As Raleigh installs new, energy-saving streetlights in most parts of town, residents of some of the city’s oldest neighborhoods are turning up their noses at the replacements as too bright and just too modern.
The city last fall launched a $12 million effort to replace about 30,000 streetlights across the city with LED – light emitting diode – bulbs and fixtures. LEDs last longer and use up to 85 percent less energy than older sodium diode bulbs, so Raleigh is expected to save $400,000 annually once they’re all installed.
But the city is facing resistance from those who say they’re out to protect the character of Raleigh’s most celebrated neighborhoods.
A subcommittee of Raleigh’s Historic Development Commission voted earlier this month to block the city from installing the city’s proposed LED lights in historic areas such as Boylan Heights, Blount Street, Capitol Square, Moore Square, Prince Hall and Oakwood.
The current streetlights in those areas aren’t considered historic by the city or the commission. Yet, committee members have three problems with the city’s proposal: The proposed LED bulbs are too bright and the color too different from the dimmer, yellower lights that already illuminate those streets. And the proposed fixtures are flat, rectangular and look too high-tech to be in a historic district.
“We like the idea of the LEDs because they save a lot of energy, but they could save a lot more energy if they weren’t so bright,” said Matthew Brown, an Oakwood resident who lobbied against the city’s proposal.
City codes give the commission and its Certificate of Appropriateness Committee authority over proposed aesthetic changes to historic areas – even if those changes are proposed by the city government. The committee’s decision is binding. And its five members – who couldn’t be reached for comment or declined comment for this story – voted unanimously to deny the city’s proposal on Feb. 1.
Raleigh misses out on $800 in savings for each month – and $9,600 each year – that LEDs aren’t installed in the historic districts. The areas are home to 400 lights, and the city saves $2 a month per light for each that it replaces, said John Boyette, a city spokesman.
City staff can appeal the committee’s decision before Raleigh’s Board of Adjustment, so long as it files to do so before March 27. But city staff says such a move is unlikely.
“Staff prefers to have the support of the commission for the LED conversion project, which it obviously does not have at this time,” Boyette said.
The committee rejected the LED lights on grounds that they don’t adhere to the commission’s guidelines, which warn against streetlights that “create a false historic appearance, or that are stylistically inappropriate or anachronistic.”
Of course, compliance is somewhat subjective.
Raleigh’s historic areas were illuminated by gaslights until 1885, when they were slowly replaced by electric lights that were sometimes quite eclectic in design, according to the commission’s design guidelines. The globes atop cast-iron streetlights were sometimes adorned with decorative finials, commission documents say.
The areas’ existing fixtures are what’s known in the utility industry as the “cobra head” style and don’t necessarily pay homage to the gaslights or globe lanterns of yore, residents admit. But the light they cast is soft and yellow, so committee members want the city to install this type of bulb.
The city-proposed LED fixtures emit light at 4,000 Kelvin – a unit of thermodynamic temperature that measures brightness. Their light appears bright white and can sometimes appear light blue.
Committee members and residents want something that’s 3,000 Kelvin or less. The problem: Duke Energy isn’t offering lights that are 3,000 Kelvin or less, according to city staff. So some residents are lobbying City Council members to find and approve more historic-looking LED lights – with or without Duke Energy.
“It’s not that we don’t want LED lighting; it’s that we want appropriate LED lighting,” said Don Becom, a board member for the Society for the Preservation of Historic Oakwood.
Becom is asking the commission and city to consider low-Kelvin, LED streetlight fixtures in “teardrop” style, which he says resemble the ornamental bulbs that sometimes hung from wires over Raleigh’s historic streets decades ago.
“If you want to be known as a world-class city, you have to do the little things that make a difference,” he said.
Delaying the inevitable
Residents have contacted longtime councilman Russ Stephenson, who lives downtown, to express their concerns about the streetlight issue.
Stephenson said he’s open to pursuing dimmer, more traditional-looking light fixtures for historic areas if need be. But he wants to hear from more residents. So far, Stephenson says he’s only heard from residents in Oakwood.
While some residents may worry about lights shining too brightly in their windows or looking out of place in historic areas, others may want brighter lights to feel safer, Stephenson said. City staff also has to determine the cost of dimmer LED lights.
“I think there really needs to be some consensus in the community about what to do, and then an understanding about what the additional costs might be,” Stephenson said.
In the meantime, city leaders are faced with a dilemma over what to do with streetlights that burn out.
Duke Energy, which owns the fixtures that Raleigh leases, is phasing out the yellow sodium lights that dot so many historic city streets. When old bulbs die throughout the city, Duke has replaced them with LED fixtures.
It’s even happened on some historic streetssuch as West Lenoir in Boylan Heights – where a single LED fixture is surrounded by yellow, cobra head sodium lights. Until recently, city staff was unaware that the LEDs were creeping into the historic areas without the historic commission’s approval, said Tania Tully, the city’s preservation planner.
The city is working with Duke on the issue, Tully said. Until a third option is presented, Raleigh can replace dead streetlights with LEDs or leave them dark.
Becom said he and others are aware of the situation.
“We realize all we’ve done so far is buy time, but we’re not going away,” he said. “We’re going to fight for this. It’s more work, and it might be a little more money, but it’s worth it.”