The city’s public works staff the last few years has slowly been increasing the distance between each of the light standards as the Lakewood Boulevard Improvement Project moves north. So far, work has made it from the south end of the city north to Florence Avenue.
Crews the last few years have been gradually increasing the distance between poles from 30 feet to 40 feet. So far, residents don’t seem to mind a few less lights.
“North of Florence, who knows?” the city’s traffic engineer Ed Norris recently told the Public Works Committee. “Maybe we’ll go to 50 feet.”
The blue poles were part of the “walkable” urban planning trend of the 2000s that had communities all over Southern California trying to get husky citizens out of their cars and onto the sidewalks.
But Downey’s blue – almost purple – light standards seem to have fallen out of fashion.
The light installations are part of the city’s Lakewood Boulevard Improvement Project, which started in the early 2000s and calls for repaving the boulevard, fixing sidewalks and signals, and generally sprucing up one of the city’s main drags, including the placement of 10-foot-tall lights every 10 yards.
The poles are ridiculed by some, who say they are too close together and seem to be unrelated to other parts of the city.
But the idea of using pedestrian lights to liven up a street scape is a good one, said Matthew Stafford, a Downey native who just graduated with a bachelor’s degree in urban planning from Cal Poly Pomona.
“Street lights for pedestrians are considered a good thing,” he said.
But the plan has a fatal flaw, he said. The sidewalks on Lakewood are too narrow, and the poles take up valuable walking space.
Renowned urban planner Michael Freedman, who has done street redesigns on thoroughfares all over the state, including Whittier Boulevard in Whittier, says sidewalks on big streets should be at least 12 feet wide. Other urban planners also come out in favor of wider sidewalks.
On Lakewood, the sidewalks are only about eight feet wide. At peak times, such as after school, students spill out onto the streets, Stafford said.
“The city would probably have been better served by spending the money to find a way to widen the sidewalks,” he said.
Still the improvement project marches on. The work has been paid for by gas taxes and other money that can only be used for traffic projects. When the improvements reach their conclusion at Telegraph Road within the next few years, the city will have installed about 1,000 lights on the sidewalks — plus taller light poles in the median.
The poles that are in place are expensive to maintain. Taggers daily scrawl on the posts, and Downey’s public works staffers must constantly replace burned-out bulbs. The lights also use a lot of electricity. The city this year started installing LED lights in the posts, which use less power and last longer.
Even though creating a unique-looking, walkable street can be challenging, Stafford said the city ought to stay on the path toward creating zones of the city that are pedestrian friendly.
For decades, the main goal of street design was to get people through an area as quickly as possible. Now planners think about slowing down motorists in some areas to get them to notice select parts of a neighborhood.
And the Downey’s planners say the southern part of Lakewood Boulevard has seen major increases in pedestrian traffic, especially near the Downey Landing and the Green Line train station.
“I definitely think we need to redefine our streets and make them really cool and make them stand out,” Stafford said.