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Tech Luminaries Want to Light Up the Golden Gate Next

Toasting the bedazzled Bay Bridge -- and perhaps its more-famous sister, too.

Nellie Bowles

Illuminate the Arts — the nonprofit group responsible for funding the Bay Lights installation along the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge — had a kickoff party for its latest fundraising drive last night.

Delicately encircled in LED lights, ballerinas from Menlo Park’s Menlowe Ballet darted around as the entertainment outside foodie favorite Coqueta restaurant on Pier 5 on San Francisco’s Embarcadero. The event’s drink special had tapioca balls added to it — when sipped, the little white balls floated around, sort of like bay lights.

I learned two interesting things at the party: The new, stronger and slightly re-angled Bay Lights, which will be installed next year, will let viewers in the San Francisco booming, tech-heavy South of Market districts enjoy the nightly light show. Currently, only people north of Market Street can see the patterns created by the preprogrammed lights.

The 25,000 LED bulbs that decorate a two-mile span along the Bay Bridge, a commuter path between San Francisco and Oakland, cost about $30 a day to keep lit. Installed in March of 2013, the original plan was that the lights would come down at the end of March in 2015, when the bridge has to undergo routine updates. The $8 million needed came from tech leaders like WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg and other, more established San Francisco philanthropists. Illuminate the Arts wants to raise another $12 million to get them reinstalled in 2015, and kept up until 2026.

I also heard that people are already gunning for the iconic Golden Gate Bridge to be the Bay Area’s next bedazzled bridge.

Ben Davis, founder and CEO of Illuminate the Arts, wore a pin made by Illuminode and Leo Villareal, the artist who designed the Bay Lights installation. Pinned to Davis’s undershirt was a piece of plastic with flickering little light nodes that glowed through his button-down shirt.

“It’s more subtle that way,” Davis said.

The Bay Lights are going to come down for routine updates in 2015 while CalTrans, the state transportation agency responsible for the bridge, repaints it.

“CalTrans is innovating with how they paint the bridge, and those updates will last at least a decade now,” Davis said, meaning that the lights could potentially stay up for an additional decade. “Then an innovation has occurred around the lights to make them more robust.”

The brighter lights seemed great to the organizers and creators of the public art piece — an even more spectacular bridge display! But they posed a new problem: Driver distraction.

“So we began to twist them,” Davis said. “We had to twist them so far we lost Treasure Island, anyway,” he said, indicating the small man-made residential island between San Francisco and Oakland. “So we kept twisting.”

And then Davis and his team discovered a happy accident.

“Now the emerging San Francisco will be able to appreciate them in their full luster,” Davis said. “Now we can say, ‘Welcome, Southeast San Francisco, you’re part of the party, too.'”

Shervin Pishevar, a prominent venture capitalist and philanthropist who is on the board of Illuminate the Arts, said he was excited about the latest fundraising push to raise $1.2 million in 45 days, using the Crowdtilt platform. But his ambitions are set on the Bay Bridge’s much more famous cousin, the Golden Gate Bridge.

“The original Golden Gate Bridge had designs for soft lighting all along it,” said Pishevar, who has invested in Uber and Warby Parker, and now runs a fund called SherpaVentures. “I was standing on top of it the other day.”

You can get on top?

“Sure. There’s an elevator. For the Bay Bridge, I actually climbed to the top, clipped [Dropbox founder and CEO] Drew Houston into a harness, and we both climbed up,” he said. “But anyway, I was standing at the top of the Golden Gate and realized how beautiful it would look with lights.”

So this is Pishevar’s new mission. And as one of the heavy donors now involved, he’s got some sway in the matter.

It is somewhat surprising that people would be eager to start on doing a similar enhancement of the Golden Gate Bridge. Getting the Bay Lights funded was an enormous project, with so many hurdles to overcome that the accompanying documentary about the effort is titled “Impossible Light.” But in just two years, the Bay Lights have become a beloved part of the city landscape.

Inside, chatting by the heaping platters of paella along the bar, Elana Yonah Rosen, founder of the Illuminate the Arts board, also recalled when she started thinking of the next frontier.

“When I met Shervin, he put his arm around me, and he pointed to the Bay Bridge and he said, ‘You see that,’ and I said, ‘I do,’ and then he pointed to the Golden Gate,” she recalled. “A man with such clarity to understand one bridge and to have a vision for the other, it’s remarkable.”

Will they get any pushback from locals about making over the classically beautiful Golden Gate with lights? No doubt. Then again, they did with the Bay Bridge, as well.

Enjoying a glass of zinfandel, artist Villareal said he was impressed by San Francisco’s determination to keep the lights on.

“Two years is a good long run for a piece of monumental public art,” said Villareal, who was wearing mustard-colored pants. “But people seem to want to keep it. And this project has always been about the impossible.”

Are you ready to light up the Golden Gate?

“Someone told you about that?”

I have my sources.

He sighed and looked up at the ceiling.

“I’m up for it,” he said. “I could be up for it.”

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