Critics call for halt to antenna plan

September 26, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH


Gazette Photo by David Taber
A new cell phone antenna/steetlight at 775 Centre St. was straightened by Maverick Construction on Sept. 23 after the Gazette noted the pole was crooked. A Maverick worker blamed “an “air pocket” for the problem.

The installation of ground-level cell phone antennas all over Jamaica Plain must halt until the community can review and approve the plan, City Councilor John Tobin and the Jamaica Plain Business and Professional Association (BAPA) demanded this week.

NextG Networks is erecting at least 35 antennas—the exact number remains unclear—across the neighborhood under a citywide plan approved by the little-known Public Improvement Commission (PIC) with no local notice or review. Some of the antennas are in the form of custom-built streetlight poles already going up in the Centre/South streets business district. Others are going on top of utility poles.

Michael Reiskind, a member of BAPA and the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council, complained at a recent BAPA meeting that the community knew nothing about the antennas until the Gazette revealed the five-year-old plan in recent weeks.

“We do know we are getting ugly streetlights,” Reiskind said, echoing a common complaint among local residents and design experts.

“They are a light fixture that is completely inappropriate for Centre Street,” said Michael Epp, a professional urban planner and head of the design committee for JP Centre/South Main Streets (JP CSMS).

The new streetlights will replace existing city streetlights that will be removed later. NextG will pay fees to the city under a standard deal that applies to all companies that use utility poles.

NextG’s Robert Delsman told the Gazette that the streetlight design was mostly required by the city, not by his firm. He also said it too late for public input on the current installation of the expensive custom-built poles.

“It’s not really possible to change the direction of a ship as it enters harbor,” Delsman said. “We certainly would not have expected that replacing of existing poles with new poles with specifications made by the city would be controversial.”

The Gazette has learned that at least one other neighborhood did have community meetings about the antenna plan: the Back Bay, where historic district protections require such input. Antennas in the Back Bay are being installed by a different company, Lightower, which hired JP resident Howard Leibowitz as a community outreach consultant.

Leibowitz told the Gazette that Back Bay residents were able to suggest aesthetic improvements to the streetlight antennas. That included getting rid of a large, locker-like box containing wires that is mounted on the side of the pole. The JP antenna poles have those boxes—which PIC required.

Now that he has seen NextG’s antennas going up in his own neighborhood, Leibowitz said, “Given there is an alternative to putting boxes up on the poles, they might want to pursue that.”

PIC reviewed and approved all the antennas in public City Hall hearings in recent months. But the only notice of them was in legal advertisements in the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald.

“I think we should probably do a better job announcing public meetings [of PIC],” said Mayor’s Office spokesperson Nick Martin.

PIC’s review of NextG’s plans is over, and no further public process is planned, Martin said.

The city made no formal announcement of the massive antenna plan. Neither did MetroPCS Communications, the Texas cell phone company that commissioned the work so it can enter the Boston market. MetroPCS’s public relations firm did not respond to a Gazette request for comment.

Vincent Leo, chief engineer for PIC, told the Gazette that PIC’s review did include aesthetics. Last fall, the city erected a test antenna/streetlight pole at Government Center next to City Hall so “everybody [could] take a look at it.” But there was no public announcement of that, either—only certain City Hall insiders knew what it was.

Martin emphasized the antennas’ benefits to residents. They are at ground level, so reception is not blocked by high buildings or other obstacles. And they are designed to be used by multiple cell phone and wireless Internet companies, so a large number of customers can benefit.

“Ultimately, it’s about trying to get better wireless service for the city,” Martin said.

But Boston is not the only place residents have questioned the work of NextG, which is installing antennas across Greater Boston. Earlier this year, the Board of Aldermen in Everett voted against NextG’s plans, calling the antennas ugly and unsafe. NextG threatened to sue the city under federal telecommunications-friendly laws. The board approved the plan, with protests.

“I voted against it anyway,” Alderman Michael Marchese told the Gazette.

Some JP residents have expressed concern about possible health dangers from the low-level antennas. Popular myth has long accused cell phones, power lines and similar electronic devices of causing cancer or other diseases. But there is no known mechanism for such low-power electromagnetic frequencies—microwaves—to cause disease. Scientific studies have not demonstrated any convincing cause-and-effect relationship.

John Farley, a physicist at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, notes that TV sets, the planet Earth and the human body give off far more electromagnetic radiation than a cell phone does. Cell phone microwaves are very low-power and cannot break down a human cell to cause disease the way powerful electromagnetic sources like sunlight and X-rays can.

“The only known effect [of microwaves] is a heating effect,” Farley said. “That’s why microwave ovens work. So here’s how to detect an effect of microwaves. Take a glass of water, and see if it gets warm from the microwaves. If it doesn’t, there’s no detectable effect.”

Farley has noted that such health-scare myths are often a way to express suspicion of big corporations and new technologies—suspicion that might be valid in other ways.

Antenna count

The antennas are about 4 feet tall and appear to be a rod hidden inside a larger metal cylinder. They are being mounted on top of two different kinds of poles. One is atop the new streetlights, known as “swap poles.” The other is atop existing wooden utility poles owned by NSTAR or Verizon, known as “third-party poles.”

Delsman said JP may also get a stand-alone new pole without a streetlight on it. He said that idea has not been presented to PIC yet.

