2014-09-04 / Front Page

Finale for Square's Gaslights

By Barry Bridges

The days of gaslights in Washington Square’s Eisenhower Park are limited, as they will soon be replaced with “historically appropriate” LED lighting similar to those previously installed in Queen Anne Square.

The new lights were recommended by the Washington Square Advisory Commission and were approved by the Newport City Council at its meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 27.

In a staff report to councilors, Interim City Manager Joseph Nicholson reported that “the lack of sufficient light is cited as a significant public safety concern [and is] detrimental to the economic vitality of the Washington Square businesses that surround the park.” The cost of replacing 11 gaslights is projected to approach $110,000, with 90 percent covered by monies the city has received through a Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management Historic Grant.

Prior to deliberations, the council heard public comments. Newporter Federico Santi objected to the LED plan as “incompatible with historic preservation standards.” He asserted, “It is time for Newport to take stock of its historic streetscape assets and establish a procedure that will protect them for future generations.” He also urged councilors to bring the city’s historic preservation planner and the Historic District Commission into the conversation.

Santi also found the proposal inconsistent with previous council actions, particularly their recent adoption of an “Adopt a Gaslight” program and a 2012 resolution that described the importance of gaslights to Newport’s historic streetscapes.

However, Lillian Dick, chair of the Washington Square Advisory Commission, took the opposite stance and argued in favor of the replacements. “I completely agree with Mr. Santi in that there should be a separate dialogue for lighting the streetscapes, and I have spoken to several councilors and I know you’re interested in this,” she said. “But the lighting in Eisenhower Park has been vetted and the recommendation from the commission [to replace the gaslights] has come after years of discussion of what is the best way to illuminate the park.”

Dick continued, “The purpose of the gaslights in the first place was to bring lighting down to a human scale and to let the light shine on the beauty of the houses and the streetscapes that we have…. This can still happen when you have an electrified gaslight. It’s not as beautiful, perhaps, but it is more cost effective. I think in the 21st century … it’s a reasonable compromise.”

After pointing out the difficulties in securing funding for park restoration, Dick applauded Newport Buildings and Grounds Supervisor Scott Wheeler for locating available grant monies and said, “Lighting will have a tremendous, positive effect on the restoration of this space, so I urge you to pass it.”

At-large representative Jeanne- Marie Napolitano was the first councilor to offer her thoughts as she commended the efforts underlying the proposal.

“Having served on the Washington Square Commission, I can tell you we have gone through a lot of iterations with these gaslights. One of the biggest concerns over the years is to really open up that park to the public and make it a welcoming place. What we’ve found is that we can’t get the right illumination, and I know that everybody has worked very hard to get this grant,” Napolitano said as she signaled her support for the LED lights.

Several councilors tried to balance what they viewed as competing interests of history and practicality.

Councilor Kathryn Leonard stated, “I totally understand both viewpoints, and in my head and in my heart I’m conflicted because I love the look of the gaslights.” She then commented that the present lighting is probably beyond repair.

While supporting the Eisenhower Park plan, she continued, “I would be very disappointed if we didn’t do the best we could to protect all the rest of the gaslights. I think that’s one of the things that makes us unique…. I hope in my heart of hearts that we all work to save the rest of them because the uniqueness of them makes us special.”

Second Ward Councilor Justin McLaughlin also expressed his hope of more closely examining the remaining gaslights, emphasizing that a protocol was needed. “I’ll bring before the council at the next meeting a moratorium to not do anything to any more gaslights until we actually develop a policy,” he said.

“I think we need an inventory of where they are and what’s involved, and I think there are stakeholders who are concerned that we might just nibble away at these, one at a time, and the best thing to do is to stop and let’s have a policy as to how we’re going to deal with them… I’ll bring something forward … so we can actually develop a plan.”

While agreeing with McLaughlin’s hopes to establish a policy henceforth, Councilor Michael Farley also backed the current project. He pointed to the cost savings and the need to keep the park well lit. “I’m going to support it mostly because it looks like we’re going to be replacing them with ‘historically appropriate’ LED lights. I’m sensitive to the preservation need, but I think we need to replace these lights now,” he said.

As the discussion grew to a close, Mayor Henry Winthrop said “I’m not torn at all. This is the right thing to do and the right time to do it. This is a public safety issue in the City of Newport, and our number one priority is public safety.”

Councilor Naomi Neville was the only holdout. She acknowledged the ongoing work that has been contributed to the Washington Square effort and came down on the side of tradition. “I am going to go with the nostalgia of keeping the gas lamps,” she stated just before she cast the lone vote against installing the LED lighting.

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