How a North Broad Street community is trying to fix the $14 million pole problem

“They’re here to stay. How can we make them better?”

mark

You can’t miss North Broad’s poles, and that’s part of the problem. The 41 of them standing in the street’s medians look like really tall basketball goals — minus the hoops — during the day. At night, when they’re supposed to shine, they either don’t, or they light up in shades so different from one another that you’re sort of left unsure of the point.

Oh, and they also cost $14 million.

Needless to say, more than a year after being completed, the poles haven’t been popular. But, as Shalimar Thomas notes, the poles — rebranded the North Poles — are here to stay. The community group she leads, the North Broad Renaissance, is deciding how to fix the poles while tackling greater concerns of the area.

“To say that’s a priority of ours? That’s one of our strategic areas of focuses? It’s not. But we have to figure out how to use these as an attraction.”

The North Broad Renaissance had nothing to do with the planning or installation of the poles, which are also called light masts. They were the idea of the Avenue of the Arts. About 10 years ago, the city-affiliated development group started in the Rendell era created a $50 million master plan for redeveloping North Broad. That plan was stripped down after budget setbacks, and in 2011 North Broad was pretty much left with the poles idea. Avenue of the Arts planned to call it the Promenade of Lights.      

The name didn’t catch on, probably in no small part because the lights usually don’t look good. As Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron noted in her column when the poles were completed, the design was based on a setup at LAX. They’d look great from a helicopter or a low-flying plane. But North Broad isn’t exactly on the approach to PHL; not too many Philadelphians get a nightly sky-high view of the city.

Technical issues have made their appearance worse. Thomas said an RFP released late last year aims to find a company to maintain the poles and solve the problems that have led to many poles shining at varying levels of brightness. The city is providing $250,000 for annual work on the poles and landscaping improvements done in concert with them. Thomas said she’s received just one response to the RFP over the last month. The deadline for bids was extended until the end of January and as of Wednesday nobody else had submitted a bid.    

North Broad Renaissance was formed in fall 2015 and was stuck with the 55-foot poles Avenue of the Arts left behind. Ryan Briggs detailed in a story from last year how North Broad was essentially the ugly stepchild of South Broad for years, and disagreement on the Avenue of the Arts board finally led to a splintering of the group and formation of North Broad Renaissance.

The group was essentially given a blank slate aside from the poles, which aren’t doing much for a section of Philadelphia on the upswing but still in need of rejuvenation. According to North Broad Renaissance, the 48,000 people making up the Census tracts enveloping Broad Street between Spring Garden and Germantown Avenue have a per capita annual income of about $14,000.     

Thomas, who grew up at Broad and Erie, has tried to focus North Broad Renaissance’s efforts in four areas: making the community aware of their organization, safety, landscaping and green space and cleanliness. The latter has particularly been a focus.   

Last year, North Broad Renaissance released an RFP for a cleaning vendor and ended up awarding it to a minority-owned business located in North Philly. The cleanup efforts have gone noticed by members of the community who were critical of Avenue of the Arts.  

“It’s made a big difference and so far the work of North Broad Renaissance has begun to do what we have felt Avenue of the Arts’ role should have been on North Broad,” said Linda Richardson, president of the group overseeing Uptown Theater’s renovation. “Inheriting a bad project, it is what it is.”  

Other goals of the organization include installing more cameras along the North Broad corridor for safety purposes and to help discourage illegal dumping and transforming a lot at Broad and Lehigh into something like a community garden. North Broad Renaissance also wants to team with the Fairmount CDC increase green space in the area around the newly redeveloped Divine Lorraine.     

Thomas remembers the community being upset — and some still are — over the light masts. Part of that was because they didn’t feel like anybody listened when they said $14 million could be put to better use than an art installation of poles. So North Broad Renaissance is attempting to be more open. The group holds eight meetings a year and requires at least two community members to be part of a review committee before North Broad Renaissance agrees to a bid on an RFP, including the one that’s out there for the North Poles.         

“We can take a lesson learned from this, which is why we’re so open and transparent and you can come to these meetings,” Thomas said. “Let us know what you want us to do with them. We can’t take them down. They’re here to stay. But how can we make them better for the community?”