The Lackawanna “Runway”: Residents largely unhappy with streetscape improvements

Rendering of proposed Lackawanna Street streetscape.

A $100,000 neighborhood streetscape project that was once designed to give a facelift to one of North College Park’s major neighborhood street is instead stirring much controversy—so much so that some neighbors on the street think the city is ruining their neighborhood street.

The city received funding through a Maryland Heritage Areas Authority (MHAA) grant to beautify the east part of Lackawanna Street between Narragansett Parkway and 53rd Avenue. Many residents use the street as an access point to the north gate of the Greenbelt Metro station.

At the heart of the controversy lies the rows of bright white street lights that the city’s engineer and planner have used to illuminate the 2500 ft long street segment. Though the city has been working on the streetscape project for more than a year, Pepco activated the lights last Friday.

Though blurry in this picture, Lackawanna's lights are clearly high-wattage.

“I was shocked coming home on Metro on Friday night. From the platform, the whole street is lit up like a runway. It is insane,” said Heather Bourne, a resident living on the street.

“If the money was granted with a stipulation that the lamps be bright enough to supply an emergency landing strip for wayward aircraft, this could explain a few things. If we got the money to simply light up a sidewalk, any emergency landings will now be an unfortunate side effect of our exceptionally shiny street,” added Aaron Bourne, Heather’s husband.

The Bourne family is planning to send a signature petition to city asking College Park’s engineer to correct the lighting problems.

The runway analogy wasn’t limited to Bourne family alone. Mathew Byrd, another nearby resident, said “It’s great for playing street hockey at 3AM, and maybe for providing a navigational aid for a space shuttle, but aside from that, it’s a nuisance.”

The exact wattage of the lights is still unknown, but most residents agree they are much brighter than actually needed.

“The lights are bright enough to light up my backyard! The light from across the street shines into my living room. Our city has a planner and an engineer. If they were asleep at the wheel on this, I think we need to hold them accountable. This is a neighborhood, not a football field,” said Aaron Bourne.

An email to College Park’s planner was not returned.

The planning document outlining the installation of lights states that the purpose of the lights is to “encourage the feeling of safety, improve view sheds, and enhance the appearance of the streetscape.” The city planner used induction lamps, which are evidently similar to fluorescent lamps.

The Bournes, however, think the city went too far if safety was the main reason for adding those bright lights. “Please ask yourself, was crime bad enough to ruin our street? My family has to live with this; we don’t just walk through it on our way to the metro.” Aaron Bourne asked.

Some residents also complain that the a detrimental effect due to excessive light pollution will result in lowering values of their house properties. “The lighting along Lackawanna is absurd and will need to be toned down. In addition to the very negative effect on the lives of people living along that street, I don’t see that it will do much to raise property values in the eyes of prospective buyers,” said Jennifer Bardi, another nearby resident.

Other residents think the lighting’s intensity is only a small part of the problem: The white-blue lights which have been proved as health hazards. “We all want lighting that is environmentally friendly, inexpensive, and makes the street safe, but we want the lighting to be healthy, too. And the evidence is clear: blue-white spectrum outdoor lighting in a residential area is a public health hazard,” said resident Lourene Miovski. Ms. Miovski, a cancer survivor, is well aware of these concerns.

The debate over light pollution has been strong enough to involve the city’s Committee for Better Environment (CBE). CBE recommends environmental-related matters in the city to the Mayor and Council. “CBE should be interested in the amount of electricity being consumed by the new lights on Lackawanna St. as well as avoiding light pollution,” wrote CBE co-chair Stephen Jascourt in an email to city officials. Mr. Jascourt recommended that the city planner use low wattage bulb as a remedy for the problem.

But, not every resident is completely against the changes. Some think the security benefits outweigh other concerns. “I’m walking home for the first time under these lights and it’s also the first time I feel confident I won’t be assaulted while commuting…they are wonderful,” aid one resident who walks the street daily to the metro station.

“No one has died because of this and hey, maybe a mugging was even diverted this weekend because of this. How about some positive thinking?” said Jane Hopkins, asking her fellow residents to be patient until the issue is addressed by city officials.

The pollution debate caught District 1 council member Patrick Wojahn off-guard. Mr. Wojahn, who also lives on the street, believes that “the lights were the right thing to do.” He said he heard from a number of residents both on and off Lackawanna Street that they were glad that the lights were coming. “I’m sure we can work this out in a way that will not have a detrimental impact on the residents of Lackawanna Street,” added Mr. Wojahn.

Alternate view of the streetscape plan.