Mayor eyes new cell antennas in downtown Lexington, considers policy change

By Crawford Humphreys

Mayor Frank Friedman doesn’t want to look up at the tops of the buildings in historic downtown Lexington again and see six-foot-tall cell antennas reaching toward the sky.

Friedman said he is not happy with eight cell antennas that T-Mobile installed at the end of February on top of the Gin Hotel.

The company sought and received permission from a city regulatory board in 2019 to put the antennas on the hotel’s roof.

“Historically, the city has embraced cell phone towers downtown,” Friedman said.

But city officials expected chimneys on the hotel’s roof to hide the T-Mobile antennas, he said, “not the overt sore thumb that is sticking up there today.”

The city’s Architectural Review Board unanimously granted the permit for the antennas in August 2019. In its application, T-Mobile used the word “stealth” to describe the antennas that would be installed.

But from the streets below, the antennas stand out from the hotel’s brick structure.

Some of the antennas at the top of the Gin Hotel in downtown Lexington. Photo by Crawford Humphreys.

Robin LeBlanc, a member of the ARB, said T-Mobile installed a fake antenna on top of the hotel two years ago so the board could see what it would look like.

“As we were making decisions, our hope was the technology would reduce tremendously the visibility,” she said. “Whether people judge that to be true or not is going to be an individual case.”

LeBlanc said no one challenged the ARB’s approval during the allotted 30 days for appeals.

The city could seek compliance outside of that time period if a project does not match what was approved.

Friedman said the new antennas will stay in place because they are consistent with what was approved in 2019.

Lexington officials and residents are sensitive about aesthetics in the city’s historic downtown. In 2011, Wells Fargo was forced to shrink signs at its bank branch when citizens complained that the initial signs were too large. In 2016, residents opposed the Subway franchise on South Main Street over fears that a chain restaurant would ruin the area’s historical look. But the Subway shop opened after the design was altered.

Cell providers AT&T and Shentel avoided controversy by concealing their antennas in fake chimneys on the roof of the Gin Hotel. Friedman said he wants the city to require that companies construct antennas that are hidden.

“I have asked the city manager to work with the planning director and see what we can do in hopes to not have additional antenna like [T-Mobile’s] around town,” Friedman said.

The mayor said changing the policy will take time.

“[T-Mobile] went through the proper process, the proper approval,” Friedman said. “My goal is that in the future, we won’t have a similar outcome.”