When Historic Preservation and Cell Towers Collide 4

As a cultural resource management practitioner and historical archaeologist familiar with FCC Form 620 and 621, I closely follow the news headlines in historic preservation. Yesterday, I got a Google Alert for an article on the plans of a Verizon subcontractor that is trying to get a permit to build a cell tower atop a building in the historical Harsimus Cove Neighborhood in Jersey City, New Jersey (Jersey City panel tables Verizon bid to put antennas atop building).
Initially, I was struck by the fact that the article was essentially a description of how the Verizon subsidiary was just trying to get the Jersey City Council to consider the proposal, which would actually be discussed and considered at a later date.

Numerous questions flew through my head:
• Why didn’t the city council want to table this proposal?
• Why did the local community object?
• What was the big deal with adding a cell tower to this particular building?
• What did Verizon do, or not do, that would result in objections from the community?
• How can Verizon get their project through without too much trouble?

I did a few minutes of research and here’s what I found.

The Harsimus Cove neighborhood is part of the Harsimus Cove Historic District, which was created in 1987. Most of the buildings in the neighborhood were built between the 1850s and 1890s. The proposed cell tower will be on the northern edge of the district, across from a long, east-west trending greenbelt. Here’s a map of the district. The structure at 238 Fifth Street is a 4-story apartment building that was built in 1889 (http://www.trulia.com/homes/), which means the tower will be clearly visible from the neighborhood to the north.
Harsimus Cove also has an extremely active, well-organized neighborhood association (http://www.harsimuscove.org/). The neighborhood association director is extremely interested in stopping this project from moving forward because he believes the tower will detract from the neighborhood’s historical character. The director issued an alert to neighborhood association members (http://www.harsimuscove.org/news/cellular-antennas-on-fifth-street) that resulted in the mobilization of a significant contingent that showed up at the recent city council meeting.
Another problem is the dimensions of the proposed tower. Verizon’s subsidiary’s application to Jersey City states that they want to, “…construct a wireless communications facility consisting of three (3) sectors of four (4) antennas each mounted at a height of 72′, and an unmanned equipment platform located on the rooftop of the existing building with a square footage of approximately 302 square feet…” (http://jclist.com/modules/newbb/viewtopic.php?post_id=309778). This is a pretty large tower with a lot of equipment.

Given the fact that an average 4-story building is only about 50 feet tall, the antenna could be taller than the actual building!
I’m no expert, but a 4-story building with a 6-story tall antenna is not going to fit in with the character of a nineteenth century residential neighborhood. It’s also a no-brainer that the neighborhood residents were angry with this proposal. Angry citizens at a city council meeting usually frighten council members. This is probably why Verizon showed up just to ask the city to consider their application.

Nevertheless, the Verizon subsidiary appears to want to follow all proper protocol. They weren’t trying to sneak this by anyone and made the proposal available to anyone that wanted to check it out. They also scheduled a public hearing to provide an opportunity for comments. Verizon seems to be acting like a good corporate citizen about all of this, so where did they go wrong? How can they still build the tower without getting sued? Is this location going to be so lucrative that a law suit will be worth it? Is the Verizon subsidiary aware of historic preservation laws pertaining to cell towers (Form 620 and Form 621)?

Maybe, this whole situation is part of Verizon’s community engagement playbook. This may be part of the early stages that will result in them getting where they want to be. Maybe Verizon’s plan looks like this:
1. Identify the optimal tower site and size.
2. Start the application process and see if anyone disagrees with the project, which, in this case they do.
3. Start communicating with the dissenting group. In the article, the Harsimus Cove Neighborhood association said they were willing to discuss other options and tower sites that would not damage the neighborhood’s historical value.
4. Begin a dialogue where other options are discussed and developed that result in a win-win-win situation between Verizon, its customers, and the neighborhood association.

But, more likely, Verizon’s subsidiary wasn’t aware of the significant hurdles involved with building a cell tower in a historical neighborhood. Aside from the fact that the neighborhood is on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), which means the tower has to comply with Federal historic preservation regulations, the neighborhood has also been identified as a historic preservation zone by Jersey City. Jersey City Historic Preservation Ordinance- Section 012.8 JCLDO 345.71-H (http://www.cityofjerseycity.com/uploadedFiles/Homepage/JCHPC%20Preservation%20Guidelines.pdf) state, “New construction need not replicate historic older buildings or structures, but may reflect contemporary design standards so long as the design and construction is compatible with surrounding historic structures. Building height, width, mass and proportion affect the degree of compatibility between the old and the new.

In other words, you can build modern structures in a historic district, but it has to match the surrounding buildings. That’s pretty much the rule across the United States. In this case, unless the district is a collection of buildings that already have a bunch of 70-foot towers, you probably can’t build a new 72-foot-tall tower.

