Technical Grinch hits Castro area lights

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday December 14, 2022
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The palm trees in the median along upper Market Street are uplit in red and green for the holidays. Photo: Matthew S. Bajko
The palm trees in the median along upper Market Street are uplit in red and green for the holidays. Photo: Matthew S. Bajko

With the flip of a switch by a city worker Friday, December 9, new uplighting bathed the palm trees in the median of upper Market Street in a red and green glow for the all-important holiday shopping season for merchants in San Francisco's LGBTQ Castro district. But there is an unseen hitch behind the yuletide luminosity.

The 88 LED lights installed near the base of the palm trees will remain on 24/7 throughout the rest of the month. A weak Wi-Fi signal is impeding the technology that can automatically turn the uplighting on and off, the Bay Area Reporter has learned.

"The uplighting in the median uses five control cabinets placed along Market Street. Two cabinets are linking up via Wi-Fi, however, three cabinets are encountering a weak signal and are not linking up as expected," explained Alex M. Murillo, the manager of public affairs and communications for construction at San Francisco Public Works. "The Wi-Fi allows us to sync the timers and the on/off dates and times. We're currently in discussions with our colleagues at the Department of Technology to 'boost' their Wi-Fi signal in order to sync the remaining three cabinets."

Not all of the uplights are on, as Tuesday night the palm trees on the 2100 block of Market Street were not lit. Meanwhile, the uplights on the 1900 block were set to white.

Murillo told the B.A.R. that all five cabinets should be connected via Wi-Fi at some point.

"Given that this is a new system, it is not unusual to troubleshoot at this stage, prior to project completion," he wrote in an emailed reply.

Mayor London Breed was initially scheduled to turn on the new lighting the evening of December 8 as part of a celebration to mark the (near) completion of the Upper Market Safety Project. But last week's rainstorm led city officials to postpone the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the pedestrian improvements along Market Street between Octavia Boulevard and Castro Street to sometime in early 2023.

The Castro Community Benefit District, which agreed to pay the electricity bill for the uplighting, had inquired if the lights could still be turned on for the holiday season. After learning about the technological glitch, the CBD agreed to cover the expense of leaving the lights on for the rest of the month so that neither one of its staffers nor a city employee had to manually turn them on and off on a daily basis.

Andrea Aiello, the CBD's executive director, told the B.A.R. she isn't sure when the uplights would be turned off, nor how much it will cost to run them nonstop through the new year. The neighborhood group has so far raised roughly $1,800 toward its fundraising goal of at least $12,500 to pay for five years worth of the new uplighting.

From her office at the intersection of Market and 14th streets Aiello has a clear view of the new uplighting on the 2000 block of Market Street. A photo of the palm trees there aglow in the Christmas colors that she posted to the CBD's Facebook page December 10 generated an overwhelmingly positive response.

"I really am very impressed," Aiello told the B.A.R. Monday. "I didn't think they were going to look so good."

People driving by the palm trees at night will barely notice the colored lighting as they approach those blocks of Market Street. The uplighting appears subdued to vehicle passengers.

But for pedestrians, they pop, said Aiello.

"It is better when you are walking," she said. "When I first saw them, I thought, 'Oh, you can hardly see them.' But when I took a walk down Market Street, I thought, 'Oh, this looks cool!' You can tell they are there. They are very noticeable when you are walking. The pedestrian experience is more important."

Once the connectivity problem is fixed, for most of next year the LED lights will be white when they turn on at dusk. But, as the CBD noted in its appeal for donations, the lighting can be changed to pink during Pride Month in June or the special holiday colors between Thanksgiving and New Year's.

A Path of Gold light standard at Market and Sanchez streets is dark as none of its lights are working. Photo: Matthew S. Bajko  

Path of Gold lights
The CBD has been trying to address a different lighting issue along upper Market Street this year. In this case, it is an electrical Grinch dimming the historic Path of Gold light standards along the roadway.

The distinctive structures sport three lighted glass globes in a trident formation at the end of a slender pole painted blue with minor gold accents. Architect Willis Polk designed their look, with the first ones initially installed in 1916.

All 327 Path of Gold light standards on Market Street from the Embarcadero to just beyond Castro Street are designated as historic resources due to being made city landmarks in 1991. Yet many in the upper Market Street corridor do not work properly.

Many have either one or two of their bulbs out, while a handful are totally dark. For stretches of time this year, the light posts went dark on certain blocks of upper Market Street.

The CBD has notified gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman's office of the problems with the lights, as he represents the Castro. It has also contacted the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, as it is responsible for the light structures, said Aiello.

"I don't know what the problem has been with the bulbs," she told the B.A.R. last month. "We have been reporting and working with the supervisor's office to fix them. There have been issues for a couple of months with the Path of Gold lights."

After the B.A.R. inquired with the SFPUC last week about the issues with the historic light fixtures, spokesperson Joseph Sweiss said December 13 that the repairs and troubleshooting for them was scheduled to take place this week. He added that he was awaiting more specific information about what repairs were needed and the timeline for completing the work.

"The reason for the top middle bulbs remaining on has to do with the streetlights being on an older system on time clock, and more useful than being entirely off," texted Sweiss.

To donate toward the CBD's fundraising drive for the uplighting bill, visit the donation page on its website.

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