Planning commission, others discuss lighting of Key Bridge

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The project would highlight the Key Bridge's distinctive arches with architectural lighting. (Brian Kapur/The Current/September 2017)

Lighting up the Key Bridge at night is fine with Tom Gallas, but he does not want the structure looking like New Orleans during Mardi Gras.

“It is not a party bridge,” Gallas said at the Dec. 7 meeting of the National Capital Planning Commission. “The Key Bridge is the most historic and iconic bridge across the Potomac. It should be respected for what it represents.”

Gallas and the other members of the planning commission provided comments on a concept design for plans to light the Francis Scott Key Bridge, which carries US 29 across the Potomac River from Georgetown to Rosslyn. The district transportation department submitted four concepts for lighting the bridge. The four concepts include various plans to illuminate the bridge piers, large arches, small arches or all three.

One of the four concepts includes a proposal for lighting up the bridge in color, an idea that the commission’s Mina Wright described as “tacky.”

“This is the most beautiful bridge in the city,” Wright said. “But it could become very carnival-like. Maybe color lights could be used for special occasions. Simple is better. I would go minimalist.”

Some stakeholders have suggested color lighting would be acceptable for special events and holidays like the Fourth of July.

Architectural lighting currently exists at three other local spans: the Francis Case Memorial Bridge, the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge and the 11th Street bridge complex. The planning commission previously approved blue lighting on the south side of the Case Bridge, which crosses the Washington Channel.

The Brooklyn Bridge, the London Bridge, the Peace Bridge in Buffalo, New York, and various bridges over the Seine in Paris also have lighting to highlight their architecture.

The report prepared by the planning commission’s staff offers details about the lighting scheme for the bridge.

The staff report claims “the proposed lighting would greatly improve the nighttime prominence and visibility of the Key Bridge. It would provide residents and visitors with a new visual experience from the Georgetown waterfront.”

The report comments favorably on the concepts that involve lighting the bridge’s large and small arches, which would illuminate “the unique architectural features of the bridge, a stated goal of the project.”

The report also notes the potential of light pollution from upward lighting of the bridge piers “which could adversely affect dark night skies, bird migration and air traffic, as well as cultural landscapes or adjacent federal properties.”

John Gerbich, the commission’s staff member who presented the report on Dec. 7, noted that lighting might be suspended during seasons of wildlife migration.

The report deprecates the proposal for lighting the piers because of the potential size and impact of the lighting fixtures and mounts. If the scheme to light the piers is chosen, the report recommends the use of lights and mounts “that are not easily visible from most vantage points and are reversible to avoid long-term impacts” to the bridge’s historic fabric.

The report says the Federal Aviation Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have been asked “to identify any potential impacts to pilots, boaters and navigational aids on the river.”

Peter May, the planning commission’s delegate from the Interior Department, was supportive of the concept for lighting the large and small arches. But he said lighting the piers detracts from the beauty of the arches, and agreed with his colleagues about colored lighting.

“There’s no need for color whatsoever,” May said. “I like red, white and blue, but here it would have a cartoon effect and create visual noise.

The Key Bridge was built between 1917 and 1923 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The staff report previously quoted calls the bridge “a significant engineering achievement,” noted for “its elegant and simple classical design, with eight large arch spans and spandrels containing two, three or four smaller arches.”

In presenting the report, Gerbich noted the bridge is “visible from many viewsheds in Georgetown and Rosslyn, the George Washington Parkway, the C&O Canal and Theodore Roosevelt Island. There are distant views from the Mount Vernon Trail and the Kennedy Center.”

On the same day last month when the planning commission met, the Old Georgetown Board also heard a presentation from the transportation department about the Key Bridge lighting scheme.

Thomas Luebke, secretary of the Commission on Fine Arts, of which the Old Georgetown Board is a part, said in an interview with The Current that the board was generally supportive of lighting the bridge, but had several questions and reservations.

Luebke said the board preferred the simplest of the four proposals, which emphasizes the bridge’s smaller arches.

“Illumination of the piers distracts from the regularity of the smaller arches, which are the distinctive feature of the bridge,” Luebke said. “Uplighting the piers diffuses the power of the pattern of small arches.”

Luebke said the board felt the transportation department’s presentation did not convey what the reflected light on the river would look like. Furthermore, he said the board did not give answers to their questions about how new architectural lighting would affect the actual conditions, and fit in with the existing lighting, on the deck of the bridge.