RSA Plaza – Traffic Signals and Street Lights

RSA Plaza Sreet Lights

Midway through the Plaza construction, Dr. Bronner realized his new buildings would not be set off properly unless the surrounding ugly overhead wires and creosote wood utility poles were removed.  New sidewalks, street curbs, and asphalt overlay were already in the works along all facing streets, but these wires and ugly poles would ruin the image he was striving to achieve.

Over the preceding few years the City had adopted rules which were really affecting downtown construction.  Because the City storm sewers were grossly inadequate, the City required that each new development have a storm water retention tank which would hold roof water and let it trickle into the storm sewer system.  These were giant concrete boxes large enough to hold a railroad boxcar.

Then, if you made the slightest cut in the asphalt street, you must resurface the entire street that edged your property.  Resurfacing raised the street level, which diminished the curb height, so likely you had to replace the street curb and gutter.  If you replaced the curb, you had to rebuild the storm inlets, and probably raising the curb caused the sidewalks to be too low, so these must be replaced.

Also, if you replaced the curb, you must change the 3-foot radius corners to a 25-foot radius.  That usually left the corner streetlight pole stranded well out into the street surface with no protection; relocating the pole lines usually fell on the power and telephone companies, but not if you were changing to underground wiring.  One last background: the City’s traffic signals were hung from these corner utility company poles.

Therefore, to carry out Dr. Bronner’s grand scheme, we had to have all of this covered in the contractor’s bid.  All of it was covered, even new sidewalks, except for the poles, streetlights and traffic signal issues.  We began work on this part, the underground wiring design, in the summer of l990, almost a year before the building was to be completed.  It required close coordination and cooperation with the power and telephone companies, and we even had to extend a helping hand to the cable TV company to maintain their downtown service.  The chief engineer of the Cable TV company was so pleased with my assistance that for several years, I received free premium channels.

The real trouble came with the streetlight and traffic signal work; those were in the City domain.  There had never been a downtown building project in Montgomery (or in any city according to our expert) which required traffic signal work.  This was an Emory Folmar first.

Streetlight design involved light level, pole material, design of pole and arm, color of the pole, height, spacing, and lamp type and color.  There was no particular standard to follow.  The old poles were brown creosote wood.  The Elizabeth Wright urban renewal era poles were white concrete.  There were also aluminum colored metal poles.  The new poles in front of the Persons Building were white metal.  None of those choices seemed appropriate.

There was a State law which gave final say over these matters in the Capitol Complex to the State Building Commission.  We approached the Building Commission Director and asked him to promulgate a streetlight standard and declared that we would follow it.  He refused, so we wrote out such a standard and invited him to adopt it.  He still declined.

Then we took the issue to Mayor Folmar, and told him he had an opportunity to set a uniform standard for the entire downtown, one which all architects could follow.  He refused.  Thus, with all authorities abdicating this responsibility, we proceeded with our own standard, the same one we had presented to the State Building Commission, and one which we felt was correct for the Capitol area.  It involved dark bronze colored poles (which tend to “go away”) and metal halide lamps which give off white light.  We felt that neither pink sodium light nor blue mercury light was appropriate for the capital area.

The real problem with the streetlights was replacement responsibility.  Lots of poles are knocked down in traffic accidents and the City replaces these via a maintenance contract.  The City refused to agree to replace our new pole design which was out of the norm and not stocked.  This took much negotiation and was finally solved by an agreement which we brokered between the RSA and the City: the RSA would supply l0 extra poles which the City would use as replacement stock.  Thereafter the City would invite the RSA to pay for a replacement pole; if the RSA declined, the City could replace with any pole it wished.

The real fun in all this came with the traffic signal work.  The infamous Bubba Bowden was the new City Traffic Engineer, and pudgy Bubba was out for all he could get.  Now mind you, we had already agreed that we would provide new poles, underground conduit, and to pay the City for all its expense in taking down and re-erecting the traffic signals and controllers.  Bubba wasn’t satisfied.  He wanted RSA to do the traffic signal work via its own contractor, to provide all new traffic signals, add pedestrian signals and put new controllers at each intersection.  We and the RSA rebelled; no downtown project had ever involved traffic signal expense.

In desperation, we hired a well-respected, Birmingham traffic engineering consultant named Darrel Skipper to convince Bubba that he was crazy, and that his demands were without foundation or precedent.  Skipper had been Montgomery’s very capable Traffic Engineer under the Jim Robinson administration, but he rebelled against Mayor Folmar’s high-handed methods, resigned his city post, and moved to Birmingham. Nonetheless, Bubba was unmoved by Darrel’s entreaties.  RSA officials could not believe me when I reported the City position.  Finally, I arranged a meeting on October 10, 1990, with Bubba and Marc Reynolds of RSA both present, and began the negotiation anew.  Marc would be my witness to the absurdity of the City stand.

Bubba refused to retreat.  He said the Mayor had told him the City would not issue a Certificate of Occupancy if we did not buy him new traffic signals.  I countered with a threat to abandon the underground wiring project.  In the face of his absurd demands, I pointed out that the City rules said we had to increase the curb radius at all our intersections, but did not say we had to relocate the traffic signal poles back onto the retreated sidewalk.  “We’ll just leave your pole out in the street, Bubba.” Bubba fumed.  He pointed out that we had already removed a street light pole directly in front of the Plaza, so we could not avoid some of the work.  I countered “We will move the new pole back and leave the overhead wires”.  “Not acceptable” said Bubba.  Marc Reynolds sat there with open mouth.

After a lengthy pause I said “Bubba, if we go back with a real ugly pole and you agree that it’s ugly enough, will you approve that?”  Bubba said yes and the meeting ended.  I had not narrowed our disagreement even one whit, but at least Marc Reynolds was aware of how intractable the City had become.

To shorten an even longer story, I must report that the RSA eventually gave in to the City, bought new poles, new controllers, new signals and added the pedestrian signals.  The City did the actual wiring, however, and thus we and RSA escaped the liability for the vehicular accidents that go along with traffic signals.  However, the RSA was forced to reimburse the City for its own labor on the wiring work.  It’s a wonder we ever got the building constructed.

-Charles Humphries (“Peril and Intrigue Within Architecture”)

This is one of many RSA Plaza stories. The rest can be found here.

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