Caught in the Spotlight 

The city responds to security worries by creating a perpetual daytime in the Fan.

click to enlarge art11_architecture_lights_100.jpg

Since 9/11, paranoia drives the architectural aesthetic — not just nationally but also locally. Anyone who has visited the Fan in recent months can see that this venerable neighborhood, so important to the soul and tax base of the city, is apparently feeling threatened as well.

On certain blocks of Mulberry Street, Grace Street and Park Avenue, draconian streetlights have been installed, blasting stark-white illumination usually reserved for Kmart parking lots, high-crime areas or work lights for all-night construction on interstate highways.

Many Fan District residents are up in arms over the streetlights, a test program to determine how the neighborhoods might be relighted, but they should realize that security is the name of the game in the 21st century.

A drive around downtown, for instance, reveals that many of the major construction projects are really thinly disguised fortifications. The federal courthouse on East Broad Street doesn't have an outdoor public plaza, but rather an enclosed atrium. At the sprawling Philip Morris complex, just north of the Richmond Coliseum, a protective, above-the-street pedestrian bridge links the research building with the parking deck. The company is being lauded for bringing good-paying jobs downtown, but its employees won't have to touch a city sidewalk. Call it what you will, but the subterranean public approach to the Capitol off Bank Street is a bunker. And whatever's going on under white protective wraps at the Federal Reserve Bank has something to do with reinforcing the lower levels of the sleek Minoru Yamasaki-designed tower.

None would argue that maintaining safe neighborhoods is a basic goal of city governments and civic groups. But while balancing city lighting is not an exact science, there is such a thing as too much light, and it's judged by the same standard Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once famously used for pornography: "I know it when I see it."

"The idea that you use light streets for safety is like motherhood and apple pie," says Gerald Allen, a New York architect who designed a handsome light fixture for Central Park in the 1980s, the Sentry Central Park luminaire. It is a balancing act that combines a good-looking fixture (with a nod to late-19th-century design) with generous illumination. This has made it popular in some 2,000 places worldwide beyond Manhattan. It's among a number of possibilities the Fan should examine.

But Allen is not a huge advocate of too much lighting. "It's not true that you can necessarily see better on a brightly lit street," he says. "Actually, you see less well because light shines in your eyes. The truth is, what's best and what makes more sense is no light at all. The human eye adjusts to take care of the situation. Nature takes care of us.

"But that's a nonstarter," he says. "It's not saleable in today's environment. While the civic impulse is right — 'The bigger the bulb, the more secure the joint' — the reality is something else."

So before the city and the Fan residents proceed with what must be an expensive and disfiguring street-lighting campaign, they might ask a few questions.

In increased lighting necessary? Some 25 years ago, the Fan District, after great discussion and experimentation, installed a plain, black boxlike fixture on a simple pole that was positioned at an agreeable height. The fixtures directed light down onto the sidewalks and streets, but limited the spillage into the trees or onto front yards, stoops and porches.

Do the residents of this neighborhood, many with homes costing half a million dollars and upward, want to live in a place where the street lighting indirectly signals it as a high crime area? Would residents of Westhampton or Windsor Farms allow this intensity of lighting?

Has the Fan examined a lighting mix that would include gas lamps? In the center of the city, in the historic Church Hill district (south of Broad Street), a sensible balance of light and ambience has been achieved. Here, actual gas lamps, which add atmosphere and illumination throughout the blocks, have been augmented with more powerful arc lights at most intersections.

The Fan is an aesthetic treasure and should be treated sensitively. One of the pleasures the district must retain is the ability of pedestrians to walk at night — to shops and restaurants, to exercise their dogs, to greet their neighbors. There is also a spectacular canopy of trees to enjoy. Precious ambience would be lost with high-intensity lights.

City Councilman Bill Pantele agrees that the current test lights are too bright: "Don't worry," he said recently. "It will not be those lights."

So the debate continues. And recalls the worn-out line: "How many Richmonders does it take to change a lightbulb? Four, one to change the bulb and three to talk about how much better the old one was."

In this case, there's something to the old joke. S

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