Bay Lights Wants to Keep Glowing Through 2026

They’ve survived rain, fog and the vibrations of thousands of daily cars – 250,000 twinkling lights on the Bay Bridge, morphing and shape-shifting to a series of complex computer algorithms.

It's been a year since artist Leo Villareal flipped the switch to illuminate his ambitious $8 million project along the western span of the Bay Bridge,

“I think what’s exciting about it is how open-ended it is,” said Villareal. “It’s highly subjective and it can be what you want it to be.”

The two-year project ran into issues within months of opening – the elements played havoc with the strands of LED lights, shorting out thousands of strands and forcing Villareal to reprogram his sequences around the burned-out lights.

But with the broken lights replaced, the project founders are now aiming at extending the project another ten years.

“This has found a place and created a sense of icon herein the evening,” said Ben Davis, CEO of Illuminate the Arts, the group overseeing the project. “That just feels like it wants to be here at least until 2026.”

The project’s permit will expire in March 2015. Davis said the group will remove the lights the following months.

But he hopes to then reinstall a more robust system in time for the 2016 Super Bowl, to be played in the 49ers new Santa Clara stadium. And this time, he wants it to remain illuminated for 10 years.

“Our only enemies are really just time, physics and the vagaries of money,” said Davis, who estimates those vagaries to weigh-in at around $12 million.

Davis said his group is already raising private funds to extend the project. Caltrans would have to sign-off on the new permit. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said he supports extending the project.

That endorsement is shared by Pete Sittnick, co-owner of the waterfront’s Epic Roasthouse, which has seen business increase by 15 percent since the lights switched on.

“I think it’s great,” said Sittnick, “because it’s not only brought people from out of town, but it’s certainly brought a lot of the locals down here to the waterfront.”

On Thursday night, founders will celebrate the installation by turning it off for a ten-minute reflection period, followed by a re-lighting ceremony.

On Friday night, bicyclists and skaters will gather for an evening ride with the lights as a backdrop.

Villareal said he’s learned a lot in the first year of the project – mainly about working around the hiccups when technology and nature collide.

“I guess what I realized, is what a miracle it is we were able to do this project,” said Villareal. “It could’ve been killed thousands of times.”

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