North Broad Street light masts get lackluster reviews and results

The tall metal masts in the median on North Broad Street were expected to anchor a magnificent string of lights stretching from City Hall to the north, giving off a glow visible from an airplane.

But more than a year after they were lit, the lights are so faint you can stand beside one at night and barely make out two more in the distance. In the daytime, when the 41 poles serve no discernible purpose, some people don’t know what they are.

“People have their own ideas, which is funny when we hear what people think they’re there for,” said Shalimar Thomas, executive director of North Broad Renaissance, the nonprofit tasked with maintaining the masts. “Like free WiFi, which is not a bad idea if we could figure that out. Someone thought they were just placed there when the pope came.”

The overall response from the public? “Confused,” Thomas said, “if I had to put it in one word, to be honest.”

Plans to make the lights brighter are in the works. But city officials say the poles were intended to be art, not streetlights, meaning some who frequent North Broad are likely to be unsatisfied even after the improvements are made.

The masts, slender gray poles 55 feet tall and narrowing to a point at the top, were 10 years in the making. They were first proposed by Avenue of the Arts to Mayor-elect Michael A. Nutter, part of a $50 million plan to give North Broad the much-needed care South Broad had received. The recession took its toll on those plans, and the first mast wasn’t installed until summer 2015. Today, they stretch for nearly three miles.

Funding — which officials say was estimated to total $14 million but capped out at just over $13 million — came from a mix of sources, $4.6 million of it from the city. The masts themselves ate up about $3 million, according to the city.

At the unveiling of the first, held in the daytime, when the pole projected little of the intended pizazz, Nutter declared the fixtures would make North Broad "more attractive, safer, better-lighted,” implying they would give off an ample glow.

Better lighting on the corridor, which in recent years has seen signs of new life but has long struggled to draw development, is what many who live and work on North Broad had hoped for.

“We were told they were going to be bright enough to light the sky,” said Linda Richardson, president of the Uptown Entertainment & Development Corp. “Not being a designer or a lighting expert or anything, when somebody says they’re large enough to light the sky, that planes can see them, you would assume they were going to be well-lit on the ground.”

Mary McCrea, who lives east of Broad and Jefferson Street, said the poles “don’t light up, period,” and she worries about hitting them while driving. Others wonder if the money could have been better used elsewhere.

“If they lit up the area at night, I could see that we would get some benefit from them,” said Veronica Joyner, founder and chief administration officer of the Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School near Broad and Hamilton Street. “That money could have been better spent on recreation centers and schools.”

Duane Bumb, senior deputy director of the city’s Department of Commerce, acknowledged that the lights are not as impactful as intended. He said that is largely due to light pollution, a problem common in big cities. But he said they were never meant to be bright enough to improve the overall quality of the lighting on North Broad.

“The one sort of misunderstanding was that these are in fact light fixtures intended to illuminate the street. They specifically were not,” Bumb said. “PennDot was pretty clear we couldn’t put sort-of-bright lights that would potentially cause a distraction for drivers.”

They should, though, be brighter than they are.

The task of fixing the problem has fallen largely to Thomas, whose recently formed nonprofit inherited the job of caring for the masts. Thomas said North Broad Renaissance has contracted with a company that believes replacing the current lights with LEDs will do the trick.

The company will test the idea on one later this month and then, if successful, change out the 40 others over the next two to three months. Thomas said it would cost about $57,000, to be paid for with city funds given to North Broad Renaissance specifically for the maintenance of the masts.

Beyond that, Thomas knows there is a long way to go to win over a public underwhelmed by what is meant to be a signature project for the long-neglected thoroughfare. She thinks that with time the masts will grow on people, as they did on her.

“I was probably one of the harsher critics on these poles,” she said. “Especially when we were tasked with the responsibility of maintaining them. It was like 'Ugh, these poles, ugh, if I hear one more thing about these poles.' ”

Then, on too many evenings to count, she stood along North Broad, waiting for sunset and for the lights to turn on, so she could see if they were working properly.

“I realized, this is really a pretty thing when the sun sets, how these poles turn on — the ones that are working — how they illuminate at the sunset. It was like, 'This is really nice,' ” she said. “So if they won me over, I think they can win anyone over.”