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Controversial cell tower OK’d for ‘unavoidable’ historic impacts on Oakland Cemetery, Cabbagetown

A site plan of the cell tower site as seen in RESCOM's report. Oakland Cemetery is to the left and the Fulton Cotton Mill Lofts is to the right.

By John Ruch

Plans for a cell tower looming over Oakland Cemetery and Cabbagetown have revived with a state agency’s opinion that there are no alternatives and visual impacts on historic sites are “unavoidable.”

Preservationists are blasting the decision for no-input secrecy and lack of any supporting documentation, which was only obtained recently by SaportaReport. Many more such surprises could be coming across Georgia, as the developer is offering dozens more tower sites — including at least 18 within Atlanta — on railroad rights-of-way where a selling point is the lack of typical local government review.

A photo illustration of the cell tower site and driveway as seen in a consultant’s report, with Oakland Cemetery to the left and the Fulton Cotton Mill Lofts to the right. Boulevard is highlighted in yellow; the curved roadway is a CSX railroad driveway.

For Cabbagetown, there is now the possibility of a double impact. Along with the revival of the plan for the 165-foot-tall tower on CSX property on Boulevard, a separate plan for a 70-foot-tall antenna tower in the railroad company’s Hulsey Yard also appears to be moving ahead with state blessing.

Among the critics of the tower’s revival is Jacob Elsas, CEO of Cabbagetown’s Patch Works Art and History Center and a descendant of the builder of the historic Fulton Cotton Mill Lofts complex.

“If this tower is built,” Elsas told SaportaReport, “it will forever change the surrounding landscape by introducing a ridiculously incongruous, monolithic oddity that comprises the visual integrity of numerous historic communities, many of which have worked extremely hard for 50 or more years to preserve their history.”

A Chamblee-based company called CitySwitch is proposing the tower directly next to the cemetery and the lofts, both of which are historic landmark properties. There are several other nearby historic sites and districts, including that of Martin Luther King Jr. Because of that, the project requires “Section 106 review,” a report on historic impacts that is part of an approval process by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The ultimate comment will come from the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, but state-level agencies are responsible for collecting local input, which in Georgia is the state Historic Preservation Division (HPD).

RESCOM Environmental Corp., a consultant hired by CitySwitch to conduct a review of the historic impacts, in April submitted a report to HPD claiming there would be no “adverse effect.” That claim was blasted by preservationists and by the cemetery’s foundation, which said it was never even told of the plan. Several of those groups have been designated as official “consulting parties” in the process. HPD agreed with the critics, issuing an opinion in May that there would be adverse effects and that CitySwitch must consider alternatives or other sites.

Some of the consulting parties – including the Atlanta Preservation Center (APC) and Easements Atlanta, and Elsas’s group – say they heard nothing more from RESCOM until Oct. 10, when it announced in a terse, 45-word email that there were no alternatives and the state had agreed. The email did not include any report or other documentation of the alternatives.

RESCOM did not respond to questions. Justin Vining, a spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, HPD’s parent agency, provided a copy of the state’s opinion.

RESCOM’s report, sent to HPD on Aug. 26, indicates that DISH Wireless is at least one of the proposed tower’s users and claims the alternatives review looked at other properties, towers and buildings to no avail.

The report says the main purpose of the tower is to “increase cell coverage” in the area because it is “underserved” and “patchy.” That purpose can “only be achieved” by a new tower, the report claims. The tower also cannot be shorter without its signals being blocked by other structures or the landscape, the report says.

The report maps several existing towers in the general area but says none are close enough to share a new antenna. Most buildings in the area are not tall enough to host the antenna, it says. One building that was considered was the historic mill itself, but it was rejected for “challenges” that include its landmark status and possible structural issues. A building on Williams Holmes Borders Senior Drive that already hosts antennas was considered, but its own is “uninterested” in adding more, the report said. Another apparent candidate was a Boulevard apartment building, but the site will be blocked by taller new construction at the Edgewood Avenue intersection, which the report indicates also would not be completed in time to meet FCC “obligations” for DISH service to begin by June 2023.

The report says that unspecified “other potential locations” were rejected because they would have larger costs or environmental impacts.

RESCOM requested an HPD finding of “unavoidable adverse effect” on historic properties to allow the tower to proceed. HPD obliged in a Sept. 26 letter from Stacy Rieke, HPD’s program manager of Environmental Review & Preservation Planning.

Rieke wrote that HPD believes “sufficient alternatives were assessed… Therefore, it appears that the adverse effect resulting from the construction of the subject tower is unavoidable.”

Rieke added that HPD wants to discuss “mitigation options” and a legal agreement to “address the adverse effects of this project.” She wrote that HPD “recommends continued discussions with local stakeholders” on mitigations.

But the local preservationists and affected sites say there have been discussions at all, and they protested the lack of input prior to HPD’s determination.

Easements Atlanta is a nonprofit that holds a preservation easement on the historic mill giving it legal control over demolition or alteration of the property’s exterior, among other abilities. Ian Michael Rogers, the organization’s acting executive director, said in an email to RESCOM that there has been “zero communication” despite his request for input and information and called for a halt to the Section 106 review process pending further discussions.

“From the proposal’s onset, it’s been clear that Rescom never intended to engage ‘the public’ in this discussion,” said Elsas, citing the lack of input and an initial legal notice published in a little-known newspaper that does not circulate in the immediate area.

The proposed site of a 70-foot-tall antenna tower in CSX’s Hulsey Yard is shown with a red dot on this aerial photo from a historic resources impact report from consultant HDR. Cabbagetown’s historic Fulton Cotton Mill Lofts is the building complex to the upper right. The green space inside the J-shaped road at far upper right is where the CitySwitch tower would stand.

At the cemetery, the tower would rise above the African American Grounds and Potter’s Field sections. RESCOM’s initial report drew ire for claiming the cemetery would be a “buffer” preventing impacts on historic sites, even though it is itself one of the city’s most historic sites. Richard Harker, the cemetery foundation’s executive director, told SaportaReport he remains concerned about “a significant and dramatic negative visual impact to the historic cemetery, its historic significance, and the more than 100,000 visitors who frequent historic Oakland Cemetery each year.”

Another consulting party is the City’s Historic Preservation Studio, which previously expressed concern about the tower. A spokesperson did not respond to a comment request about HPD’s finding.

Meanwhile, controversy continues over the Hulsey Yard antenna, which CSX says would be exclusively for railroad operations. For that project, CSX is using a different historic impact consultant, a company called HDR. HPD last month issued another opinion that the Hulsey Yard antenna would have “no adverse impacts” on historic sites, which include the mill about 220 feet away. That opinion was issued before the consulting parties — consisting of the same groups involved in the CitySwitch tower debate — could weigh in.

APC Executive Director David Yoakley Mitchell said in an email to RESCOM that the “tone” of both antenna situations added to the “concerns and frustrations” with the process. “The various consulting parties should have been provided something other than a blanket “no” and then deferred to another department,” he wrote.


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