City plans pilot to dim Chestnut Hill streetlights

by Carla Robinson
Posted 8/24/22

Neighbors who attended City Councilmember Cindy Bass’ Zoom meeting last Tuesday because they are upset about the neighborhood’s glaring new streetlights got some reassurances.

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City plans pilot to dim Chestnut Hill streetlights


Neighbors who attended City Councilmember Cindy Bass’ Zoom meeting last Tuesday because they are upset about the neighborhood’s glaring new streetlights got some reassurances and explanations from Philadelphia Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams.

“Take it from a person who values his sleep, I do understand when something is disruptive in a community. It's very important,” Williams said. “I’m sure you guys do not wish to wait years in order to have this problem addressed.”

Deputy Commissioner Richard Montanez, who was also on the call, said that in response to neighbors’ complaints he’s hoping to launch a pilot project for dimming 100 of 499 lights that his department installed over the past few weeks, which he admits are too bright. 

“Are we too bright in Chestnut Hill? Yes, we are,” he said. “I’m not going to disagree with that.”

The upset began early this summer, when city workers started replacing the old high-pressure sodium lights, which cast a yellowish glow, with newer LED lamps, which are much more powerful and emit a whiter, harsher type of light. 

Chestnut Hill’s new lights are a precursor for a citywide plan to replace all existing 150,000 street lights in Philadelphia with LEDs, which will save money, reduce the city’s carbon footprint and can be remotely controlled. According to Montanez, the remote control feature will not only help the city keep all the lights in working condition, it will allow for light levels to be raised or dimmed on demand. 

And this is the source of the current upset. 

According to Montanez, the dimming technology is not part of the first phase of this $92 million project, but will come at some point in the future. He can’t say when, and also can’t say where the funding will come from. 

Still, because he wants to be able to turn the lights way up when he needs to, for now he’s chosen a fixture that’s much more powerful than what will typically be needed by most residential neighborhoods.

This means that for now, people in Chestnut Hill are living with nighttime street lighting that is up to three times as intense as it needs to be. 

Brighter than they need to be

Joyce Lenhardt, a board member of the CHCA who is also an architect, said that Chestnut Hill’s lights, which are 84 watts and are now producing up to 9000 lumens, said they are three times as strong as the new street lighting just across Stenton Avenue in Wyndmoor - which just upgraded to LEDs that are 25 to 36 watts on most residential streets. 

“So 84 is really just outrageously high,” she said. “I don’t think that lights this bright are appropriate for anywhere in the city.”

And in the Local’s online survey about the lights, residents are still complaining. 

“My heart broke when I saw the new lights on Wadsworth - they make our formerly charming street look like a Walmart parking lot,” wrote one resident. “The coldness and brightness is inappropriate for quiet residential streets and takes away from our historic neighborhood. They do not make me feel safer at all.”

“We had guests over the other evening from out of town and they said it looked like a prison yard,” wrote a resident of Mermaid Lane. 

According to a resident of West Meade Street, the new lighting “terribly disturbs the old-village-like character of our precious neighborhood of Chestnut Hill. It hurts the eyes and makes our beautiful surroundings look garish.”

“The lights seem to create darker dark spots,” wrote another. “It manages to be both bright and unsafe at the same time.”

Question of color

In addition to the intensity, many residents also worry about the color of the new light. 

Light color, which is measured in Kelvins, comes in a spectrum. The yellowish glow of the old fixtures was about 2200 Kelvins, while the new LEDs are supposed to be 4000 Kelvins - which is more blue, and appears as a colder white to the human eye. 

Mark Berger, a cardiologist who lives on Waterman Avenue and was also in the Zoom meeting, said he’s concerned about the potential impact on health. 

“Our bodies are very sensitive to daylight and the lack of daylight. When there’s daylight, our melatonin production shuts down, and we wake up. When there’s no daylight, our bodies produce melatonin, and our body is signaled to go to sleep. “This is our circadian rhythm,” he explained. “Daylight is any Kelvin score higher than 4500. So it’s really important for all of our sleep … to have a lighting solution that isn’t telling our bodies that it's daytime. And that’s why the Kelvin score has to be as low as possible, certainly under 4500. Ideally, it should be under 3000.”

Tim Breslin, an engineer who said he has his own light meters, said he thinks the lights may be functioning differently than intended, because he’s measured the light and found it to be about 6000 Kelvins. 

And Lori Salganicoff, executive director of the Chestnut Hill Conservancy, said that in terms of public safety, she thinks the color of the light, as well as the intensity, does not actually make people feel safer.

“This changes the perception of the city,” she said. “It makes it feel less safe.”

According to both Williams and Montanez, the city’s choices will be driven, in large part, by public safety. The whiter light shows up better on nighttime security cameras, they said. 

“Obviously, there’s no secret that we have a crime issue in Philadelphia, especially a violent crime issue,” Williams said. “Lighting is part of the solution - it’s not going to solve the problem, but we do believe that it will aid our effort to make the community safer.

“I can’t have a police officer on every corner, but now I can at least have a camera in every corner,” Montanez said. “I need to make sure that the cameras we use are able to be utilized in court.”

Short term versus long term fixes

Both Montanez and Williams said they are “open” to changing the color range of the new lights, as well as the intensity, when they make their final decision on what lights to use for the citywide replacement project. 

“We don’t want to give the impression that we’re saying ‘this what you have, take it or leave it,’” Williams said. “We don't want that situation, certainly we don't.” 

But while they can address the brightness right away, changing color would take longer. 

“That may be a much longer term issue. It isn’t as simple as changing out a bulb,” Williams said. 

Montanez said the company that will be replacing all the city’s streetlights is required to test different color temperatures and hold community meetings to discuss neighborhood needs.

“We are currently doing a study before we pick the color temperature for the entire city,” he said, adding that he wants to be sure of the choice before he commits.

“We get a big savings by buying in bulk,” Montanez said. “So I am buying 120,000 LEDs in one shot.”