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Saying goodbye to decorative street lights?

Decorative streetlight in Belltown in downtown Seattle.
Paula Wissel
Decorative streetlight in Belltown in downtown Seattle.

Those quaint streetlights that grace some neighborhood business districts in Seattle may be history.  Seattle City Light wants to limit the installation of decorative streetlights in the future.  This comes in the wake of the city’s ongoing inspection of light poles, some of which have been emitting dangerous levels of electricity.

Seattle is in the process of inspecting all of its streetlights following the accidental electrocution of a dog, who died in November after stepping on a  City Light metal sidewalk plate on Queen Anne Hill.

Part of the fallout from the tragedy could be an end to those attractive sidewalk café-type lights that are almost  always installed when a neighborhood streetscape is upgraded. Seattle City Light spokeswoman Suzanne Hartman says City Light plans to reduced the number of decorative lights allowed.

“We’re going to limit the number of decorative street lights because it’s a problem when there are so many different styles. It’s difficult to keep up with the configuration of these street lights,” Hartman said.

Hartman says the lack of standardization makes it hard for city crews to maintain the lights and that can lead to safety problems.  Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has also expressed his concern.

"We’re going to look at the number of decorative light bulbs we permit in the city,” McGinn said to reporters at a news conference in December.

The proposal would have to be approved by the City Council.  And it doesn’t appear to sit well with some neighborhood groups.  John Coney is with the Queen Anne Community Council.

Coney says, calling the lights “decorative” is misleading because they are actually very functional in making local districts vibrant.

“If you want to have a friendly shopping environment   and pedestrian environment after dark in Seattle you need  some kind of pedestrian street lighting,” Coney said.

He says standard tall overhead lights favored by city light don’t do the trick because they don’t illuminate the spaces in doorways and under the trees that the smaller, more aesthetically pleasing lights do.

Coney points out that the current system requires neighborhoods to choose from a list of approved decorative lights.  But Seattle City Light insists that list is still too long for efficient maintenance.

Some city officials acknowledge there may be some loss of neighborhood character if the different types of lights are eliminated, but say they’d rather err on the side of safety. 

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.