Artistic Lighting Transforms The San Antonio River Walk. San Antonio’s famous tourist attraction receives mixed reviews on its changeover to LEDs. 

River Walk, the diverted San Antonio River that flows through downtown San Antonio is a pleasure barge-plied waterway lined by sidewalk cafes. This mini Venice, vital to the area economy, attracts tourists year ’round, but its walkways become standing room only when Christmas lights transform it into a romantic fairyland.
In 2011, this forward-looking city, which also cherishes its history (Remember the Alamo), traded its “so yesterday” incandescent lights for energy-efficient LEDs.  Here are some stats:

  • LED mini-bulbs wrap 170 trees up to 60-ft. high lining the river Heritage (iconic) trees are uplit
  • 1.76 million LED mini-bulbs replace 85,000 incandescent lights (20 times more lamps)
  • Initial cost of new lights (purchase and installation): $600,000  LED bulbs are expected to last 10 years (versus replacing incandescent lights annually)
  • Annual energy saved is estimated at  23,000 kilowatts  Savings = $6,000/yr in energy/electricity cost

Color Kinetics’ iColor FlexLMX MultiBeauty highlight the trees along the River Walk.

Artistic lighting designer and president/executive director of Blue Star Contemporary Art Center Bill FitzGibbons launched the plan to wrap the tree trunks and limbs so that each tree becomes a striking sculpture of brilliant, multi-colored bulbs with a clear, cool look. “The city of San Antonio is planning for a sustainable and greener future,” FitzGibbons explains. “To this end, a decision was made to change the River Walk holiday lighting to all LED. As a sculptor who has been using light in my artwork for 30 years, I was asked to design the new LED lighting program.”

River Walk is an important cultural icon for the city and lined with majestic cypress trees. “It was my intention to highlight these living giants by wrapping the trunks and branches with the LED lights to transform them into giant light sculptures,” FitzGibbons remarks. “Additionally I placed programmable LED lights on all of the 22 bridges that cross the river downtown. These bridges are all individually programmed – using fixtures from Philips’ Color Kinetics division – to create the effect of dancing light reflections on the water.”

Local reactions, however, have been mixed. Brad Hewitt, a long-time resident who has lived in cities around the globe, says, “I like it. Before, strings of lights were simply draped from branch to branch. Now, they wrap the trees so that there is a design, a reason for being there.”

In a December 24 letter to the editor of the San Antonio Express-News, Ginger Turner-McKay agrees with Hewitt. “We took a boat ride last week, expecting to be disappointed, but we were mesmerized with the well-planned beauty of it,” she wrote. “No more bunches of stark white lights landing in trees and looking as if someone had just thrown them!”

Of course not everyone likes the new look. Earlier, in a November 30 issue of the Express-News, Mike Austin observed, “I took my family to the River Walk to view the new LED Christmas lights and was disappointed.”  The newspaper’s columnist Maria Anglin’s Sunday, December 25 column headline boldly urged, “Bring back old lights.”

Architect David Strahan, a native of the city who has been involved in numerous downtown preservation projects, suggests combining the best of new and old designs.  “The new LED lights wrap trunks and branches, creating sculptures of the trees. The viewer sees and appreciates, but does not interact with these objects. The old incandescent lights looped from branch to branch, enhancing the romantic canopy effect that seemed to embrace strollers. I think that hanging loops of LED lights could be added to the sculptural design, restoring the sense of romantic interaction,” he opines.

While citizens argue the merits of the color and design of the new LEDs, other River Walk visitors are literally eating them up. Squirrels are feasting on the miles of newly readily accessible wiring. It isn’t easy being Green; but, stay tuned – squirrel-proof dangling loops of LEDs may be in the offing for Christmas 2012.