about the rollout, O.T.I. and CityBridge representatives agreed to give a presentation to the C.B. 2 Quality of Life Committee on Jan. 17.
Will Benesh, the Quality of Life chairperson, said the committee’s written resolution necessarily responded to a wide array of complaints about the Link5G rollout. Turnout at the committee meeting was unusually high — more than 100 people — and no one from the public spoke in favor of the plan.
“Our resolution was pretty comprehensive,” he said. “Clearly, there was a significant amount of concern — everything from design and aesthetics [of the Link5G towers], the vaults in Soho, the landmarks issues, safety, to privacy concerns [data harvesting]. We tried to synthesize all the concerns. We called for a moratorium; other community boards called for a moratorium. There are a lot of people saying this should stop,” he said of the contentious 5G buildout, “but it doesn’t seem like they are.
“There are many, many people concerned about these and not just in our district — and that’s a fact,” he said. “I think it’s untrue to characterize this as something that not many people care about.
“Pole-top and rooftop 5G is out there already,” he added. “We were asking them, why do we need all of that, plus this? There’s no problem with digital access in our neighborhoods. It’s kind of superfluous.”
Under the Link5G plan, Community Board 3, covering the East Village and Lower East Side, is considered one of 13 “equity zones” — an area in need of better digital connectivitiy. C.B. 3 is slated to get a minimum of 65 of the gigantic 5G poles — an amount at the higher end of the buildout for the 13 underserved districts. Conversely, C.B. 2, covering the West Side, is not deemed a digital equity zone.
“You definitely have a group of people who are concerned about the electromagnetic waves and the health effects, and they have been showing up at [community board] meetings,” he added. “I’m not a doctor. I can’t speak to that. I just know a lot of people are concerned about it.”
For what it’s worth, the city’s Link 5G proposal says that transmitters must be a minimum of 19.5 feet above the ground per F.C.C. safety regulations.
A ‘smashing’ intro in Soho
In Soho, concerns are particularly high about the huge towers’ impact on the area’s unique physical infrastructure — namely, it’s hollow vaults under sidewalks.
Ronnie Wolf, who lives at 458 Broadway, said that in January, an outfit called Triumph construction, with permits from the Department of Transportation, cut into the building’s sidewalk under the premise that they were “removing old telephone lines.” (Decades ago the spot had three sidewalk phone booths, one on Broadway and two on Grand Street.)
The workers wound up slicing through existing sidewalk vaults, which the co-op had previously waterproofed at considerable expense, leading to rainwater pouring into the basement for a month. CityBridge has declined to address the problem, Wolf said. On top of that, in February, CityBridge then cut two more holes into the 1890s building’s Grand Street sidewalk.
(Soho’s hollow sidewalks are a remnant from its 19th-century, pre-electricity, industrial past when its basements were factories lit from above by small, clear, glass circles set in cast-iron sidewalks. They also explain Soho’s dearth of street trees.)
However, these Soho sites actually are not on the list of initial 5G tower placements in C.B. 2. Perhaps they are being prepped for a yet-to-be-announced second round of installations? Again, every former pay phone location is a potential 5G megatower site.
“We are a co-op of eight individuals and it is expensive and time-consuming to hold the city and the franchise they partnered with accountable!” Wolf said. “Litigation appears to be our only option. To repair and restore our vaulted sidewalk could definitely be hundreds of thousands of dollars because waterproofing of vaulted sidewalks is a very tricky endeavor to succeed!”
The spot is located within the Soho Cast-Iron Historic District, so L.P.C. would need to grant approval for any 5G tower installation there.
“What ‘could happen’ in historic districts actually did happen,” Wolf declared of the possibly rogue 5G-related work. “Others could possibly experience the same outcome if no one holds CityBridge and all the other parties involved accountable and insure they do their due diligence and engage with property owners before making sidewalk cuts.”
O.T.I.: ‘5G also for workers, visitors’
In a statement to The Village Sun, a spokesperson for the Office of Technology and Innovation, said the 5G towers rollout in areas like the West Village and Soho is about more than just meeting the basic needs of residents, and that the city plans to keep up “the conversation” with the community.
“The Adams administration believes that digital equity is a human right, regardless of where you live, work or visit in New York City,” the spokesperson said. “Just because some residents in a neighborhood enjoy strong connectivity does not guarantee that the New Yorkers who work in or visit that neighborhood enjoy the same. Link5G will deliver faster cell phone service, free WiFi and free nationwide calling, among other digital amenities. The LinkNYC team has engaged elected and community stakeholders on proposed sites in Community Board 2 since October 2022, and looks forward to continuing the conversation on these critical neighborhood investments.”
According to O.T.I., since LinkNYC’s launch in 2016, the sidewalk kiosks have connected more than 12 million New Yorkers and visitors with free WiFi, plus provided more than 30 million free phone calls — all at no cost to users or taxpayers. Around 425,000 calls are made from LinkNYC kiosks per month. During the pandemic, 30 percent of users said LinkNYC kiosks were the only broadband Internet access they had.
5G needed for AI, VR and IoT
Although the city is not pitching it this way, 5G — with its low latency (as in, minimal delay) and greater bandwidth — is also seen as potentially transformative for the future in terms of enabling virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence (AI) and also the Internet of Things (IoT), from Alexa and robot vacuum cleaners to driverless cars. However, according to the city, AI, VR and IoT are not the impetus behind the 5G towers rollout.
As for the existing LinkNYC kiosks that were installed starting in 2016 and now seem downright tiny at only 10 feet tall, the plan is to keep them out there, too, the O.T.I. spokesperson said. The more bandwidth, the better.
Corrections: The initial version of this article improperly quoted a spokesperson from the city’s Office of Technology and Innovation saying that O.T.I. rejected the premise of the question as to whether the existing network of 10-foot-tall LinkNYC street kiosks is adequate to serve the needs of Community Board 2. In addition, a description of 5G and how it can enhance uses for virtual reality, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things was wrongly attributed as a quote from the O.T.I. spokesperson. That information, in fact, came from a wireless company’s Web site, not from O.T.I. The Village Sun apologizes for the errors.