Light art to contribute to long-envisioned Market Street transformation 

click to enlarge LED lights along Market Street are intended to make the downtown more of a destination rather than an area to pass through. The Board of Supervisors could approve the LightRail project today. - COURTESY THELIGHTRAIL.ORG
  • courtesy thelightrail.org
  • LED lights along Market Street are intended to make the downtown more of a destination rather than an area to pass through. The Board of Supervisors could approve the LightRail project today.

For years, San Francisco civic leaders have attempted to transform Market Street into a more vibrant and visitor-friendly corridor. An ambitious LED light art project may now give that effort a big boost.

The thoroughfare is already undergoing much change as the technology industry has revitalized the local economy, decreasing commercial real estate vacancy rates. The mid-Market area in particular has seen an infusion of investment attracted by the so-called Twitter tax break.

But an ambitious plan to string 124,000 LED lights, reflecting the movement of underground trains, overhead the 2.1 miles of Market Street from The Embarcadero to Van Ness Avenue may bring a different sort of transformation.

"Market Street already has its own form of momentum going, which is very much economic momentum right now," said Ben Davis, founder of Illuminate the Arts, the art nonprofit proposing the project. "I am really excited to bring this common thread of creativity and a reminder that this is not just a place of commerce, this is a place of community and a place of creativity and a place of culture."

Davis added that the LightRail project would "help transform it from a place of hurried passage, in the evenings particularly, to a place of lingering destination."

The lights will hang above the street and will track the passing Muni vehicles below ground. The project has the support of the Board of Supervisors, which is expected to approve it today. On Monday, the board's land use committee supported the initiative.

Supervisor Scott Wiener, who called the project "the first of its kind in the world," said Market Street deserves "improved treatment" and said the lights will build awareness about the ongoing A Better Market Street plan underway by city planners to overhaul the corridor.

"Market Street is a civic, cultural and transportation spine of San Francisco and is one of our most important streets," Wiener said.

During an average weekday, more than 200,000 people walk along Market Street, where bicycles outnumber vehicles "at various times during the day," according to the plan.

Illuminate the Arts was the group behind the $8 million Bay Lights project, which strung diode lights on the western span of the Bay Bridge. The group recently received approval to make the artwork permanent if it is able to raise the $4 million to fund reinstallation of specially designed lights.

Davis said he intends to launch the LightRail artwork by the summer and will begin raising the multimillions of dollars it will require from private investors in January.

The timing may coincide with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority's plan to possibly ban or restrict private vehicles along Market Street after experimenting with temporary restrictions this year. Transit agency chief Ed Reiskin said at a Dec. 2 meeting that a traffic change proposal is expected to come in the spring for a summer implementation.

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