Slated 5G Towers Spark Controversy in Forest Hills
Covenants & Historic Status May Prevent Obtrusive Street Furniture
By Michael Perlman
The rise of wide metal 5G Towers citywide have residents questioning not only their safety, but aiming to prove a point on how their 32-foot height and Brutalist style sharply contrasts with the architectural style of historical buildings and landscapes.
A community leader named Odette J. Wilkens, who has called Forest Hills home since the late 1960s, is on a mission to preserve local character. She was raised in Washington Heights and graduated from Barnard College, in addition to NYU’s Stern Graduate School of Business and Brooklyn Law School. She has been pursuing the historic preservation review of Forest Hills and Rego Park, in conjunction with a 5G Tower proposed in front of P.S. 144 in the covenant safeguarded Van Court section of Forest Hills.
Wilkens took the initiative to launch a non-profit, Wired Broadband, Inc. to conduct further research and advocate for technology that harmonizes with the intent and wishes of the community.
“The Federal Communications Commission requires that the site developer for the 5G Tower, CityBridge, conduct a historic preservation review for each of the 2,000 5G towers planned for NYC. The purpose is to determine whether the area or the structure in front of which the 5G Tower is proposed, has such historical significance, that the 5G Tower would visually mar the aesthetics of the area and/or the structure,” explained Wilkens.
In Rego Park, east of the 63rd Drive subway entrance on the south side of Queens Boulevard, a 32-foot 5G Tower has already been erected in front of a distinctive Art Deco commercial strip, in addition to a nearly identical multi-block 1930s assemblage on 63rd Drive, clashing with the harmonious flow. However, in front of P.S. 144, hope remains for preventing a tower.
The review is required under federal law, the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). This process enables consulting parties to comment, and the site developer will forward it to the NY State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), to decide whether to approve or disapprove a proposed 5G Tower location. Wilkens is a consulting party for Forest Hills and Rego Park.
Wilkens’interest in technology originated in her early days at HBO, at the cusp of a booming pay-TV industry, working as a paralegal. After law school, she joined a technology law firm and served as a corporate transactional attorney in technology for nearly 20 years, as advancing technology can aid society. She recalled, “When I heard about the 5G Towers coming to NYC, I began my in-depth research, and became increasingly concerned about a number of issues that were adversely affecting individuals. Many people approached me to complain about antennas everywhere, including rooftop antennas. When technology helps people, I’m all for it, but when some technology bears the potential of running contrary to the aesthetics of neighborhoods that residents worked hard to maintain, that’s where I draw the line.”
On November 24, Wilkens submitted a 34-page consulting party factual report with photos, renderings, and maps to CityBridge and SHPO regarding the proposed 5G Tower site at P.S. 144, as well as the impact upon the surrounding historic vicinity of a 500-foot radius. Besides the architectural and landscaped-based Restrictive Covenants of Forest Hills Gardens, the community maintains covenants in the Van Court section, as well as Arbor Close and Forest Close.
P.S. 144, also known as the Col. Jeromus Remsen School, was completed in 1931 and erected by the John Kennedy & Co, acclaimed for Roman Catholic schools and churches and large buildings, such as the landmarked St. James Building at 1133 Broadway. It was designed by the notable Walter L. Martin, NYC Superintendent of School Buildings.
The report also references that SHPO determined P.S. 144 to be “Eligible” for the National Register of Historic Places. An excerpt reads, “The four-story, L-plan brick building is a representative example of a building type which evolved to meet the changing role of schools in the early decades of the 20th century. By that time, a number of solutions to the problems of fire safety, heating, ventilation and lighting had been standardized in practice. Features associated with early twentieth century education reforms displayed at P.S. 144 include the flat roof; central corridors; separate stairwells for easy egress; pairs of large multi-light double-hung wood windows for ample light and ventilation; blank end walls to prevent undue glare or harsh shadows from bilateral lighting in the classrooms; central ventilation and heating systems; and modern lavatory facilities. The school was designed with restrained neoclassical style elements including square massing, a rusticated first floor, decorative window surrounds, and a denticulated cornice with tapestry brick frieze.”
Wilkens’ assessment offered several valuable pointers, contrary to the applicant’s review in Form 620, where they downplayed the community’s historical and architectural significance. “In stark contrast to the neoclassical style, beige brick, decorative windows and frieze, and distinctive cornice, the 5G Tower conjures up a brutalist style which defies commingling with the aesthetics of a building of this architectural stature,” Wilkens stated.
“The applicant’s description of how the surrounding trees and foliage would somehow camouflage this 32-foot tower seemingly admits to its being so out of place with the structure and its environs, that the applicant hopes to hide its tower in an effort to assuage the residents,” recalled Wilkens.
She then explained, “Unfortunately, there are no trees behind which the tower can hide on the school sidewalk. The trees are in front of the school on 69th Avenue, but no trees at the proposed 5G Tower site on Juno Street. It should be noted that although the site address on applicant’s Form 620 is 93-02 69th Avenue, the applicant’s photograph (in Exhibit A-3) shows the proposed site to be located on Juno Street between 69th Avenue and 70th Avenue, closer to 69th Avenue.”
