Neighborhood Civic Leaders Want More Input on Electrified Gaslights Proposed for Stuart Street

Since a proposal to replace several existing historic gaslights with electrified streetlights in conjunction with the 19-story mixed-use tower now under construction at 212 Stuart St. could potentially pave the way for the installation of similar LED light fixtures not only elsewhere on Bay Village, but also on Beacon Hill and on Marlborough Street in the Back Bay, civic leaders from these neighborhoods want the city to include them in the planning process.

Greystar, the developer of 212 Stuart St., had originally filed an application for the installation of seven LED streetlamps for consideration at the Bay Village Historic District Commission’s January meeting, but ultimately Greystar withdrew its application amid concerns raised by the Bay Village Neighborhood Association.

Gary Kerr, managing director of Greystar, wrote: “We greatly respect the Bay Village Neighborhood Association’s stewardship, and we share their desire to maintain the historic character of the district. 212 Stuart St. represents an opportunity to carry that legacy forward while also establishing a more inviting entrance to Bay Village and aligning with local/state sustainability objectives without compromising its charm. Although no official action will be taken regarding the streetlamps until at least the conclusion of the pilot program, we will continue to keep the Neighborhood Association, and the broader Bay Village community, involved on progress and timelines. Greystar is appreciative of the community’s passion, and we intend to work closely with them and the City of Boston as this process continues.”

Of the seven proposed LED fixtures, the two at Acorn and Stuart streets would already be nonconforming, while the  others on Charles Street Plaza and the north side of Shawmut Street are a topic of concern with the BVNA, said Thomas Perkins, president of the group’s board of directors.

“The Bay Village Neighborhood Association is keeping an open mind with respect to LED fixtures, but there are three preconditions that are critical for success,” Perkins wrote in an email. “First, the lamps themselves need to look the same as the existing gas lamps with which they will be in close proximity. Second, the light warmth and diffusion pattern needs to be essentially similar to that of a gas lamp – we don’t want our little lanes and passageways lit up like the Turnpike”

But “third, and most critically,” added Perkins, “this needs to be coordinated and agreed upon by the civic associations and Historic District Commissions for all neighborhoods that will be affected as all new installations or reinstallations are switched to LEDs. Beacon Hill has ten times as many of the same gas fixtures as we do, and Back Bay probably has as many along Marlborough Street as we do in our entire neighborhood. They need to be in the conversation.  The City won’t save a dime unless the plan is coordinated across all the gas lamp neighborhoods, and Bay Village doesn’t want to be stuck with an orphan unicorn design that isn’t approved anywhere else.”

Moreover, Perkins wrote, “We have repeatedly told the Department of Public Works that the Bay Village Neighborhood Association will not approve this installation unless our sister neighborhood associations (i.e. the Beacon Hill Civic Association and the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay) that currently have the same lamp designs agree that it’s acceptable as a replacement elsewhere. We have conveyed the same message to the Bay Village Historic District Commission.  We object to a process in which the smallest neighborhood is singled out for a pilot and potentially stuck with an electric orphan if other neighborhoods don’t sign on. This needs to be an inclusive process from the start. If the City can’t commit to that, then they should simply reinstall the gas lamps as required in the approved building plans.”

The city already has a mock-up for a field demonstration on Shawmut Street parallel to Stuart Street. Its Street Lighting Division anticipates having the electrified lamp installed in the next few weeks so members of the BVNA and other interested parties can view the fixture.

The electrified light fixture on Shawmut Street will closely resemble the existing light, especially the design elements of the existing gas fixtures, including the pole, fixture, and electrified burner assembly.

Following a review period, the city will determine the next steps for installing the remaining lights on Shawmut Street along with the walking path, which runs from Shawmut Avenue to Stuart Street.

The city, meanwhile, is looking into a variety of approaches to maintain the historic nature of its neighborhoods, like Bay Village, while reducing carbon emissions from gaslights. If the installation on Shawmut Street proves successful, the city intends to use the lessons learned to determine other areas where installation is feasible and would be welcomed by residents. Community engagement and feedback would be paramount to this process, according to the city. 

Sue Prindle, a long-serving Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay board member and chair of the group’s Architecture Committee, said the electrified streetlights proposed for Stuart Street and what they could ultimately mean for Marlborough Street has already garnered a lot of interest among Back Bay residents.

All of the gaslights on Marlborough Street are reproductions, she said, but it also remains unknown whether the installation of new electrified fixtures would require “tearing up the streets to put in more electricity.”

Prindle’s foremost concerns with the proposed LED streetlights, she said, are the “quality of the reproductions,” as well as the “quality of the light” they’ll emit.

“We’ll just have to look at it,” she said. “I don’t think they (the city) are in any big rush, so let’s stop and do it right and talk to all the neighborhood associations to get them behind it before charging off. “

Added Prindle, “From a global warming point of view, it’s probably the right thing to do, but let’s make sure we do it properly.”

Rob Whitney, chair of the Beacon Hill Civic Association board, said the neighborhood’s more than 1,100 gaslights  are a “real mixture” of new and old fixtures.

“When they get damaged, they replace them with old gaslights from other neighborhoods wherever they can find them to have the same consistent look,” said Whiney, adding that some of these relocated fixtures aren’t original gaslights, even though they date back to the early 1900s.

The last outreach the Civic Association had with the city regarding electrified gaslights was about two and half years ago, said Whitney, when there was some discussion about installing them on Temple Street.

At that time, the Civic Association reached out to Chris Osgood, then the city’s chief of streets, after hearing about the Temple Street proposal from third parties. What followed was a tentative conversation about the city trying out a pilot by installing a single LED light in the Temple Street Park, but those talks with the city eventually fizzled out, said Whitney. Since then, the Civic Association has heard nothing more about from the city about LED gaslights in the neighborhood.

“We’re happy to have the conversation with the city about potential LED lights… but I’d love to see the city focus on areas other than gas lights,” said Whitney.

The gaslights, he said, account for only a “small percentage” of natural gas emissions, while burning gas converted into the electricity would likely power the new LED lights. “It’s actually more inefficient to turn gas into electricity,” he added.

Instead of worrying about gaslight emissions, Whitney said the city should be exploring “bigger picture” solutions to ending its reliance on natural gas, such as looking at the possibility of installing solar panels at City Hall.

Whitney also lamented what he perceives as  a lack of information from the city so far concerning the proposed Stuart Street lighting fixtures – an oversight that’s particularly galling considering  how much the gaslights have come to define the character of Beacon Hill.

When the mockup is in place on Stuart Street, the Beacon Hill Civic Association will dispatch representatives to see it for themselves, and since there is a lot of support on Beacon Hill for the gaslights, as well as for exploring new options, the Civic Association is also offering to host a Town Hall meeting to further examine the issue, said Whitney.

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