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City moves forward with decorative lighting for St. Louis Avenue

(Jan. 25, 2013) The City Council took an aesthetic gamble this week on St. Louis Avenue, with the majority of the body confident that the addition of the much-discussed decorative lighting option will not clutter the street, and that future grant funding will be available to do the same on the latter phases of the project.

“You all anticipated doing it at some time [installing the lighting], and we have a golden opportunity here to do it,” said Councilman Dennis Dare, who was not a member of the body when the final cost-cutting compromises were made on the road renovation project last spring.

At that time, it was agreed to slash the project’s budget by not burying utility lines on the avenue, which serves as a mainly residential artery on the island’s west side. However, basic electrical conduit would be installed, which would give the city the option to make lighting upgrades at a later date without having to re-excavate the road.

The original plan for the thoroughfare’s reconstruction was conceived some years ago, and originally included grandiose designs for underground utilities, widened sidewalks and bike lanes, and a traffic circle at the First Street dogleg. All of these features were gradually cut, however, as financing became tighter and tighter.

Alternative means of enhancing the project were sought, with the Ocean City Development Corporation applying for state grant funding under Maryland’s new Community Legacy Program. Last week, OCDC Executive Director Glenn Irwin said he had secured $50,000 of money from that application, with an additional $25,000 eligible to be transferred from the organization’s business assistance fund.

This money would be put towards the decorative lighting that was originally conceived for the project: lamppost style lights, consisting of spun concrete columns topped with enclosed glass bulbs with energy-efficient LED elements.

The total for the 30 lights needed to cover the first phase of the project – the stretch from 17th to 10th Streets, currently under construction – would be $154,000, meaning that the city would need to pay $79,000 out of pocket, according to Public Works Director Hal Adkins.

Although the next two seasons of the three-part project have yet to be designed, Adkins estimated that the total cost for lighting the whole avenue would be $390,000. With $75,000 already guaranteed from outside, the city’s final contribution comes down to $315,000, although it could be less if the OCDC is successful – and it expects to be – in garnering similar state funding for the next two phases.

There was some question on council, however, as to how worthwhile it would be to add a single element of flair back into a project that had already been stripped of everything but the bare essentials.

“I hadn’t realized that this had been value engineered down to the level it had,” Dare said.

He had suggested, last week, that the city consider a more extensive rebuild of the sidewalks in order to make the vertical faces of the concrete adjacent to the road a consistent height, ideally eight inches. This would prevent cars rolling up over the curb and potentially damaging the light fixtures.

To this end, the poles could even be moved to the other side of the sidewalk, towards the property lines, Dare suggested. Doing so would also mean that the poles would not have to be adjusted if the city widened its sidewalks at a later date.

Adkins reported this week that, while some damaged sidewalks are being replaced, “the majority of the sidewalks have a face of five to eight inches,” which significantly reduces the risk of automotive damage, he said.

Furthermore, reserving the possibility of expanding the sidewalks at a later date is somewhat of a moot point, Adkins said. Drainage lines and pole bases have already been laid out for the standard, five-foot sidewalks. Expanding the walk to eight feet, as the city had wanted to do originally, would require a complete tear-out.

“The utility poles that are there near the gutter line will be there for the duration of the project,” which Adkins estimated to have a 20- to 25-year life, he said.

“Keep in mind that, since the majority of the impediments [to foot traffic] are already along the gutter line, if you place the [lighting] pole towards the back of the sidewalk, you tend to create a zigzag pattern of people coming down the sidewalk,” Adkins said.

Wider sidewalks could still be a possibility on the cross-streets, where they may be of more use.

“The majority of foot traffic is in an east-west direction,” Adkins said. “If you wish to focus on expanding your sidewalks at a later date, it may need to be in an east-west direction.”

Adkins also noted the possibility that the city could request permission from adjacent property owners to install a line of brick pavers — at the town’s expense — on the outward sides of the sidewalks, giving an extra two feet or so of movement space in some areas.

“That could enhance the walkability,” Dare concurred.

Council Secretary Mary Knight also questioned whether the decorative lights would make the street look cluttered, given that the elimination of underground utilities meant that wooden poles would still line the street as well.

“I don’t want [the lighting] to just look like an afterthought,” she said.

The layout would be similar to what is currently seen on some stretches of Baltimore Avenue, where Mayor Rick Meehan submitted that the lights, which are shorter than the height of the utility wires and project their beams downward, actually draw the eyes of passersby away from the utility clutter overhead.

“Your eye level is going to be brought down to that, not above it,” Meehan said.

“I’d be more worried about sign clutter than I would over anything like this,” said Planning and Community Development Director Matt Margotta.

Councilwoman Margaret Pillas had asked last week if the lamppost-style lighting would create a redundancy with the “cobra-head” street lights that Delmarva Power already installs on its utility poles.

“Should you choose to place the ornamental lights, those cobra heads would then be decommissioned,” Adkins said this week.

Still, Pillas said, “I don’t think you’re going to get the same level of lighting that you would with the cobra lights,” despite the added cost. Along with Councilman Brent Ashley, who said he was uncomfortable with adding discretionary spending to future budgets over the projects next phases, Pillas voted against moving forward with the lights.

The remaining five members of council voted to approve an allocation of $79,000 from the current fiscal year’s operating reserve to cover the lights for the current phase of the project.

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