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Plan to plant sleek streetlights up the center of North Broad

By Jeff Gammage
Inquirer Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania, September 21, 2011 - Broad Street isn't Broadway, but it's poised to get something that its better-known northern neighbor has in luminescent abundance:

Lights - a 2.5-mile stretch of them, set down the center of the street as a giant linear artwork.

Executives at Avenue of the Arts Inc. have a plan - and the money - to start planting sleek, stainless-steel streetlights on North Broad. On Wednesday night, city officials, arts leaders, and project managers will gather for the formal unveiling and lighting of a prototype near the Temple University Law School.

"This is our 'wow factor' for North Broad," said Karen Lewis, executive director of the nonprofit group Avenue of the Arts. "When we think about North Broad Street, it's still sort of 'the scary place.' I'm hoping our project, with other projects, will help change the perception."

Initially, 29 lights will be installed from Spring Garden Street to Norris Street, in the heart of the Temple campus. The second phase will add lights on both ends, extending the line from City Hall to Glenwood Avenue.

The eventual aim is to line Broad from Washington Avenue to Glenwood - seven of the street's 12 miles. The immediate plan is to define North Broad with a strong, iconic installation, visible to people on the sidewalk and to planes in the sky, and to lay a welcome mat for developers.

"The ultimate goal is to invigorate North Broad," said Cornelius "Randy" Reid III, a principal with Bohlin, Cywinski, Jackson architects.

Avenue of the Arts leaders envision Broad as among the great streets of great cities, with a name as recognizable as Park Avenue or Michigan Avenue. The new promenade of lights is a modern interpretation of an old concept, a nod to the history of Broad Street.

About 100 years ago, around the time of World War I, a similar lane of streetlights stretched through the center of Broad. Each pole supported dual glass globes hung from a central arm.

"They weren't there for decoration," said historian and architect Robert Skaler, author of Philadelphia's Broad Street: South and North. "They were lighting the street."

No one seems to know when or why the lights were removed, he said.

Their presence connected two parts of the city that were often separate.

In the 19th century, North Broad was prosperous but never fashionable, lacking the status of tonier addresses south of Market Street, Morris said. To compensate, residents built their houses and churches bigger and more elaborately - a grandeur that remains even as neighborhoods have declined.

Broad Street stretches from the bank of the Delaware River to the Montgomery County line, at the center of the gridiron laid out in 1682 by William Penn and his surveyor general, Thomas Holme. Penn insisted that the exact intersection of Broad and Market never be built upon - which is why there's a walkway through the City Hall courtyard, ensuring that the axis of the city is covered only by footprints.

The new lights aren't designed to provide illumination for pedestrians or security for property. But their design, lit at the top and also at the bottom, ensures greater street-level lighting.

"It's a signal, in a very aggressive way, that North Broad is open and available," said City Councilman Darrell L. Clarke. "Some people will say this is the next hot corridor."

Arts and city officials began four years ago thinking seriously about lighting North Broad - a simple concept accompanied by a million details, complicated by government regulations, and entangled in calculations concerning everything from light dispersal to pole height.

No lights could be set at intersections, which are already congested. Colored lights were acceptable - but not in red, green, or yellow, which could confuse drivers. Similarly, no flashing or moving lights were permitted.

The lights had to be bright enough to be visible, but not so brilliant as to shine into homes. They had to be interesting night and day.

Executives enlisted the New York light architect James Carpenter, who has designed and implemented projects from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem to the federal courthouse in Phoenix. Each light on Broad will project a beam of upbound light that strikes an oblong segment of dichroic glass, chosen for its reflective properties. In daylight, the glass will shine rainbows of color.

Each streetlight will be 55 feet tall, a length determined by the 113-foot width of Broad Street. If a pole gets knocked over, it won't hit a building.

About $9.5 million in city, state, and federal funds will pay for lights from Spring Garden to Norris, and for greenery and trees from City Hall to Glenwood. The arts group just received an additional $3.9 million in state money and is deciding how to spend it within the project.

Bids will be sought soon, with construction to start in 2012.

"I like to think of it as one street," Lewis said, "with different experiences along the way."

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