In 2003, city department heads and lawyers approved a licensing deal with three companies—including NextG and Lightower—to cover Boston with a network of antennas. It appears that this deal was not publicized.

Under the deal, each company will pay $15,000 a year or 5 percent of gross revenue—whichever is higher—to have their poles in the city, plus a $60 per pole fee, according to Martin. He said that is the standard licensing deal the city makes with all utility companies.

The antenna companies waited until they had a main business partner—MetroPCS—to rent antenna space to before building anything. Only NextG and Lightower reached that stage, with the third company apparently dropping out. For some reason, Lightower was contracted to build only in the Back Bay, while NextG is doing the rest of the city.

Within the past year or so, the companies went to PIC for approval of the actual antenna plans. The first step was an advisory presentation on the citywide plan. Leo said he has a map of NextG’s proposed antenna network in his office. The network will involve roughly 200 antennas.

Then, over the past few months, NextG sought a series of approvals to build antennas in various PIC districts that roughly match neighborhoods. It appears that they were all approved.

PIC records show 13 streetlight poles coming to JP—including in every major business district. And there will be 22 third-party pole antennas all over the neighborhood, including locations near parks. That is a total of 35 antennas. [See sidebar.]

Delsman had different numbers: 15 streetlights and 26 utility poles. It appears there may be some confusion about JP’s boundaries. Leo said NextG is not proposing more antennas than PIC has already approved.
Community response

BAPA President Carlos Icaza sent a letter this week to the city’s Public Works Department saying that his organization is “disturbed” by the lack of public input and design review of the streetlight poles.

“We’re trying to ask for a moratorium on installation of these things in my district until there’s a public review process,” Tobin told the Gazette. He noted that fellow Councilor Charles Yancey has called for a council hearing about the antennas.

Leo and Leibowitz said PIC is always interested in community outreach, but leaves it up to the companies.

“Certainly, from what I heard at the public meetings of PIC, they wanted providers to go out and talk to the community,” Leibowitz said.

Leo said NextG officials reported contacting city councilors and the Mayor’s Office. But it seems that NextG did not request a community process and that the information it gave those officials was incomplete. Delsman said he could not comment on the quality of information.

Tobin said a NextG representative visited his office a few months ago and outlined the antenna plan. Tobin said his understanding was that the antennas were going only atop existing utility poles, not on new streetlights. He could not recall whether MetroPCS was mentioned in the meeting.

Tobin said the NextG representative mentioned a community meeting that happened in South Boston. So, Tobin said, he was left with the impression that NextG would go before JP neighborhood groups.

“I told him, ‘I’ll be at the community meetings when you go there,’” Tobin said. “Silly me to assume they wouldn’t go out there and start throwing these things up with no notice except these microscopic ads in the Globe and Herald.”

Delsman said he is not aware of any community meetings attended by NextG in Boston. “That has not been explained to us as part of the process,” he said, adding that NextG did everything the city ordered.

Epp, the architect on the JP CSMS design committee, said there are certainly aesthetic issues to discuss, at least in terms of the streetlight poles.

“I think a light fixture with an antenna atop it could be OK,” Epp said, quickly adding that the NextG poles do not fit the bill.

He complained about the poles’ gray color; the locker-like box mounted near the top; and the way their size and shape varies from other, normal streetlights.

“The color is the city’s designation,” Delsman said. “The poles, the design and all of the specifications for the new poles were specified by the city, by the streetlight department.”

One of the first new streetlights to go up, at 775 Centre St., was crooked. Worked straightened it this week after the Gazette reported its condition.

“It’s a utilitarian sort of object,” Epp said. “It’s not a street furniture piece for a historic neighborhood. I didn’t know it was possible to install a streetlight worse than cobra streetlights [the kind with a head hanging out over the street], but I think they have achieved that impossibility.”

Epp said he is especially irritated because JP CSMS has been working with the city on a long-term vision for Centre/South’s look—including the possibility of historic-style streetlights. The NextG plan was never mentioned in those meetings, he said.

“Much to my surprise, I saw the [Gazette] article on NextG,” Epp said. “The city never said, ‘Hey, you can’t deal with lighting because we have this deal on the side.’”

Leo said that under the city contract, NextG’s poles have to look like the ones they are replacing. That even means painting on a fake concrete-and-pebble look if necessary. But Delsman said that NextG made an offer to do that and was turned down, with the city insisting on the gray color.

Leo also noted that historic-style streetlights aren’t off the table. “If the [street’s overall pole design] is updated in the future with another style, contractually, they have to change the design” of the antenna pole, Leo said.

Leo emphasized that aesthetics were important to PIC as well. He said NextG’s original design included a meter built into the pole, which PIC declared “unsightly.”

The locker-like boxes were designed to hide that sort of equipment in what Leo called “a plus and win for the City of Boston and its residents.”

Back Bay residents objected to the boxes, so the equipment was hidden inside a larger base of the pole instead, according to Leibowitz and Leo.

In any case, Leo said, PIC worked on a pole design that “we thought was palatable to everybody.”

While the review process is over, Leo said residents can send written comments to his attention at PIC, Room 714, Boston City Hall, Boston, MA 02201.

Sandra Storey contributed to this article.

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