Friday, July 10, 2009

Rage Against the Dying of the Street Lights

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.


Blogger rasphila said...

This article was spot on. Cities should be places for people, not cars. Lighting is part of that.

12:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

if you used LED fixtures they would consume far less electricity than the cobras... it would be cheaper to run the new lights than keep the old. If lights are already bought and installed, the city would save money in the end.

1:01 PM  
Blogger KarnCymraesfromPA said...

Thanks for covering The lights on Baltimore Ave. Too bad about the little punks who put flyers all over the neighborhood suggesting that it would be a fun summer activity to trash the banners attached to them. I wouldn't be surprised if these same people threw paint on the Gold Standard. The lights add another layer to the now lively corridor.A photograph of the actual lights on Baltimore Ave would have added to the piece.

3:08 PM  
Blogger José said...

Excellent post Inga. It is virtually impossible to overstate the importance of quality pedestrian lighting, and thus as an extension the efforts of BIDs to install them. It is a shame the city's priorities would jeopardize current and future installations.

I am left wondering, what could be accomplished if the city council members donated their raise in salary. With 17 city council members their raises total $100,463 this year. That money could be used to power the lights that Mt. Airy planned to install, or it could be used to keep more city pools open, or keep firehouses open, or our library branches might be able to return to full operation, rather than the reduced hours. In short, the Philadelphia city taxpayers dollars could be more efficiently used for projects that benefit the public, rather than 17 people.

5:07 PM  
Blogger Sarah said...

Girard Avenue between Girard College and Fairmount Park (25th-32nd streets) is getting these street lights installed by the end of the year. It should be a nice boost to the revitalization efforts taking place there.

8:42 AM  
Anonymous andytoy said...

I wrote this to the Editor:
As one, of many, promoting pedestrian lighting for neighborhoods ever since managing a Neighborhood Commercial Corridor Program 8 years ago, I feel that there are a few additional points to the article, "Let There be Pedestrian Light". First, virtually every neighborhood commercial corridor in the City has explored the idea with an understanding that safety, the perception of safety and creation of a sense of place will attract shoppers, neighbors and investment as it has in Center City and other cities across the country. Even the recent Econsult corridors report found a very strong correlation between safety investments and health of commercial corriodrs. The problem is that most neighborhoods do not have the funds to install pedestrian lights on their own and the City has a set of rules (still unwritten) that make it very difficult to implement even for those able to cover the capital expense. For instance, there is an arbitrary rule that the City will not support a mix of auto and pedestrian lights on a corridor with a wide street that may need both. And if a community wants to install ped lights that don't conform exactly with the unwritten rules they are told that they must pay for the maintenance, electricity AND liability of the lights. Certainly, the budget is an issue, but this has been the excuse for years before the current fiscal crisis. Groups have explored solar and LED lighting to get off the City grid and the expensive trenching required for wiring, but the amount of light output is still not enough for a city street, although the technologies are getting better. For now, corridors are forced to put lights on buildings to try to create the same effect as ped street lights. It is time that the City declared pedestrian lighting investment a priority and need in our neighborhoods and set forth a clear set of written rules for all to understand.

10:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good article. But I'm a little surprised that it includes a sample photo from rather than one that was paid for at their very low rates. I know it has a visible watermark on it, which lowers its attractiveness, but that watermark is designed to keep people from using that actual version of the photo and springing the 3 bucks that a copy that size would have cost.
If I copied your blog post word for word and used it in my blog, would that be okay, even if I just added "An Inquirer columnist says..." at the beginning of it?
Photographers have to eat too.

11:28 AM  
Blogger Corey said...

Thank You. Nice post. And, yes, the instillation of the lights on Girard Ave. should begin any day now.

Instead of IstockPhoto imgs u can just go to Flickr and find some good pics (browse with firefox, go to Tools> Page Info> Media, and scroll through the files and save anything you want)

keep up the good work

4:18 PM  

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