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Bright Idea Finally Shines in L.A.

Decorative streetlamps, installed 15 years ago in part of downtown, are turned on for first time.

June 04, 2005|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

It took 15 years for someone to finally see the light.

Something was missing from the 160 streetlamps that line one of Los Angeles' busiest downtown thoroughfares: illumination.

The lamps sit atop 32 antique-style poles on 7th Street between Hope and Figueroa streets. They were installed as part of a beautification project in 1990.

But for more than 5,300 nights in a row after that, the 18-foot-tall decorative lighting fixtures failed to come on at sunset.

Now, for the first time, the lamps have been switched on as city officials and downtown property owners consider making nighttime lighting permanent.

In a way, it's not surprising that few seemed to notice before that the bulbs weren't working.

The downtown business district virtually empties at nightfall. And conventional city streetlamps that tower 30 feet over the decorative poles are sufficient to light up the roadway for the relatively few motorists who pass through at night.

In 2003, however, leaders of the Downtown Breakfast Club noticed the blackout.

The business group annually bestows "roses" and "lemons" to the downtown area's best and worst development projects. The unlighted streetlights won a lemon.

Among the city officials embarrassed by the dubious achievement was Councilwoman Jan Perry, who represents the downtown area.

"The councilwoman said to get them lit," aide Greg Fischer said. "But it turned out that the story behind these lights was very twisted and bizarre. We couldn't even find as-built plans for them."

The confusion was understandable.

Transportation officials spent $250,000 to install the poles and new sidewalk curbstones and street-side trees in 1990 to compensate for three years of neighborhood upheaval caused by construction of the underground 7th Street station that serves the Blue Line light-rail line and Red Line subway.

But the lights never got turned on. And over the next 15 years the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, which had commissioned the decorative lamps, morphed into the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. City Hall administrations came and went. Private property along the lamps' layout changed hands.

"Nobody really understood why the lights didn't work," Fischer said. "I don't think anybody went to the trouble to find out why they didn't light."

Michael Gagan, a member of a downtown neighborhood council, and Hal Bastian, a director of a downtown business improvement district, played detective to unravel the mystery behind the lights, Fischer said.

It turned out that the original plan called for the owners of seven properties next to the lights to pay for the electricity. Trying to be helpful, workers hired by the city Transportation Commission wired the streetlights to an electricity meter in the basement of the old Barker Bros. building at 818 W. 7th St.

Transportation planners anticipated that the seven owners would form a tiny street-lighting assessment district. But that never happened.

"There were some covenants prepared at the time, and the way it was supposed to work was that the property owners would be responsible for the lights. If they didn't pay for the electricity and maintenance, they'd have to remove the lights," said Stan Horwitz, senior engineering manager with the city's Bureau of Street Lighting.

"The property owners discussed handing off the responsibility every year to a different owner. But the covenants were never recorded. It never seemed to happen."

The city-prepared contract was too toughly worded for the property owners, recalls Carol Schatz, president of the Central City Assn., a downtown business group. She said she attempted 15 years ago to serve as a go-between between the landowners and the city.

"It was a total nightmare. It was my first experience with city bureaucracy, and it was really scary. After two years of trying to get the lights on I had to say sorry, we can't do it," she said.

"The city had come up with a covenant that basically had property owners signing their life away. The city wouldn't give in on the language."

Thanks to the "lemon" award and Perry's intervention, current property owners agreed to pay for having the streetlamps' electricity meter moved earlier this year out of the 7th Street basement and onto the street.

For its part, the city is temporarily providing power for the lights without charge and is replacing the original, bright lightbulbs with something "that won't blind you when you look at it," as one official put it. Also, old, discolored plastic lamp covers are being replaced with classier-looking glass globes.

In late summer, ballots will be sent to the seven property owners asking if they are willing to pay the estimated $9,000 annual bill for electricity and maintenance, according to Horwitz. If they say no, the lights will go off and the poles will go away.

Those involved with the lamps' revival say they hope the property owners will keep them permanently lighted.

They say the thought of going through this all over again is a real turnoff.

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