This week, Changing Skyline goes into that good night and finds some nice lights. For an alternative point of view, take a look at this blog post
. Only in University city!
By Inga Saffron
Inquirer Architecture Critic
The right lighting does wonders for an old city like Philadelphia. Just look at Baltimore Avenue, where a column of new street lamps is positioned among the fledgling sidewalk restaurants and secondhand shops. Come nightfall, the aspiring hipster hangout is dusted with a fairy glow that makes even the vacant storefronts look good.
Baltimore Avenue is the latest of Philadelphia's traditional shopping streets to win the battle with the automobile by ripping out the harsh highway cobra lights and replacing them with the cozy luster of pedestrian-scaled sidewalk lamps. The University City District, which raised $1.1 million to relight two blocks of the avenue between 48th and 50th Streets, staged a party last month to celebrate. Mayor Nutter even came to cut the ribbon.
Neighborhoods all over Philadelphia would love to get some of that Baltimore Avenue glow. And why not? Sidewalk lights have been shown to reduce crime, raise property values, and make an evening stroll more romantic. There's a reason Gene Kelly didn't sing in the rain under the yellow glare of a sodium-vapor cobra light.
But in these hard times, it's not getting any easier for neighborhoods to rage against the darkness. The city has always been ambivalent about giving up its cobra lights, which came into wide use with the automobile, and cast their functional blaze primarily on the street, rather than the sidewalk.
When the city's commercial districts first began to demand better light in the mid-1990s, City Hall struck a compromise. If the neighborhood raised the money to buy pedestrian fixtures, it would pick up the tab for electricity and maintenance. Now, it appears the Streets Department is reconsidering the bargain because of the current city budget crisis.
Mt. Airy USA, the nonprofit that is helping to revive the retail core of Germantown Avenue, was all set to start work on a $3.5 million lighting and streetscaping project when its director, Farah Jimenez, said she was told the city might not pay the future electric bills. Those installation funds were hard-earned and include, ironically, $500,000 from the city. Jimenez said it was one thing for a group like Mt. Airy USA to tap into government and foundation funding programs to purchase lights - and quite another to take on a long-term financial obligation. "We're a small, business-improvement district, with a tiny budget," she explained. "We feel like these lights are for the public good." And besides, she added, the city is already paying to keep the cobra lights on.
Her argument may be popular in the neighborhoods, but not necessarily in City Hall, where pedestrian lights are still often referred to dismissively as "decorative lights." Mt. Airy USA intends to go ahead with the work anyway. To be fair, the city's costs go up when pedestrian standards are installed, because they are spaced more closely than cobras, so there are more poles per block. Joseph M. Doyle, the city's top lighting engineer, estimates that a block of pedestrian lights costs two to three times more to maintain than cobra lights.
But in a citywide street-lighting budget of $14 million, how much extra can a few selected commercial corridors add to the electric bill?
Doyle said there has been no formal decision to cut off groups like Mt. Airy USA. The city has also vowed to support neighborhoods where pedestrian lights are in place, like Baltimore Avenue. But, Doyle added, "the costs are rising, and this is a time in which we're having difficulties with rising costs." Like the proposed library closures, which were later rescinded, it could be another instance where the city administration sacrifices the long-term health of its neighborhoods for meager short-term savings.
The Center City District's Paul R. Levy, whose group was the first to install pedestrian fixtures on a wide scale, believes in the power of light, and says the changeover from cobras did more to improve the fortunes of downtown than almost any of the organization's other initiatives. Since the CCD installed the first batch of acorn-shaped pedestrian globes - called brown rounds - in 1996, it has lined Center City's sidewalks with 2,100 fixtures. "This, to me, was about reclaiming the evening and the nighttime economy," Levy explained. "In the mid-'90s, Center City was a 9-to-5 place." Without a doubt, taxes from new businesses and restaurants have more than paid for the extra costs of maintaining the pedestrian standards.
You can argue about the design chosen by the CCD, which has since become the default style for neighborhood commercial districts. But those oval globes are inoffensive and blend well with the city's red-brick neighborhoods. The occasional trailblazer, like Manayunk, has opted for a modern design. South Street ordered the CCD lights, but had them painted red, presumably to evoke a festive boardwalk feeling.
More of a concern is when neighborhoods blind pedestrians with too many lights. Sometimes, the city insists on retaining its cobras even after the pedestrian standards go in. Finding the right light levels is an art as much as a science. Another problem is the gloom that shrouds some key blocks. You would think that Walnut Street from Front to Sixth Streets would be a prime candidate for pedestrian standards, but it's a black hole of darkness because the stretch isn't under the CCD's jurisdiction. Old City, too, has never pursued pedestrian lights. City Hall hasn't picked up the slack.
Too bad. The proper amount of light has always helped us find our way through the dark night. But increasingly, those pedestrian standards also sustain us through dark times.