Antennas now part of Centre/South master plan

October 10, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH

Controversial cell phone antennas going up in Jamaica Plain and citywide were the subject of a sidewalk meeting with critics, top city officials and antenna firm NextG Networks on Oct. 1 in Monument Square.

The message was that the 35 antennas coming to JP—including 13 on new custom streetlight poles—will not be redesigned for now and will go up as planned. But future changes can be on the agenda of a master plan for redesigning Centre and South streets that had quietly begun already, and that the city is now touting as the solution.

“We’re willing to start the planning process,” said Dennis Royer, head of the city’s Public Works Department, at the meeting.

“Now we can engage the community in a significant planning process on what the vision will be,” said Jay Walsh, head of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services (ONS), at the meeting. “We’re willing to start discussions tomorrow.”

A follow-up meeting about the poles and the planning process was proposed and may happen sometime next week at City Hall.

There was general agreement at the Oct. 1 meeting that city officials and NextG should have done better outreach about the five-year-old antenna plan, which had no local input at all—except in the Back Bay, where another company is doing the installation. But when the Gazette asked whether the rest of JP and other Boston neighborhoods would get similar community meetings about the antennas, the question was met with silence.

“This is Jamaica Plain,” said local ONS representative Colleen Keller after a pause. When the Gazette noted that such areas as Egleston Square were not directly represented in the meeting, she said she could contact someone there.

Local City Councilor John Tobin, who attended the meeting, later told the Gazette that it is “probably a good idea” for other councilors to suggest community meetings. “I will definitely be getting that list [of antenna locations] and telling my friends and colleagues [on Boston City Council].”

While Tobin represents most of JP, City Councilors Chuck Turner and Mike Ross represent the Egleston and Hyde Square areas, respectively.

The Gazette revealed the massive antenna plan last month after observing an antenna being installed. But questions remain about the scale of the plan. NextG is installing the antennas on behalf of MetroPCS Communications, the cell phone company that will actually use them. (Up to three other companies can also rent antenna service.) MetroPCS was not represented at the meeting.

NextG officials described how their system of ground-level, relatively small antennas replaces traditional—and much larger—roof-top cell phone towers and gives better coverage.

But the Gazette has learned that MetroPCS, on its own, is also erecting those large roof-top towers. Last month, it got local approval to install one in Mission Hill, while similar plans were shot down in Beacon Hill amid community opposition. It does not appear that either proposal included a full description of MetroPCS’s citywide plans. It is unclear how many roof-top antennas MetroPCS wants to install. Its outside public relations firm has not responded to a Gazette interview request.

As the Gazette previously reported, hundreds of MetroPCS antennas will soon blanket Boston, with not even a corporate or city press release to inform the city’s residents.

The street-level antennas were reviewed and approved by the city’s little-known Public Improvement Commission (PIC). Its hearings are advertised only in daily newspaper legal ads using technical language.

Tobin said he has requested that PIC also send meeting notices to community newspapers. “You do that and you avoid a lot of this problem,” he said.
‘Ugly as hell’

The ground-level antennas are roughly 4-foot-tall cylinders mounted atop poles. One form is atop a gray streetlight pole that replaces an existing city streetlight. The other form is simply bolted atop existing wooden utility poles. Both versions include a large, locker-like box mounted on the side.

Their sudden appearance on Centre Street, and the Gazette’s revelations about the plan and lack of input into it, irritated local resident Michael Epp. He is a professional urban planner and head of the JP Centre/South Main Streets design committee.

Epp has been working with city officials for about a year to develop a Centre/South street redesign plan. But, he complained, he never heard about new antennas coming.

Epp also notified other local activists, including Carlos Icaza, president of the Jamaica Plain Business and Professional Association, and Sumner Hill activist Anastasia Lyman. All of them attended the Oct. 1 meeting.

“This little paper is the only information we’ve gotten,” Lyman said at the Oct. 1 meeting, brandishing a copy of the Gazette. “This [antenna pole design] is ugly. Is it going to get uglier? We feel like we were jilted, which we were, and left out of the process.”

Icaza noted the Gazette’s report that Back Bay did get design input into its poles. “We’re just requesting the same consideration,” he said.

No community process was officially required, and NextG official Peter Heimdahl noted that such meetings can be “very expensive.”

“Welcome to Boston,” Lyman replied.

Epp called the antenna pole design just part of a large issue about input. “We’d like to be involved in a public process for what happens on the street,” he said.

Walsh indicated that Mayor Thomas Menino is eager to fund a master planning process. If the result included nicer-looking streetlights, NextG is contractually obligated to install new antenna poles to fit the design.

Meanwhile, it appears that JP is stuck with the current design of the antenna streetlights, which were custom-built to city specifications.

Michael Reiskind, attending as a member of the Jamaica Pond Association and chair of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council’s Public Service Committee, called the antenna streetlights “ugly as hell.”

“To me, it’s a pole with a wart on the side and some funny box on the top,” he said.

Icaza noted that one of the first antenna streetlights to go up on Centre Street was crooked. It was straightened after the Gazette pointed it out. Icaza said he hoped someone “caught all sorts of hell” for the sloppy installation.

“They did. Believe me, they did,” said a NextG official.

Michael Galvin, co-chair of PIC and head of the city’s Public Facilities Department, told the Gazette that he wants the JP streelight poles’ color double-checked because it does not look to him like the approved version of gray.

Royer noted that PIC extensively reviewed the pole’s design and improved it. A NextG engineer said the city also forced a reduction in the citywide antenna-pole count by about 50 percent.

“You may call these ugly,” Royer said, but assured residents that antenna poles look worse in other cities. “This is the first time somebody said, ‘What’s that?’” Royer added.

Still, Back Bay residents were able to greatly alter the designs of the poles there, Ross, whose district includes the Back Bay, told the Gazette. It appears that neighborhood got design review in part because it is a historic district that requires it. The antenna company for that neighborhood, Lightower, hired JP resident Howard Leibowitz as a community outreach specialist.

The Back Bay changes included hiding wiring in a large pole base and some type of sidewalk box, instead of putting a box on the side of the pole. City officials have noted that JP’s sidewalks are too narrow for that sort of solution, but said there might still be some design flexibility.

But, Royer said, “There’s got to be an antenna and there’s got to be a box that controls that.”

The debate about the antennas at the Oct. 1 meeting focused only on aesthetics. But some residents in JP and Beacon Hill have expressed concern about supposed health effects of cell phone microwave transmissions.

As noted by the World Health Organization (WHO) and similar professional health associations, there is no convincing evidence for cell phone antennas—which operate at very low power—causing health problems, and no known physical way they could. WHO has called for further research into possible health effects of cell phones at the user level. That is not because microwaves operate any differently in the actual phone, but apparently just to address worries based on the novelty of the devices.

In any case, under federal law, the design and placement of cell phone antennas cannot be regulated on the basis of health concerns, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Similarly, cell phone antennas do not require any type of environmental monitoring.