News: Pulling the Plug on a Bright Idea

Cincinnati drops light cannons from downtown gateway project

Sep 21, 2000 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

Greg Huber, president of Friends of the Observatory.

Cincinnati's future is turning dimmer — and that, according to astronomers, is good news.

Every year fewer and fewer stars are visible in Cincinnati's night sky. A little more light here, and a few stars fade out of view there. It's been happening for decades as cities grow and suburbs take the place of farmland.

Now two local astronomy groups are drawing a line in the sky about a city plan to use powerful lights to illuminate bridges over Fort Washington Way.

The city is rethinking its original proposal, which calls for four 7,000-watt light cannons at the cable bridges over the highway at Main and Elm streets, according to City Architect Bob Richardson. He's expecting another proposal in coming weeks from the city's lighting consultant for Fort Washington Way — without light cannons.

Light cannons at key intersections would have created a crown of light around downtown. The idea was part of the Cincinnati Gateway Program, conceived in 1995 by a committee of city staff, members of Downtown Cincinnati Inc. and consultant KZF Inc. The plan calls for 10 unique gateways at key entrance points to beautify them, add green space, and help visitors navigate downtown.

The Gateway Program includes improvements on Central Parkway, between Sycamore and Walnut Streets; on Central Avenue at Fifth and Seventh streets; and on Gilbert Avenue from Court Street to Eden Park Drive.

Each gateway was to include sculptures, landscaping and other decorations, as well as light cannons.

Richardson says other cities, such as Baltimore, have used light cannons. But two local astronomy groups, the Cincinnati Astronomical Society (CAS) and Friends of the Observatory (FOTO), object to the proposal.

"All except the light sounds like a great idea," says FOTO president Greg Huber.

Huber doesn't object to other, more powerful banks of lights, for example at Paul Brown Stadium, because they have a purpose and only shine on certain nights. A crown of light over the city, however, is another matter.

"Light cannons are not responsible at all," Huber says.

Only one of the new gateways, at Fifth and Pike streets, has been built with a light cannon. Procter & Gamble sponsored the work, which cost $20,000 to $25,000, according to Richardson. Western-Southern Life Insurance Co. maintains the tall, metallic, gateway fountain.

The gateway committee hopes local companies near the gateways will help pay for them. But the plan is taking more time than expected because it hasn't attracted enough private support to do the project at once, Richardson says.

The gateways built without light cannons so far include a bell tower at the corner of Reading Road, Liberty Street, and Interstate 471, built in 1996 with support from the Corbett Foundation and Verdin Bell Co. Construction should begin soon on a pedestrian bridge over Gilbert Avenue at Court Street, near the Greyhound Bus terminal, Richardson says.

John Jennings, president of the Cincinnati Astronomical Society, wants more attention paid to excess light. But he knows light pollution is not a high priority for most people.

"We're losing the nighttime sky," Jennings says. "And obviously that's not important to the vast majority of the population."

By contrast, residents of Arizona have expressed much interest in the issue because of the very clear night skies in their state, Jennings says.

Cincinnati, sitting in a valley that traps air pollution, isn't blessed with the best viewing conditions, but it used to be easier to see the stars at the CAS property in Cleves, according to Jennings. Although the organization still keeps a few telescopes in Cleves, in recent years it has more often used a site in Adams County.

Jennings asks why we often use globe streetlights that mostly shine up in the air, away from buildings and sidewalks. Why do gas stations and convenience stores need such bright lights? All the artificial light makes it increasingly difficult to see the sky, Jennings says.

He knows some people bristle at the mention of light pollution, especially those critical of environmentalists.

"It's hard not to be thought of as a zealot when you bring it up," Jennings says. "Nobody's saying go back to the Stone Age."

But that's the impression Richardson gets from the letters and e-mails astronomers sent the city. When asked whether or not the city is thinking about changing its style of lights, Richardson wondered how far FOTO and CAS wanted to push the issue.

To educate Cincinnati City Council members, Jennings is inviting them to a program Tuesday at the Cincinnati Observatory in Mt. Lookout.

Councilman Jim Tarbell, so far the only member to accept the invitation, isn't sure the city should change its lighting to foster darker skies. But Tarbell thinks the issue should be studied further, especially in light of the suburban growth between Cincinnati and Dayton.

"It's like one big city between here and Dayton," Tarbell says.

Tarbell agrees with the astronomers that the light cannons probably aren't the best use of resources.

Richardson says he expects the city's consultant to find an acceptable compromise for lighting the cable bridges.

"I think there's a happy medium," he says. ©