What can Verizon do?

This is a pretty sticky situation for Verizon’s subsidiary. They’re hard pressed by T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint to provide seamless 4G coverage everywhere where people live. It’s hard to do that without cell towers. In the United States, because we don’t typically know much about the value of historic preservation, most people don’t care about building cell towers in historic districts. They want 4G so they can Facebook and watch Netflix on their phones anywhere in the country. Plus, many people don’t even notice the thousands of towers that surround them every day. They probably wouldn’t even notice the huge cell tower at 238 Fifth Street.

Rampant construction that would destroy the character of the United States’ historic places is held in check by: 1) preservation laws, and 2) a small, but vocal, preservation community. This can be seen as an obstacle by many developers, but it actually represents a huge public relations opportunity that has more advertising value than any commercial or pay-per-click campaign.

For just a minute, forget about the fact that building this tower in a historic district on the NRHP would require herculean efforts. Just imagine if the whole thing went down this way:
1. Verizon identified the need and specifications for a tower in a general area that overlapped with the Harsimus Cove neighborhood.
2. They took 10 minutes to look at the Trulia information on 238 Fifth Street and realized the building was more than 100 years old and, probably, historical.
3. They thought about historic preservation as something that may complicate their plans and checked to see what the City of Jersey City Historic Preservation Commission had to say about building in a historic district.
Or, they could have spent less than $2,000 to conduct a Form 620 cultural resources assessment and found out that the site was in a historic district and it was going to be difficult to continue.
4. At the same time, Verizon called the Harsimus Cove Neighborhood association and asked how they felt about the tower BEFORE they submitted an application to the City. Just before the association flipped them the bird, Verizon could have explained that they need a 72-foot tall tower near that geographic area. Then they could have asked the Harsimus association about what alternative locations would work.
5. Once they realized this was going to be difficult, Verizon could have assessed whether or not to proceed at 238 Fifth Street.
6. If they did decide to continue with the plan, Verizon could have worked with the Harsimus Cove association to find a suitable site that wouldn’t damage the historical character of the neighborhood

(BTW just looking at Google Maps, I see several baseball fields north of the neighborhood where they could co-locate on the light poles or, maybe, build a tower. There’s also a huge mall on Marin Street east of the neighborhood with extensive parking lots that may be exempt from a Form 620 communication tower cultural resources review. There’s also a steeple at the St. Anthony’s of Padua church at 457 Monmouth Street that doesn’t look like it has any towers yet. Finally, there are also a couple churches in the Harsimus Cove neighborhood where Verizon could build some faux steeples that would mask their tower’s massing. Or, they might be able to build above their own Verizon Store at Verizon Wireless 396 Marin Blvd!!!).

7. Once they figure it out, Verizon’s subsidiary could spread the word about how they, in accordance with historic preservation laws, managed to work with the community to build a necessary tower that will serve Jersey City.

In this story, Verizon is a corporate hero that fulfilled its customers’ needs. They also have a case study in how they cooperated with an active neighborhood association because they’re good citizens that care about the communities in which they work. It would also show the subsidiary’s skills at community engagement with an end goal that is beneficial to all. Facebook, Twitter, company blogs, and local newspapers would spasm with joy from all this positive, viral good-doing.

The Harsimus Cove cell tower application fallout can be used as a case study in how historic preservation and the communications industry can collide. I’m sure both parties will work this out, but it’s not certain that both sides will benefit. Based on the short article in the Jersey City newspaper, there may not be a win-win ending to this tale.

Cell tower construction in urban areas can be contentious. The best outcomes result from good cooperation and communication between all interested parties. It will be interesting to see what happens in this case.

I would really love to hear from you. If you have any questions or comments, write below or send me an email.

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4 thoughts on “When Historic Preservation and Cell Towers Collide

  • Dawn

    Funny, how while looking for information about a similar problem with Verizon, I stumbled across your page…and I also happen to work in archaeology. Small world.

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      Indeed. Also, it’s interesting how many times this happens with regard to telecom development.
      Thank you for reading

  • Julie McCauley

    What are the exact regulations about having a cell tower built close to someplace that has been declared historical? I suffer from Lyme disease, with neurological effects and I am not able to sit and go through hundreds of pages of documents to find what I need in regard to the exact regulation.

    The city where I live is putting up a cell phone tower and compound less than 50 ft from my home. There is a historical house just over a block south of us and another historical building 2 blocks west of us.

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      Thanks for reading. The tough thing is it really depends on your local codes with regard to what type of tower is acceptable in the viewshed of a historic property. It also matters if the property is on the local, state, or national historic registers. I suggest you contact your local State historic preservation office or county historic preservation office for the nuances in your local community.

      Sorry to not give you a definitive answer but i hope this helps.

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