The Charlottesville City Council has upheld a decision to deny a request for a wireless antenna on a historic building on the Corner, but members want city staff to find a way to accommodate future requests.
“I want to find a solution here that addresses our growing technology needs,” said City Councilor Kathy Galvin at last week’s council meeting.
In April, the Board of Architectural Review denied a request from Verizon to place a small cell antenna in a false chimney at 1521 University Ave. The building, also known as the Kenmore Building, is within an architectural design control district under the BAR’s authority.
“The proposed concealment feature would be visible from many locations, and cell antennas… need to be located carefully and appropriately in historic districts,” said Mary Joy Scala, the city’s preservation planner.
The application is one of several that the company is requesting to build additional capacity for wireless data in the city.
“The Corner and the University of Virginia grounds up to the Rotunda are served by the western antenna sector on the Norfolk Southern railroad tower in the center of town on West Main Street,” said Lori Schweller, an attorney with LeClair Ryan who represents Verizon. “This antenna sector is exhausted because of heavy foot traffic and data usage.”
Verizon’s approach is to augment capacity by installing “small cell” antennas across the city. The BAR approved two other requests in other design review districts at the April meeting but denied the one at the Kenmore Building.
Verizon appealed the decision.
“There are no alternate locations outside of the Corner [architectural design control] district, so it is an important site for the network,” Schweller said.
The BAR denied the application in part because chimneys are not common on commercial buildings on the Corner. Members also stated that they did not want a new addition to look like it was part of the historic building.
In her appeal to City Council, Schweller said those two ideas conflict with each other.
“Verizon would be happy to install the 24-inch gray cylindrical antenna just as it is or with an enclosure just to look like a vent pipe, but that’s not what the ADC guidelines for small cell antennas require,” Schweller said.
The chairwoman of the BAR said she believed the denial was appropriate.
“We visited the site and others prior to the meeting,” said Melanie Miller. “Additionally, we took time off of our jobs in order to hold an additional meeting with the city attorney’s office to ensure that, whatever decision we made, it would be done correctly within the law.”
Councilor Wes Bellamy said he thought increasing data capacity in the city is more important than protecting the historic character of the building.
“The design that they are creating essentially follows the code guidelines and is going to help them have better capacity to operate,” Bellamy said. “If it’s approved, what is it hurting?”
Councilor Bob Fenwick said the historic districts are “special” and their guidelines are in place to make sure they stay that way.
“Maybe one doesn’t hurt but it detracts from the specialness of a historical district,” Fenwick said. “My default position is always to not overturn what the BAR or the Planning Commission has decided is correct. I have heard no compelling reason to change that position.”
Schweller said it is only a matter of time before the network will not have capacity to handle high-traffic events.
“If there were an emergency situation, you need people to be able to communicate,” Schweller said. “Our engineers tell us it will happen. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be spending all of this time trying to convince you that we need these small cells.”
Galvin asked Scala and Schweller if Verizon could work with the BAR before the council took action.
"I think the best solution would be to locate [the antenna] on a non-contributing building," Scala said. "Anything you look up there is going to look like it's something other than a chimney."
Schweller said federal law leaves it up to localities to define how “concealment” is to be interpreted.
“That’s a way that we can all work together and come to a solution,” Schweller said.
Galvin said she wants a more robust concealment policy because she supports both historic preservation and increasing capacity.
Miller said developing such a concealment policy will be difficult.
“It’s tough to make this work on a historic building, whereas on the Hampton Inn, it’s easier because it’s a non-contributing building in a historic district, so they have six [fake] chimneys up there,” Miller said.
Szakos asked Scala to research how other Virginia localities have handled the same issue. Galvin agreed.
“We need to come up with a policy that lets us address this,” Galvin said.
The motion to uphold the appeal was approved unanimously.