A subcommittee of the Back Bay Architectural Commission (BBAC) met virtually on Feb. 23 to discuss the replacement of light poles with ones that include DAS nodes within the district.
With cell phone technology continuing to evolve, several telecommunications infrastructure companies have proposed to install new poles with equipment for both 4G and 5G technology throughout the city, and the BBAC is aiming to create a streamlined approach to the design of these poles throughout the neighborhood so there is consistency across the board.
Joe Cornish, Director of Design Review for the Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC) reported that in 2016, a meeting was held with members of the city’s architectural commissions “to dis-cuss replacement of street lighting poles with DAS nodes. We were pretty firm that we didn’t want to see any mid-block locations,” and “wanted to avoid locations where significant views of features or significant buildings would be impacted.”
Cornish also said that if a city light pole is replaced, it is typically replaced in kind. In the Back Bay, the “cement-type” pole has been approved with the base cabinets containing the equipment, and there has been conversation about different options for the antenna at the top of the pole.
Other kinds of light poles have been proposed in the district, such as the replacement of a single acorn light with a double acorn light on Massachusetts Ave. near Newbury St., as well as a pendant-style light on Charlesgate.
Cornish said that in October 2019, an application was received for several locations of these poles, including one at 67 Newbury St. that “would impact views of the Church of the Cove-nant,” he said, and therefore rejected by the Commission.
He said the Commission also had concerns about additional equipment proposed for the top that had not been seen before. All of those applications were denied without prejudice, and a. Subcommittee was created “to talk about and discuss appropriate designs of light poles.”
Bryan Carroll of the city’s Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT), explained that there is an option to install a 5G antenna either above or below the light itself on these poles.
He said that three companies have licenses with the city to install this type of equipment: Ex-teNet Systems, which is a “neutral host” and can install equipment for any of the cell phone carriers, including Verizon, At&T, and T-Mobile, Crown Castle, which does the same, and American Tower, which he said has “not been active” in installing new antennas.
Carroll said that Verizon is the only carrier that has a license to install their own equipment in Boston.
Additionally. Extenet and Crown Castle are both able to install equipment for multiple carriers on the same light pole.
Commissioner David Sampson suggested that the subcommittee come up with two different designs of poles to provide to the companies.
“I think having one pole for all carriers would be preferred,” said Commissioner Robert Wein-traub. “Upgrading the poles was not necessarily a mandate back in 2016,” he said, but “it should be a mandate…that they upgrade to either an acorn or a pendant.” He also suggested that the base cabinets be “more decorative.”
Cornish said that he feels there will be “more of a push for mod-block locations as they want more of these and not so much the upgrading.”
Weintrraub added that he feels “this is an excellent opportunity with the implementation of the 5G network to force the companies to replace the poles consistently throughout the district. Right now we’ve got a mishmash of poles—it’s a little concerning.”
Carroll said that currently, there are no examples in the city with a double acorn light that fea-tures the 5G antenna below the light.
“It seems to me the node should be above the arm of the light fixture and not below,” Wein-traub said. “The higher it is, the less likely it is to be seen.”
Sue Prindle of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay (NABB) said that she agrees that this is a chance to see poles be upgraded in the district. She said she prefers the pen-dant lights, and is “a little concerned about the acorns,” as she does not believe there is enough room on the sidewalk for their bases.
“I think the pendants work much better in that regard, particularly on the side streets,” she said. She also asked whether any of this equipment could be put on the roofs of buildings in-stead. There was some discussion on this, saying it has been done in some cases, but not all of the same equipment can be placed in those locations.
Others, like John Tankard, agreed that the pendant light is probably the best bet.
“I think the pendant light has the most flexibility of putting all the equipment above the arm,” he said. He also said that a black pole is preferable over the “light gray colors that a lot of the new installations have done.”
Serge Savard, who said he is an electrical engineer, said that the 5G antennas “are more di-rectional and that’s why you have three on the pole. These will need to be closer to the recipi-ent of that signal.”
There was also some discussion on whether or not to put a shield over the top where the an-tenna would be, which raised some concerns about potentially reducing signal strength as well as drawing more attention to the antenna than if it had just been left uncovered.
“Our goal always is to make these as invisible as possible,” Weintraub said.
Tom High of backbayhouses.org said that “the direction we want to go in is to a uniform pole that is consistent with the historical architecture. That’s the goal.” He agreed that offering “one or two designs” is the way to go.
Cornish said that his next steps will include talking to the city’s division of Street Lighting un-der Public Works “about in-kind replacement versus replacement with decorative poles.” He also said he plans on conducting research on “examples of pendant lights or other light fix-tures that have screened the 5G equipment at the top. I don’t think our work as a subcommit-tee has finished yet.
Sampson added that the subcommittee should continue to discuss two designs for poles, and that they should be black only. “It’s probably going to be a pendant with an iron look to it,” he said. He also said “I really am not a big fan of the bases at the bottom as Beacon Hill is not,” referring to an earlier mention that the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission does not approve these poles with the base as the BBAC has.
“We really need to lean on the carriers and the providers until we get this right,” Sampson said.