WTF: What's up with those lights embedded in the lower Church Street sidewalk, and why haven't they been working? | WTF | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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WTF: What's up with those lights embedded in the lower Church Street sidewalk, and why haven't they been working? 

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: We just had to ask...

Published December 21, 2011 at 11:25 a.m.

lights in the sidewalk on lower Church St.
  • lights in the sidewalk on lower Church St.

If you’ve taken a nighttime stroll down the redesigned block of lower Church Street in Burlington, you’ve probably noticed the strange, multicolored lights speckling the sidewalk. And if you frequent the area, you’ve also most likely noticed that they recently went dark — some of the lights are even covered with pieces of wood. WTF? Who installed the lights in the first place? What are they made of? What makes them work? Why did they stop?

We asked Erin Demers, an engineer in the Department of Public Works. She was the project engineer for the lower Church Street renovation and was happy to unravel the mystery.

First, to our disappointment, we learned that the lights are not the groundwork for an outdoor dance club. Officially, they’re called Solar LED Paver Lights, and they were placed there to attract more foot traffic to the area, disconnected as it is from the lively Church Street Marketplace.

The idea was to “lead people down to the newly improved streetscape, as a ‘trail of bread crumbs,’” Demers said, “so that at night [the lights] are interesting, inviting and jazz up the block.”

The project team’s design consultant, Julie Moir Messervy of Saxtons River, Vt., had success installing similar lights at the University of Kansas, where the project reportedly was greeted with excitement.

“Most people felt that this would be a unique opportunity to draw positive attention to an up-and-coming downtown block of the city of Burlington,” said Demers. Last summer, the city spent months reconfiguring the street, widening the sidewalks and adding lighting, including the sidewalk LEDs. For $20,000, Don Weston Excavating of Essex Junction was contracted to install the solar pavers.

Wait, $20K?

“This is a small fraction of cost for an artsy flair,” Demers said. True, the sidewalk lights were a tiny slice of the total streetscape construction costs: more than $1.7 million.

But were they worth it? Have the lights satisfied the vision of city planners? Did they attract more people to downtown’s southern end?

We went into the relatively new Mexican restaurant El Gato Cantina to find out. Had it seen an increase in business since the pavers were installed?

“The what?” asked a server, cocking her head to one side. “Oh! The little light things on the sidewalk? Yeah, I guess they’re cool.”

Another server, standing nearby, chimed in, “The kids seem to like them during the summer.”

We chatted for about 10 minutes, long enough to gather that El Gato’s employees thought the lights had had no impact on business. One of the servers pointed out that the illumination is so soft, you can’t even see the pavers until you’re on the sidewalk. They may look pretty up close, but how are they supposed to draw people from afar?

The 29 6-by-6-inch white, blue, green and red squares are powered completely by the sun, and a light sensor indicates when it’s dark enough for them to turn on automatically. Their protective casings, flush with the sidewalk, are made of glass, aluminum and a strong polycarbonate cover.

Apparently, several of the pavers have already cracked. Which would explain why, a few nights ago, we found all the lights covered up with wooden blocks and the area surrounded by orange traffic cones.

The cause of damage remains undetermined, but we’ve heard theories. Rumor has it that boozed-up customers staggering out of nearby establishments have been vandalizing the lights. Did city officials really think through their placement just outside the doors of several bars?

According to Demers, everything is under control now. The lights’ manufacturer, Meteor, has upgraded the lens material from glass to a more durable plastic compound. This will, she asserted, withstand any further attempts to break them.

Are there plans to install LED solar pavers in more Burlington sidewalks? While “the city is always looking for whimsical streetscape improvements and public art displays,” said Demers, there are no such projects at this time.

Will the confetti-like lights hold up to a harsh Vermont winter — and sidewalk plows? Because the pavers are flush with the concrete, Demers said, plowing shouldn’t harm them, and the LEDs are also built to survive the cold.

The solar pavers, when illuminated, do add unexpected flair to the new sidewalk. Check ’em out and see for yourself. And, if you feel the urge to break into spontaneous dance moves, just know that you’re not alone.

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Julia Howe


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