“Who Left the Lights On in Central Park?”

central-park-streetlights-on-during-the-day

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Why are the doggone streetlights blazing away in Central Park during the day?  That’s a question I’ve been asking for months.  I’ve asked the Central Park Conservancy, the NYC Department of Transportation, the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, and Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal’s office.   Crazy, right?

One of the top columnists for the New York Times, Jim Dwyer, asked the same question in today’s paper.  See the article here.  He’s got the whole story.

The short answer to the question is, according to DOT, that “the agency was keeping the lights on for ‘safety and security’ reasons.”   It’s sad and Dwyer notes:  “The message sent is that squandering electricity does not matter.”

Action item:  Please contact the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability with the message that this is just unacceptable and to fix the problem.  Go here to do that:  Send Us a Message.

(I’ve copied Jim Dwyer’s excellent column here for you.)

The streetlights along a western stretch of Central Park were “blazing away in the middle of a sunny day,” said Bill Hewitt, who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It seemed silly, not a big deal. “Someone forgot to turn a switch, I thought,” Mr. Hewitt said this week. “An anomaly.”

The next day, the lights were still on. And the day after that. That was back in the early summer. Now — or, at least, as of Tuesday, the brink of winter — the lights are still on during the daytime, about six months after Mr. Hewitt first spotted them and began a quest to find someone in city government who would turn them off or explain why not.

Mr. Hewitt, a writer and teacher on environmental issues, worked for many years in the State Department of Environmental Conservation. So he knows his way around government and is not thrown by detours. Logically enough, his first call was to the Central Park Conservancy, the private organization that maintains the park. The conservancy informed him that the streetlights in the parks are the responsibility of the city’s Transportation Department.

The city has 250,000 streetlights in the five boroughs and says that it is a “national leader in using sustainable lighting,” citing a multiyear project to convert all the streetlights to LEDs (light-emitting diodes). The idea is to save money on replacement and on energy. All 1,800 fixtures in Central Park have been changed. They are supposed to come on at dusk and go off at dawn. Inevitably, things break, need repairs, and in the process, a whole grove of lights may have to stay on in order to figure out which ones are not working.

That’s a process of days, not months.

Using a city website, Mr. Hewitt submitted a query in July to the Transportation Department. He heard back three weeks later from the borough commissioner for Manhattan.

“The Division of Street Lighting has inspected the site and determined that the lights in the park have been turned on due to electrical construction and in order to perform maintenance,” wrote the commissioner, Luis Sanchez. “Upon completion of repair and construction, the timer will be reset by the contractor.”

Two weeks later, Mr. Hewitt wrote back to the commissioner, bringing him up to date: “The lights that I noted to you remain on. They have been on for weeks.”

Under orders from parents not to waste electricity, many of us learned as children to switch off lights when we leave a room. Conservation of energy is now a high social goal. But is a bunch of high-efficiency streetlights really worth the trouble?

Probably.

Consider what happens during droughts or water shortages. It is common for New York and other cities to shut off ornamental fountains, not because they use much water — it is mostly recirculated — but because of their symbolic power. In the dryness, we see scarcity, rather than the illusion of cascading abundance. The same symbolic power, in reverse, goes for streetlights that are left on when they are not needed: The message sent is that squandering electricity does not matter.

“It’s not just the tens of thousands of people who pass those lights every day,” Mr. Hewitt said. “People from all over the world come to the park.”

Time went by. The lights stayed on. Mr. Hewitt contacted a former student, an intern in the city’s Office of Sustainability, who brought the issue to a supervisor.

All remained quiet.

Mr. Hewitt visited the office of his City Council representative, Helen Rosenthal. A member of her staff, Ned Terrace, dug into the matter. “The answer I received was that the power source for the streetlights is the same as the power source for the security cameras that the N.Y.P.D. has in Central Park, meaning that they have to be operating so that the cameras can remain on,” Mr. Terrace wrote on Nov. 11.

On Tuesday, Scott Gastel, a spokesman for the Transportation Department, said the agency was keeping the lights on for “safety and security” reasons related to the police cameras, and for construction.

Over on the East Side of Manhattan, an entire subway line was just built underneath one of the busiest avenues in the country; on the West Side, 16 skyscrapers, a school, a theater and a shopping mall are planned or are being built on top of a platform over the busiest train yards in the Northeast.

Getting separate wires for the cameras and the streetlights in Central Park seems to fall within the realm of the possible.

 


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