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San Pedro Bridge, Residents Aglow After 17-Year Campaign

Times Staff Writer

The Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro finally got its lights Sunday -- and with them, a new dose of respect.

At least that is the hope of the locals in the broad-shouldered port neighborhood who have been fighting for the last 17 years to light the third-longest suspension bridge in California.

The 160 baby-blue lights, strung along the length of the 2.2-mile-long bridge at a cost of $1 million, were officially switched on at dusk in a ceremony attended by hundreds of San Pedro residents, including Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn.

Spectators gathered along the waterfront and on the deck of a nearby cruise ship to ooh and aah and hope that the new nighttime spectacle would bode well for the community’s future.

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“I absolutely love it -- it’s beautiful,” said Derek Tadashi Takeuchi, who owns an art gallery in downtown San Pedro. “It signifies the new direction of San Pedro. It’s a sight for sore eyes.”

San Pedro residents are generally proud to contrast their hard-working community with the flash and glitter of Hollywood or Bel-Air.

Apart from the graceful, green-painted frame of the Vincent Thomas Bridge, San Pedro’s most visible landmarks are the cargo cranes that loom over the Harbor Freeway and the Port of Los Angeles, the nation’s busiest container port. They are imposing, ungainly instruments that announce, proudly and literally, that this is where Los Angeles’ heavy lifting occurs.

Yet the fight for the lights -- a pretty, frivolous addition to the waterfront skyline -- has unified San Pedro’s business leaders, dockworkers and housewives.

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It has been tough going since 1988, when a few locals decided to follow the lead of San Francisco, which had just lighted its Bay Bridge. They raised donations of $100 or more from hundreds of residents, and figured that the process would be as easy as stringing the lights and flipping a switch.

Instead, they ran into bureaucratic obstacles, environmental concerns and technical snafus.

One of the most serious causes of the delay was the California Coastal Commission’s concern that a brighter night sky would disorient migrating birds.

A solution was arrived at about five years ago. The original plan called for tall towers of light shooting upward, much like the memorial designs for the World Trade Center in New York.

In its place, designers came up with the idea of blue, solar-powered LED lights to dot the bridge. The LED lamps operate up to 50 times longer than incandescent lighting, and save as much as 90% in energy costs.

The lights were pointed downward to avoid disturbing the birds, said Chip Israel, a principal with Lighting Design Alliance, a Signal Hill company that designed the project.

As another concession to environmentalists, the lights will be switched on only from dusk to midnight.

Against a darkening California sky, the lights look like the outlines of two imaginary blue mountains rising above Terminal Island, the imposing industrial landscape that the bridge connects with San Pedro.

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The cost was split among public and private donors: $525,000 from the Port of Los Angeles, $145,000 from the Department of Water and Power, $50,000 from the city and $147,000 from the Vincent Thomas Bridge Lighting Committee.

The cost of powering the lights will be paid for by the local chamber of commerce.

The reviews Sunday were uniformly positive. Some said that the lights looked patriotic, mixed in with the white lights of the dockyards and the red lights atop the cargo cranes.

Others said the lights would bring new stature to the Vincent Thomas Bridge.

When it opened in 1963 -- after much maneuvering by its namesake, a state assemblyman -- it was derided as a “Bridge to Nowhere.” But officials say its presence has been an important factor in the port’s growth.

Retired bartender Kathryn Bull said the lights show that San Pedro knows how to be pretty when it feels like it.

The lights, she said, were a good sign for other projects in the area, including ambitious plans to revamp the city’s faded waterfront area.

“There’s a lot of rebuilding and revamping of streets that’s needed in San Pedro, and this is a very good start,” said Bull, 73. “It’s going to give a lot of heart to the people who live here.”

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Times staff writer Nancy Wride contributed to this report.


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