Environmental group takes dim view of Emanuel’s night light plan

BY FRAN SPIELMAN City Hall Reporter

January 24, 2014 2:08PM

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Updated: February 26, 2014 6:12AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel was ridiculed Friday for suggesting that Chicago be turned into “North America’s city of lights” at the same time that Paris, the global “City of Light,” has toned it down.

Last year, the French Environment Ministry ordered Paris buildings and storefronts to turn off artificial lights between the hours of 1 a.m. and 7 a.m.

The environmental edict did not affect the Eiffel Tower and other major landmarks.

Drew Carhart of the Illinois Coalition for Responsible Outdoor Lighting said that makes Emanuel’s plan particularly ill-timed.

“It’s somewhat ironic that the mayor wants to turn Chicago into the Paris of North America when the Paris of France has finally figured out that creating lots of extra light to dump into the night is both wasteful of money and energy and really bad for the environment,” Carhart wrote in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Carhart bemoaned the use of electric lighting “as a toy.”“Niagara Falls in daytime? Boring. We can make it look like a Disney movie at night with colored spotlights. The pyramids of Giza? You don’t want to see them with the stars wheeling overhead, [but] lit up with multi-color glare and lasers,” he wrote.

“There are numerous, substantial reasons why creating frivolous light shows like this are a bad idea from an environmental perspective.”

Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) noted that the plan to light up Chicago comes at the same time that Emanuel’s Infrastructure Trust launches a $13 million plan to make 60 government buildings more energy-efficient.

“Where’s the money coming from? We’re trying to conserve energy and show how respectful we are of the environment, yet here we go. City of lights. It borders on the absurd that we’re going to be doing this at this time,” Fioretti said.

“Tourism is based on a host of factors — not just looking at lighted architecture. Most of the jobs are minimum wage. People are living in poverty because of it. If we’re spending absurd amounts of money on lighting programs that service nobody, it pushes people into poverty.”

But one industry expert said the mayor’s vision goes well beyond throwing lights up on a building.

J. Matthew Nix is project lead for Addison-based Chicago Projection Mapping, a firm that plans to enter the mayor’s international design competition.

He said the “technology behind the mayor’s vision” goes far beyond shining a spotlight on a building, bridge or riverwalk. He refused to comment on the environmental argument.

“We’re talking about projection mapping: the science and art behind conforming light, animation, projection and videos to a three-dimensional surface,” said Nix, whose firm did a similar show at the Black Bear Casino in Duluth, Minn.

“Think of it more like a light show that’s able to conform and highlight itself to any building or surface incorporated into a display. We sometimes have displays that are more abstract, designed to tell a story with art accents and sculpture. Projection mapping is an incredibly flexible medium that allows you to create anything you want. When people hear about light shows, they think of spotlights and lasers. This is something much more elegant, refined and creatively thought out.”

Earlier this week, Emanuel disclosed plans to use a spectacular citywide light show to help attract 55 million annual visitors by 2020, a new goal that’s 10 percent higher than before.

It will start with an “international design competition” that invites teams of artists, architects, engineers and designers to envision ways to light up Chicago’s “buildings, parks, roads and open spaces.”

“It will make nighttime in Chicago an experience unto itself. It will make us North America’s city of lights. People will come from far and wide to see what we’ve done and enjoy our city,” Emanuel told a clout-heavy audience at the Museum of Science and Industry.

Carhart strongly disagreed that lighting would be a boon to tourism.

He argued that “superficial stuff like this grows stale pretty fast” — and will once Emanuel’s digital billboards start popping up along Chicago area expressways.

“Literally megawatts of light shining out across the city from the spotlight-like boards flashing new messages in colored beams every few seconds. The planned decorative lighting had better be pretty bright and flashy to compete with that,” he wrote.

The mayor’s office had no immediate comment about the ridicule.

Broadway in Chicago President Lou Raizin, who is spearheading the lighting initiative, appeared to anticipate the controversy during an interview earlier this week.

“We have to be sensitive because there’s environmental issues with lighting. We have to be sensitive from all different aspects. But light needs darkness to really have an impact,” he said.

Email: fspielman@suntimes.com

Twitter: @fspielman

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