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Lamp Metamorphosis

What is it about some New York City neighborhoods that make them seem cozier than others? And what is it about some blocks in particular that make even the most distracted walker pause for a moment to soak up the surroundings? The beauty, as any dedicated city stroller knows, is in the block's details - the cobblestones, the looping wrought-iron tree guards, the collection of potted geraniums and marigolds lining a stoop.

When the members of the West 44th Street Better Block Association began thinking about what more they could do to improve their stretch of block between 9th and 10th Streets, the association's vice president, Barbara Feldt, had an illuminating idea: why not remove the cobra-head street lights and replace them with decorative lampposts instead?

"We had already an adopt-the-tree project, and gardening club," she says, now it was time to get rid of the "hideous silver lampposts," which were ruining the streetscape of late-1800s/early-1900 facades. So Feldt did some research at the local library and then pitched the idea to her colleagues of replacing the lampposts with something more in keeping with the history and charm of the neighborhood.

That was three years ago. Today, the block boasts five vintage-style Bishop's Crook lampposts with a tear-drop luminaire at the top. It took a lot of work, and a lot of fundraising, but it was well worth the effort, believes Feldt. Not only did a majority of the residents on the block pitch in the money that was needed to purchase the lamps - they cost $3,200 apiece - they have given the block a whole different air, making it more intimate and charming.

"They are beautiful, they are durable, and there is something comforting about this whole back-to-vintage movement," says one sales representative of a vintage-light manufacturer, describing the interest of New Yorkers in antique decorative lighting, and they can increase property values. Mary Ann Rothman, executive director of the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums, points out that antique lights can give a building a heightened curb appeal. "[It's] what people see first when they come to visit you or buy an apartment. It's wonderful to be able to make a very strong first impression."

For co-op boards interested in removing their existing street lights and installing new lighting, there are several steps to go through before ultimately purchasing the new fixtures. For the best results, co-ops need to be organized from the start: know what kinds of lights they want and how much they will cost, and they should also have permission from their local community board for the lights' installation. The city's Department of Transportation (DOT) has offered a helping hand in the form of a five-page guide to installing new street lights; co-ops can obtain the booklet from DOT's Street Lighting Division by calling 718-786-4595.

To choose a lamppost style, Feldt recommends that boards check out www.forgotten-ny.com. Sentry Electrical (516-379-4660) is an antique lights vendor (www.sentrylighting.com) that designed the vintage-style luminaires for Central Park, Riverside Park, and Battery Park City. From choosing a luminaire to having it finally installed can take upwards of a year or more, according to Anita Green, general manager of Magniflood, another manufacturer (631-226-1000), so boards that are interested in pursuing the idea need to get organized at the start.

The cost of a luminaire can start at about $900 - the luminaire is the light that sits at the top of the pole. The cost of the pole itself, whether it is steel like the city's, standard steel cobra-head, or cast-iron, can start at $2,500 and run to more than $5,000. The rough estimate costs from the DOT are sobering: $6,800 for a Central Park-like antique lamppost, base to light, that covers a 40-foot street; $7,900 for an antique lamppost that illuminates a roadway greater than 40-feet long. The higher the lamp, the higher the cost. And the more decorative the flourishes, the greater the cost. "These things aren't cheap, and they aren't lightweight," points out one manufacturer, who estimates the cast-iron gas lights favored by the residents of the West Village weigh around 900 pounds each.

To start the installation process, a co-op must first submit preliminary plans to the DOT. These have to include the number and type of street lights to be installed, whether it is a one-to-one replacement, or whether the block is adding additional lighting. Co-ops also have to provide a photometric report, a survey of the wattage and illumination of the proposed light, which they can obtain from the lighting manufacturer.

After submitting preliminary plans to the DOT, the board must submit plans to the Art Commission, or if the block is part of a landmark district, to the Landmarks Preservation Commission (this is after the board has approval from its local community board to alter the streetscape). For help with negotiating the commission's approval, co-ops can contact DOT's Planning and Urban Mobility division, at 212-676-1680. The Art Commission can be reached at 212-788-3071; the Landmark Commission can be reached at 212-669-7700.

If the co-op wins approval, the board then enters into a contract with DOT. If it is a one-to-one replacement, the city will pay for the additional electricity, maintenance (as long as the wattage of the new light does not exceed the wattage of the light it is replacing), and repair. If more lights are being installed, the co-op must pay for the additional electricity and maintenance and repair of the additional lights.

The co-op can opt to have the lights installed by the city, which can be cheaper than hiring a contractor, but can be more time-consuming, as the co-op is then tied to the city's schedule. If the co-op chooses to hire its own contractor, DOT's street-lighting division must approve the contractor. It will provide both a list of approved vendors and installation contractors.

It may take awhile, but it's worth it, judging from the number of neighborhoods around the five boroughs that have sought to add historic flourishes in the form of antique lampposts. Despite the hassle of the approval process and having to negotiate all the different opinions of people on the co-op board, and those of the community board, overall, people seem to believe that the process is worthwhile, and the proof is in the city's changing streetscape.

That was the goal of the West 44th Street Block Association when it started the installation process. More than 30 buildings gave $500 each, including Feldt's co-op, the 461 West 44th Street Owners Corporation, which was a big booster of the antique lighting proposal. And the block looks all the nicer for it, maintains Feldt. "It just really gives it a cared-for feeling. A homey, pulled-together feeling." Adds Green: "Block by block, they are making the city [more] turn-of-the-century again."

 

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