A Brighter, Whiter Idea : Long Beach Tries to Gauge Interest in Changing Street-Light Colors

Times Staff Writer

Becoming ever more fashionable, this city is considering a change of colors. Out with hot orange-yellow. In with cool pink.

City officials speak not of pleated skirts or cardigan sweaters, but of street lights.

Since low-pressure sodium lights were installed a decade ago in an effort to save energy, business owners have complained vociferously about their golden hue that turns bright colors to mud.

"Those yellow lights are a detriment to Long Beach not only from a retailing standpoint but the ambiance they create at night," said Tom Formica, a Long Beach shopping mall development executive who chaired a city task force on retailing. "They change the color of people's complexions, change cars, change signs."

Now city planners and members of the leading downtown business association are trying to gauge whether downtown property owners are interested in paying $2.2 million to convert about 700 street lights to high-pressure sodium that would bring back more natural colors under a whiter, though pinkish, light.

"There seems to be strong interest in converting," said Roger Anderman, community development director. "There seems to be widespread unhappiness with the color of the street lights. Businessmen said they would like to have more light and more natural-colored light rather than the orange."

The timing is right if property owners want to convert, according to officials. All of the existing street lights along Long Beach Boulevard south of Willow Street, and in a loop that includes sections of 1st and 8th streets and Pacific Avenue, are being torn out to make way for construction of the 21-mile Long Beach-Los Angeles light rail system. Los Angeles County Transportation Commission officials, who oversee the $752-million rail project, will be picking up the cost of the replacement lights and want to know what kind to order--yellow or pink.

Since neither the Transportation Commission nor the city is willing to pay for conversion of the existing street lights except along the rail route, property owners would have to foot the bill through an assessment district. Preliminary boundaries for such a district run from Alamitos Avenue west to Golden Shore Boulevard and from the Downtown Marina at Shoreline Village north to 3rd Street. It is adjoined by another section surrounding the Long Beach Plaza shopping mall and goes as far north as 10th Street.

Owners would be assessed an estimated $2.54 per foot of frontage annually for 10 years to cover installation costs in the proposed district. That works out to about $150 a year for the average retail business, said Laura Winger, executive director of Downtown Long Beach Associates.

Anderman said planners have received a favorable response from some of the larger business interests downtown. The next step would be to circulate a petition for the proposed assessment district.

In any case, transportation commission officials have told the city that they need a decision in the next month or so.

The DLBA, the city-affiliated group of downtown business interests, mailed a questionnaire to its members on the issue. Winger said responses received last week "have been kind of mixed.

"Some said they would really like the white lights back. Some of the time it's been, 'Why doesn't the city pay for it?' . . . We had some people say they liked the yellow lights."

'Less Likely to Be Vocal'

The mixed response may be a little deceiving, said Mark Schneider, owner of Dave Schneider's Fine Jewelry on the Promenade. Those who favor the change "are less likely to be vocal," he asserted.

The yellow lights are "tremendously unpopular," he said. "They don't give the necessary safety factor. They don't light up the downtown area for us to have an active nighttime business."

Improved street lighting was one of the recommendations included in last August's final report of the Mayor's and City Council's Task Force on Retail and Auto Sales in Long Beach.

"Many residents and retailers were concerned that appropriate lighting not only affects retail displays and signs, but that illumination has a prominent impact on an area's image of safety," the report stated. It recommended that the city consider converting retail areas to white, instead of yellow street lights.

Experiment Suggested

Task Force Chairman Formica said the group suggested that the city experiment with conversion in a particular area, such as Belmont Shore.

"Belmont has the worst problem at night. You can't see people in the crosswalks and you can't see the damn traffic lights," said Formica, executive vice president of Newman Brettin Properties. He said the yellow caution light in a traffic signal is difficult to distinguish against the yellow of street lights.

To those arguments, the city's former public works director says poppycock.

James Pott, who took the heat on street lights from 1978 until his retirement from the city in 1984, said businesses have enough of their own lighting that they can counteract the orange effects of street lights.

"I know of no business open on the street that doesn't have lights associated with the business itself," said Pott, now a private consultant. "The combination of light goes a very long way toward correcting the color spectrum."

Pott said that conversion of the city's approximately 30,000 street lights from incandescent and mercury vapor to low-pressure sodium, a process already under way when he took command of public works, saved $2 million in energy costs annually. Low-pressure sodium saves about 10% more energy than high-pressure sodium, he said.

"There are more lumens, more candlepower, in the streets today than prior to the conversion," Pott said. "That increase in candlepower is being delivered for less money."

Most of the controversy was put to rest in a March, 1979, ballot issue that attempted to order the city to replace the yellow lights. It failed by a narrow margin.

But the issue never totally disappeared. When he retired, Pott said, he was presented with a gift of special significance: his very own low-pressure sodium street lamp bulb.

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