You may have noticed the new kiosks sprouting along Broadway and seemingly every other corridor in NYC, some with peel-away stickers promising super fast, free WiFi, others already activated bleeding piercing diodes of light into an evening stroll advertising even more things to buy and force into a NYC apartment.  The New York Times noticed them too and now as a piece about them which you can read in full HERE.

These kiosks were seemingly a done-deal, organized by the City’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DOITT) with a private vendor.  Intended to replace individual pay phones and banks of pay phones alike, there are intersections where they seem abundant despite guidelines that they would not appear closer than within 170′ feet of one another.

The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission heard about them when considering a city-wide rule for how these might be deployed across historic districts, on residential blocks of historic districts and within proximity to individual landmarks.  Several city-wide groups testified, including the Carnegie Hill Neighbors Association who suggested that there be limits to the speed of the scroll of the advertising images, and that there even be an insertion of local historical images in their projection reel.

On June 28, 2016, the LPC voted unanimously (7-0-0) to adopt the intrusions despite not having any input on the design.

The Times reflects on concerns with the kiosks as de facto gathering places for the homeless although barely 300 have been installed to date- a fraction of the entire expected fleet of 7,500.  Users interviewed express excitement at the free calls and charging capabilities while others fear they are portals for data-mining.  LANDMARK WEST!’s testimony is below:

Testimony of LANDMARK WEST!

Certificate of Appropriateness Committee

Before the Landmarks Preservation Commission

Public Communication Systems

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

LANDMARK WEST! is a not-for-profit community organization committed to the preservation of the architectural heritage of the Upper West Side.

The Certificate of Appropriateness Committee wishes to comment on the proposed amendment to section 2-21 of the rules relating to the installation of public communication structures to provide free WiFi and phone service, pursuant to a city-wide franchise, to replace existing public pay telephones.

LANDMARK WEST! does not support this proposed rule change, especially for how it may negatively impact our Historic Districts.

We are reminded of past LW! testimony on public payphones, which first arrived on city streets as useful infrastructure to assist in the business of daily life.  When cell phones became ubiquitous, the payphone business model faltered, and these “background” tools – like other utilitarian street furniture, including mailboxes and fire hydrants, invisible except when needed – became “foreground” delivery systems for an ever increasing assault of advertising.  Their designs are informed not by the function they serve, but by the amount of advertising they can accommodate.  For some time now, advertising has become their primary reason for being.

This proposed rule change to allow for Public Communication Structures is deju vu all over again, except that advertising is clearly the tail wagging the dog from the get-go.  Purely advertisement-driven, the design of these structures is an unabashed billboard clogging increasingly cluttered streets with a WiFi capability attached.

As cell phone carriers go to even greater lengths to disguise signal towers as trees, or carefully place them within existing church steeples (in fact, often supporting the finances of historic religious structures), New York City seems headed in the wrong direction.  But for the needs of the LED panels, the WiFi components could easily be innocuously integrated into streetlamps and reach an even higher datum then the proposed 122″ tall–for example, mounting them atop the bishops crook streetlamps would already achieve nearly twice the height at over 25′ tall—can you hear me now?

If the goal was truly to serve a public good and provide universal WiFi, these could be retrofit to every lamppost in the city.  Alas, at a time when the city is selling libraries, which already provide free WiFi, it’s clear that the public interest is not the magnanimous purpose of these structures–advertising is.  During a time of ever-distracted drivers and under a mayor who sponsors a platform called “Vision Zero” for traffic safety it seems antithetical not only to propose, but also to endorse further distractions along our streets.

This proposal for Public Communications Structures is yet one more piece of evidence (as if further proof were needed) that advertisers will stop at nothing in their campaigns to bombard the public with loud visual noise.  But the LPC is one of the key agencies charged with protecting quality of life and the public realm, and you must stop them.  The sidewalk is the great social condenser.  Just as skin is the largest human organ, our sidewalks are the most accessible, and prolific, public spaces.  In our opinion and experience, it is the LPC’s mandate to draw the line and not endorse additional advertising along the streets of our historic districts.


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