DOWNTOWN — When City Hall installed thousands of LED lights along Second and Fourth streets, illuminating the collection of ficus trees with greens, blues, purples, reds and yellows, visitors to Downtown almost immediately began voicing their opinions for and against the change.

There were those who thought the decorative lighting, meant to create an identity along the two streets that have been seen as the red-headed stepchildren of the more popular Third Street Promenade, was a welcomed addition that looked “cool,” giving the area some character.

Others felt the lights, which change colors at various speeds from Broadway to Wilshire Boulevard, reminded them of a tacky 1970s disco.

“They were concerned because they thought they were very ugly,” said Bayside District Corp. CEO Kathleen Rawson about phone calls received from visitors to Downtown about the lighting.

The message from the lighting designer and city officials: “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

The designer, Frances Krahe & Associates, which developed the lighting element for the Civic Center Parking Structure, is in the process of soliciting input from key community stakeholders, including Bayside, so that it can fine tune the experience, creating the right mood for the right time of the year by featuring certain colors and patterns.

During a presentation last week before members of the Bayside board of directors, the designers showed what the $1.2 million lighting system can do. On Fourth of July all the lights could change from red, to white, to blue or feature all three colors at once. During the summer a simulated wave can be produced featuring two shades of blue and white. On Valentine’s Day, imagine the ficus glowing red with white sprinkled in. At the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve the computer which controls the lights could create a dazzling display featuring a series of colors, the lights flickering to make it seem like confetti is falling just like in Times Square.

“It’s a very intricate system and it was always the intention to have the opportunity for change and color flexibility,” said Le Nguyen, vice president of Frances Krahe. “Now it is just making sure we fine tune it to match what the city wants and make sure it is reflective of the city’s culture. There are really infinite opportunities.”

But finding the right lighting scheme can be a challenge, especially when dealing with a project the size of Second and Fourth streets in Downtown. There are 16 blocks in the project area, each with several trees, and each tree containing hundreds of LEDs. Each tree has two controllers, as well as a unique shape, forcing city engineers to get creative when hanging the fixtures. They had to be high enough so people could not interfere and not get hit by buses and trucks, and low enough to reflect off of the branches.

And just like putting up Christmas tree lights on one’s home, there are bound to be some technical difficulties, including a few broken bulbs, said Greg de Vinck, a city engineer who oversaw the decorative lighting project, part of a roughly $7 million streetscape improvement plan that included adding gingko trees, bumpouts and additional street lighting.

While the lights were turned on roughly six months ago, some didn’t work at first while others were not property tuned, creating an experience that appeared haphazard. Fiber optic connections in two places broke or were weak. Some fixtures became loose and dropped, exposing the LEDs to pedestrians and drivers.

“When we first turned them on … it was just the default sequence that the public saw,” de Vinck said. “Because it was such a large project, we couldn’t address everything at once, so you had some lights on, some off, some flickering.”

Engineers worked out all of the bugs just two months ago. The good news is the project came in under budget, with money left over for the tuning, de Vinck said.

“Tweaking it is very, very low cost because it really involves just altering a computer program,” he said.

It better happen quickly as Bayside, a public-private management company that helps City Hall promote and manage Downtown, is planning to hang its holiday lighting and members of the board are concerned about the holiday decor conflicting with the ficus lights. All involved would like to have the light shows set by then, possibly creating a lighting scheme that compliments the holiday decor.

“Whether or not we want to take advantage of all the options available with the system is something we need to decide,” Rawson said. “There may be a time and place to use [the light shows presented] and maybe a place and time to have it more subtle. But it’s nice we have those capabilities.”

A harsh critic of Bayside has been John Warfel, a principal in the development company Metropolitan Pacific Capital, LLC. Warfel felt Bayside did not have enough input in the process and was concerned about the angles of some of the light fixtures and the pace at which the lights changed.

“It’s like we are doing a bad imitation,” Warfel said of one of the light shows replicating sunsets. “We already have sunsets. I don’t think we need sunsets in our trees.”

Bayside long advocated for more lighting on Second and Fourth streets. Originally the plan called for more street lights as well as illuminated art elements such as sculptures, but the cost of the project rose, eliminating the art element. Instead, the designers focused on the ficus, which were key features in Downtown.

Other members of Bayside were concerned that the light shows presented would not come across to those walking by given that the shows lasted around 30 minutes. Others didn’t like the speed of the light changes.

“For me, it’s just too busy, too much action” said Bayside board member Patricia Hoffman, a City Council appointee. “The frequent change of the lights can quickly get annoying.”

Some of the biggest critics have been those concerned more with the trees than with the lights. Members of Santa Monica Treesavers, a group formed to stop the removal of the ficus trees now covered with the LEDs, said the installation “hurt” the trees and does nothing to enhance the shopping experience. They said the project is a waste of money.

“Apparently for ‘light show art,’ atmosphere or for providing a cohesiveness to the area, the tree up-lighting wastes electricity, does not illuminate the narrow, dangerous sidewalks and obfuscates the natural beauty of the ficus’ majestic, graceful silhouettes,” said Susan Hartley, a co-founder of Treesavers and former candidate for City Council. “And if that’s not enough, the tree up-lights, like the entire project, are hideous. The only cohesive factor they provide is ugliness.

“The tree up-lights should be removed and the wounds to the trees sealed, for aesthetic reasons, for protecting our valuable urban forest …,” Hartley said.

Walt Warriner, City Hall’s community forester, said the trees are not being harmed by the lighting infrastructure, comparing the bolts used to secure the fixtures to getting one’s ear pierced.

“You see some God awful things poking out of people’s heads and cheeks and they seem to be tolerating it,” Warriner said, using the piercing analogy. “We worked with the design team to develop the least invasive method to attach the lights. In the grand scheme of things, this is not hurting the tree.”

Because the lights are more akin to an art installation than simple street lights, finding the right light show could be difficult because opinions on art vary. One thing that is certain is the lights add a sense of security, merchants along the two streets said. Before they were installed, those streets were dark and uninviting. Now people feel more comfortable visiting them, said Doug Rausenberger, a manager with Border Grill restaurant, and Stan Takeshita, owner of the salon The Shop.

“My clients, when they walk out at night they say, ‘Wow, it’s bright around here,’ and they automatically think it is safer,” Takeshita said.

“People generally feel safer but whether or not more lighting is truly attractive is a question for the ages,” Rausenberger said.

Sandra Zeitzew, director of public relations of the Santa Monica Playhouse on Fourth Street, can sympathize with the designers. Creating the right lighting can be a difficult challenge that takes a lot of skill and trial and error. She likes the new lights, but then again she admits she is easy to please.

“I like the colors,” she said. “I like to watch the lights.”

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