Century-Old Van Ness Streetlamps To Be Removed For Rapid Bus Project [Updated]

Century-Old Van Ness Streetlamps To Be Removed For Rapid Bus Project [Updated]
Photo: Brittany Hopkins/Hoodline
By Nathan Falstreau - Published on September 19, 2016.

The city's first Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project, along Van Ness Avenue from Mission to Lombard streets, is set to break ground this year, consisting of transportation upgrades aimed to improve congestion, safety and beautify the two-mile long stretch. But among several other utility upgrades included in the project is a plan to replace the current streetlamps with brighter, more efficient streetlights. And that has San Francisco Heritage, as well as District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin, rushing to find a way to protect the lamps which they say are 102 years old. Update, 4:45pm: Paul Rose of the SFMTA clarified some of the details pertaining to the history of the streetlamps and the BRT project, stating that the earliest lighting features on the existing lightpoles date to 1936, making them no older than 80 years.

The 259 224 trolley poles and streetlamps that line Van Ness were originally installed in preparation for the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition. And while they were moved in 1936 for a Works Progress Administration (WPA) road widening project and to inaugurate the Golden Gate Bridge, the lamps were reinstalled and have since been referred to as the "Ribbon of Light," a geographic marker for the two-mile stretch of Route 101 that leads to the mouth of the iconic bridge. 

Some proposed designs of new lamps.

33 of the trolley poles and streetlamps will be preserved, as they're located within the Civic Center Historic District from Fell Street to Golden Gate Avenue, and another 16 are protected as part of the Civic Center National Historic Landmark District between Grove and McAllister streets. SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose told us that the Historic Preservation Commission is only considering rehabilitation of four poles in the Civic Center Historic District.  And while a 1982 architectural study conducted by San Francisco Heritage rated the trolley poles and streetlamps as "Level B" or of "major importance," a 2009 study by the Department of Public Works (DPW) concluded that they were not eligible for historic status in part because the concrete poles "lacked sufficient historic and structural integrity." 

But that doesn't mean that the lighting can't still be saved, reused or even replicated with the new BRT project moving forward. SFMTA said that the Historic Preservation Commission is currently studying the feasibility of rehabilitation, but also noted that, "SF Arts Commission and Historic Preservation Commission both rejected the concept of replication of the poles when approvals were received from both bodies for the project."

In a resolution presented to the Board of Supervisors by Peskin, he writes that while the streetlamps and trolley poles are not officially considered historic by DPW, the SFMTA  San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) did not sufficiently state its plans for the removal of the lamps in the presentation of the Agency's Environmental Impact Report to the public. However Rose said that "[SFCTA] included extensive information regarding the removal of the pole, including in the 2009 Department of Public Works report."

Peskin, along with a group formed called the Coalition to Save the Historic Streetlamps of Van Ness Avenue, with the backing of San Francisco Heritage, San Francisco Beautiful, and the Victorian Alliance of San Francisco, hopes to find a solution that would either keep the existing lamps, or find a way to replicate them in order to maintain the historical character of the corridor. 

Mike Buhler, a representative from San Francisco Heritage, wrote in a letter to the Board of Supervisors that he is seeking that the SFMTA, "Make every effort to avoid their removal. With the installation of new landscaping and BRT stations, retention and reuse of the “Historic Streetlamps of Van Ness” would provide the architectural framework and historical continuity for new development along the entire Van Ness corridor, and celebrate civic pride to unite old and new San Francisco."

Unless the Board of Supervisors responds to the resolution and and looks at an alternative to the proposed plans, demolition of the streetlamps should commence sometime later this next year.