For the official analysis to be regarded as complete, it would have been significant to note that P.S. 144 was named after Jeromus Remsen Sr. (1735 – 1790), in addition to documenting the nearby Remsen Family Cemetery, a NYC Landmark, as well as its environs. Remsen Sr. fought in the French and Indian War. As colonel of the Kings and Queens County Militia in the Battle of Long Island, he commanded the 7th New York Regiment in the American Revolutionary War. The cemetery is the sole remnant of the early Colonial era, when the neighborhood was under British possession during the Revolutionary War.
Wilkens documented architectural highlights within the 500’ penumbra of the proposed 5G Tower, consisting of tree-lined residential streets, and showed how the circumference adjoins Harrow Street, with two symbolic gateposts to Forest Hills Gardens. The Tudor motif is a dominating theme throughout the penumbra and beyond.
Across from P.S. 144 are distinctive Tudor single-family rowhouses, which could have its sightlines compromised. Also of significance is Stafford Hall (renamed The Gardens), diagonally across from P.S. 144, a garden apartment house erected in 1938 by Andrew A. Marjey, which echoes the strong Tudor and stone motif of Forest Hills Gardens, which The New York Times highlighted at the time of its 1957 sale. On various occasions, Wilkens featured a juxtaposition of architectural continuity between circa 1939 to 1941 NYC tax photos and her current photos.
Another standout is the Neo-Romanesque Our Lady of Mercy Church, Rectory, Convent, and School, designed in brilliantly harmonious stages by Joseph Mathieu of Brooklyn between 1937 and 1967. “The combination of Byzantine iconography and northern Italian elements, including polychromatic façade arches and the form of the church bell tower, creates an eclectic and unusual architectural style for this area of Queens,” read the few-hundred-page Jan. 1990 CB 6 draft survey by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
The survey included another area of interest by the LPC and Wilkens, which offers the harmonious Tudor theme – “68th Ave & Selfridge St” as a potential historic district, west of P.S. 144. It encompasses an area extending from behind the homes fronting on 69th Avenue across from the school to 68th Avenue, a portion captured within the 500’ penumbra.
The LPC referenced an attractive grouping of neo-Tudor rowhouses as “an important example of the development of Queens as a commuter suburb and particularly as an automobile suburb.” It read, “Developed primarily by the Kew Forest Construction Company (1930-1933), all units are two story, brick-fronted houses with stucco and wood timbering trim and slate roofs. The end block groups, designed by local architect Andrew Marjey in 1933, have detached garages, large end units and more elaborate window details including leaded glass and second-story copper oriels. The majority of the remaining rowhouses were built by James Munson from 1930-1931, and have garages located under the rear of each unit with a common driveway for street access. A third group of smaller scale units on Ingram Street, west of 68th Avenue, was developed separately and designed by local Queens builder Louis Danancher in 1932.”
The Van Court section, including P.S. 144 was administered under the FHGC until 1969, when Forest Hills Van Court Association, Inc. began enforcing the covenants, and today, metal signs on lampposts throughout the district notify residents. Tudor-style houses are prevalent, followed by Colonial examples. Near the homes is the cherished Lillian’s Pizza, housed in a circa 1926 Tudor Medieval castle-inspired property, which was Louis’ Luncheonette circa 1940.
On August 21, 1923, the Long Island Daily Press reported on the approval of restrictions by Forest Hills builders, in relation to what would later be renamed the Van Court section of Forest Hills. “An agreement has been completed with the Forest Hills Court Company to comply with certain restrictions in the architecture of the buildings that they may erect in the future. This company recently purchased the former DeBevoise farm, to the southwest of Forest Hills Gardens (FHG). The agreement, which was secured through the efforts of the Gardens Corporation (FHGC), is substantially the same that was settled upon with regard to the Vanderveer farm. It provides for houses set back, with space between and in conformity with the type of architecture prevalent in the Gardens.
The New York Times announced on May 27, 1923 that upon hearing of Bryan L. Kennelly, Inc’s plan for an auction of 906 lots adjoining the Sage Foundation (FHG), residents felt a sale would decrease property values locally. In turn, it read, “An agreement has been made between Walter and John Henry Vanderveer, the owners of the property and the Forest Hills Association, which will fully protect both parties. Houses will be erected on the blocks immediately adjacent to the Sage Foundation and must harmonize in general external appearance with the neighboring dwellings in that section… This protects the residents of Forest Hills.”
Wilkens also included a detailed assessment of Forest Hills Gardens and explained, “Just as the Gardens were conceived and maintained order and beauty, residents outside the area come to expect no less from their community, including the Van Court section. The Gardens’ streetscape conjures up a romantic nostalgia of an English countryside also emulated by the environs; the opposite of what is conjured up by the proposed 5G Tower, whose brutalist style is a deliberate rejection of nostalgia in architecture. It would certainly not be considered unifying street furniture. The 5G Tower would create the very kind of blight and ugliness that the Russell Sage Foundation sought to prevent.”