09.28.2016

‘LightRail’ artwork could bring brighter days to 2 miles of Market

Update

The broad stroke of Market Street, long home to grand plans and thwarted dreams, is the focus of a $12 million arts concept that — if it comes to pass — could blend life above and below the pavement.

The idea would be for two strands of multicolored LED lights to stretch from the Embarcadero to Van Ness Avenue and pulse in sync with the movement of BART and Muni trains in the subway. The promoter is the nonprofit responsible for “Bay Lights,” which uses similar lights to cloak the cables of one side of the west span of the Bay Bridge.

“This is as important as ‘Bay Lights,’ or maybe more important,” said Ben Davis, founder of Illuminate the Arts and instigator of “Bay Lights,” which debuted in 2013 and became permanent this January. “We want this to be a provocation to people to continue down Market Street” from the Ferry Building toward Twin Peaks.

Davis spoke at a small media gathering Wednesday evening with two purposes: to display a 70-foot-long hint of what would be a 2-mile installation, and to announce the start of an effort to raise $10 million in private funds to complete an arts project that already has City Hall’s blessing.

Reduced to basics, the arts installation, called “LightRail,” would add a pair of lithe cables to the wired clutter already in place above Market Street. The new strands would parallel the lines that bring electricity to Muni buses and be 18 feet above the roadway.

The artists are George Zisiadis and Stefano Corazza, who mentioned the concept to Davis back when “Bay Lights” was still a novelty. But where “Bay Lights” essentially is a mammoth computer-programmed light show, “LightRail” would be cued to real life.

When a BART train passed below, an illuminated wave of LEDs would signal the fact. Same for Muni. When both systems had trains in motion — well, that’s one of the details being worked out.
“We don’t want to just blast a bar of lights,” Zisiadis said. “The crux of the piece is the correlation between setting and movement — something that allows the kinetic perception of what’s already there.”

The concept is powerful, almost as powerful as the way Market divides central San Francisco on a map into dueling street grids on the north and south sides of the broad artery. But it must win believers at a time when Market Street’s future, as ever, is in flux.

The approval from the Board of Supervisors for such an installation came in 2014, when the long-troubled mid-Market district finally seemed to have unstoppable momentum. Twitter had moved into the onetime San Francisco Merchandise Mart between Ninth and 10th streets. Housing towers were going up, with more being proposed as tech companies leased blocs of space and pulled restaurateurs and housing developers in their wake.

Since then, Twitter has gone from being a phenomenon to a company with a low stock price and rumors of possible acquisition by larger suitors. Several of the more ballyhooed restaurants have already closed. A six-story retail mall on Market between Fifth and Sixth is nearly complete but does not yet have any tenants.

Davis mostly accentuated the positive Wednesday evening, saying any delays so far in “LightRail“ were the result of his nonprofit’s focus during 2015 on making “Bay Lights” permanent. But he did suggest that one hindrance to Market’s still-bumpy turnaround is the continued presence of harsh 1970s-era lighting in the boulevard’s historic lampposts. They were installed as part of the makeover of Market Street with wide brick sidewalks, done in tandem with BART’s construction.

“Market Street has been in stasis since BART came in,” Davis said. “The yellow lights are a scar — they make faces look sallow and are unflattering to the built environment.”
Part of the project, in fact, would replace the current bulbs with low-energy LED lighting. Those lights in the lampposts — which extend past Van Ness to the Castro — would operate independently of the installation.

The setting for the news conference was the second floor of the Hall, a former billiard parlor near Sixth and Market streets that now holds pop-up food vendors while the owners seek city approval to build a 13-story residential building.

That project was unveiled in 2014, with talk of breaking ground by 2016. Instead, a draft environmental impact report was released only this month, and approvals are unlikely before next summer.

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