It was a beautiful summer night, the type Gary Hornseth would usually spend on his front porch, relaxing and talking to neighbors. But instead he was “blasted” with white light as he stepped out of his St. Paul home last summer.
The city’s effort to reduce energy use and save money by putting LED bulbs in streetlights has had some unexpected side effects, particularly in neighborhoods like Hornseth’s, where old lantern-style lights direct the glow out, not down. Residents started avoiding their front yards and stopped lingering to chat with neighbors on the street.
“It’s preventing people from coming together,” Hornseth said.
So before St. Paul takes the new lights citywide, it’s asking residents to take a stroll and weigh some options. In three neighborhoods, the city has set up demos with different combinations of light bulbs and fixtures. Residents can travel the streets in the Payne-Phalen, Hamline-Midway and Lexington-Hamline areas and fill out a survey by May 19.
The city is not asking people to stare at bulbs, community engagement coordinator Jeannette Rebar said. They just want overall impressions: Does a certain bulb create glare? Are there dark patches due to gaps between lights?
“Do they feel this lighting is comfortable and they would want it on their street?” she asked.
Frustrated Lexington-Hamline residents, like Hornseth, helped prompt the study. The neighborhood held a town-hall meeting on streetlights in November and petitioned the city. They asked officials to get residents’ feedback before continuing to add the LEDs, which are expected to last for 20 years.
“St. Paul is out of step with major municipalities nationwide who have partnered with their residents in the early stages of adopting LED street lighting,” the Lexington-Hamline Community Council wrote.
So far, St. Paul has added LEDs in 6,100 of the city’s 37,000 streetlights. For years, the city has been adding LED bulbs, which have a “whiter moonlight color,” Rebar said.
Xcel Energy, which is replacing 90,000 streetlights across Minnesota, is using similar bulbs. It started the project a few months ago and overall feedback has been positive, said Bob Schommer, LED street lighting program manager. He said the shift to LEDs saves cities 4 to 7 percent on their electricity bills.
However, Xcel has been putting the bulbs in “cobra” or “gooseneck” streetlights, Schommer said, which point the light down and do not cause glare in residents’ windows.
A few years ago, Xcel added the bulbs in West St. Paul as part of a pilot program. The switch has reduced electricity costs and maintenance, said Duane Schneider, the city’s parks and public works superintendent. Some residents complained about the light the first couple weeks after the change, he said, but he has not heard concerns since then.
Both Xcel and St. Paul staff said they are evaluating new technology as it comes on the market, like LEDs that are warmer in color. The city is using those less intense bulbs in its neighborhood study and is also redirecting light with different fixtures, Rebar said.
Hornseth, whose block is part of the study, said he noticed the difference immediately this week.
“It’s just more pleasant,” he said. “It’s not as much of an imposition.”
His family and neighbors had bought new blinds and draperies to block the light that flooded their windows, he said, noting an American Medical Association warning that the light could disrupt sleep patterns. They spent more time hanging out in backyards or indoors, he said.
Hornseth credited the city for doing the study, and said the response to neighborhood concerns has been timely and sincere. He and Amy Gundermann, executive director of the Lexington-Hamline Community Council, said they hope the city comes up with a solution that doesn’t hurt communities.
“Every neighborhood will be affected by this,” Gundermann said. “It will definitely make a difference in how livable our city is going to be long-term.”