Changing Skyline: After $14 million on light masts, North Broad remains in the dark ages

(L) The light masts at North Broad and Diamond Streets, looking toward City Hall. (R) Nighttime shot of masts lit up along Broad and Green Streets.

If you've wandered along North Broad Street lately, you may be scratching your head at the phalanx of stainless steel columns that have suddenly appeared in the center, marching single-file from Callowhill Street to the North Philadelphia station. Are they modernist WiFi antennas? Props for pole dancers? Or maybe just a vulgar gesture aimed at Center City?

The answer is: none of the above. Folks, those 55-foot-tall poles are supposed to be art, of the iconic variety.

This misguided project, which has cost the public $14 million, is the combined work of City Hall and Avenue of the Arts, the nonprofit established during the Rendell era to clean up and market Broad Street. For the last 20 years, the group has lavished attention on South Broad, providing it with pedestrian-scale streetlights, lush planters, brick crosswalks, and fresh sidewalks.

Those amenities were indeed transformational, turning the wide, workaday street into an urbane, pedestrian-friendly boulevard. But the more attractive South Broad became, the more people wondered why its sibling north of City Hall was getting the stepchild treatment. The Avenue of the Arts finally responded in 2007 with a $50 million master plan to fix North Broad's crumbling infrastructure, light its gloomy sidewalks, attract development, and "brand" the street with a memorable icon.

That budget proved, sadly, to be too ambitious, especially after the recession set in, and parts had to be thrown overboard. Unfortunately, they were the most important parts - the ones designed to improve the wretched pedestrian conditions.

What North Broad ended up with instead are 41 light masts that could easily be mistaken for highway lighting. Rather than calm car traffic on that scary speedway, the extra brightness encourages motorists to move even faster.

Talk about a branding misfire.

When the masts are illuminated, they are nearly indistinguishable from the landing lights you see on airport runways. Unbelievably, the design - a joint effort by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and James Carpenter Design Associations - was inspired by the well-known light pylons at Los Angeles airport, according to Duane Bumb, the city's deputy commerce director.

Didn't anyone point out that the LAX pylons are meant to be viewed at 10,000 feet from an airplane making its descent, not at eye level from a city sidewalk?

Of course, the seductive renderings used to promote the project in 2007 depict the masts as a series of shimmering points of light, stretching as far as the eye can see. That's because they were drawn from the perspective of a bald eagle. But unless we climb to the top of City Hall tower, we'll never get that view.

Public art, well chosen, can make us see our city with fresh eyes. But too often, public art fails because we confuse such renderings with reality. It's true the masts cast a pretty glow at night. But shouldn't a basic criterion for such projects be that they also look good during the day?

Both BCJ and James Carpenter favor a minimalist aesthetic, and they clearly wanted to distinguish the North Broad light poles from the nostalgic design on the southern part of the boulevard.

That was the right instinct; it's the result that fails. The columns are so severely vertical they end up accentuating the street's unrelenting straightness.

The weak design is especially frustrating because the needs along this 21/2-mile stretch of North Broad Street are so great. In some sections, the sidewalk pavement has actually been reduced to gravel. At night, those pathways are cast in near-total darkness. What little light there is comes from the highway-style gooseneck lamps that light the road (although several bulbs are burned out).

Because of its width, North Broad is also a difficult street to cross, especially for older people and parents with small children. The project's $14 million would have been much better spent on medians that could serve as refuges from the traffic, instead of the tiny islands that support the masts.

Linda Richardson, who runs the Uptown Entertainment and Development Corp., told me she repeatedly pleaded with Avenue of the Arts, which held numerous community meetings, to do just that.

"The traffic is becoming faster, especially during rush hour," she said. "It's not just senior citizens who struggle. I find I can't cross in time, either."

The sorry pedestrian conditions have become even more urgent in the last few years. North Broad Street is bristling with development, from new bars and shops to the renovation of the long-vacant Divine Lorraine Hotel. Now that Temple University had transformed itself into a residential campus, the numbers of people flowing across Broad Street has grown exponentially.

"Anything the city can do to slow traffic and strengthen the pedestrian character of the street would be a good thing," said Margaret Carney, the university architect.

Though the city is still adding 150 sidewalk trees, there is no money yet for any of those improvements Carney recommends. The city, however, has announced plans to set up yet another agency. It's establishing a special services district called Avenue North Renaissance to maintain the trees and work on marketing - as though Avenue of the Arts weren't enough.

Mayor Nutter seems oblivious to the real needs, however. At the ritualized dedication of the project in August, he declared that the new light masts would make North Broad a "more attractive, safer, better-lighted . . . inviting place to walk."

Council President Darrell L. Clarke did no better with his platitudes, saying the masts send the message that, "North Broad Street, we are here, and we are here in a big way."

After interviewing several officials involved with the project, I found no one who could explain why the city opted to spend its limited money on the masts instead of on pedestrian improvements. With each phone call, I was referred to another person, and another. It became clear a big reason for this debacle is that the project was done on autopilot. No agency took real ownership. No one listened to the people who actually use this boulevard.

The result is that, after blowing through $14 million, North Broad Street remains firmly in the dark.

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