Berkshire Lightscapes flicking switch on yearslong project to light up downtown Pittsfield

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GILLIAN JONES — THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE
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PITTSFIELD — Research shows that lack of light can make a person depressed, so what better day to launch a series of light installations in downtown Pittsfield than the darkest day of the year?

Berkshire Lightscapes is kicking off a yearslong pursuit of lighting up downtown with an LED light demonstration at the First Agricultural Bank, 100 North St., at 6 Thursday night. The resulting display will remain for 10 days, and organizers say that's only the beginning.

Elie Hammerling, a Downtown Pittsfield Inc. board member who spearheaded Berkshire Lightscapes, said the plan is to strategically place lights downtown to accentuate architectural assets and draw people downtown.

The Thursday demonstration will give guests a taste of what could come with their support, he said. Greylock Federal Credit Union kicked in $5,000 for the first phase of the project, which involved forging a partnership with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Lighting Research Center and planning downtown demonstrations like the one Thursday.

"Light is transformational," Hammerling said. "It brings energy. And our city could use energy."

Property owners are already expressing interest, he said. The more buy-in there is among them, the better the deal that committee members can negotiate on upfront costs for a downtownwide light installation.

"The lighting could really accent the architectural details that people have either taken for granted or — they're underappreciated," said Steve Oakes, owner of Crawford Square and other downtown buildings. "It's just an opportunity to show off the assets that we have."

Hammerling said he and a team of organizers are using the event as a way to demonstrate the potential impact that strategic light placement could have in making downtown feel safer and more aesthetically pleasing.

Russ Leslie, an architecture professor and associate director of RPI's Lighting Research Center, said there's a scientific correlation between light and a sense of safety.

"People are more comfortable in places where they can see into the shadows. They feel it has a sense of security," he said. "If it feels safe, they're more likely to go there. If people go there, that does impact the incidence of crime."

With the help of RPI researchers and students, Berkshire Lightscapes organizers have identified downtown areas that could benefit from the project. Hammerling said the goal is deploy lights at downtown focal points like City Hall, Dunham Mall and Park Square. He said he'd also like to see light-art displays at key city entry points.

He said collaborators' vision of using light to illuminate the city's revitalization is a path not commonly taken.

"I think Pittsfield has an opportunity to do something that could get us significant recognition," he said.

Hammerling emphasized that, given the city's budget constraints, no city tax dollars will be spent on this project. Instead, he said the committee will apply for grants and work with the private sector to accomplish its goals. He hopes the Thursday event generates excitement around fundraising to carry the project's momentum.

Oakes said that in the same way property owners use a fresh coat of paint to make a space appealing to prospective tenants, strategic lighting can be used — which is more cost-effective, he said — to brighten a building. He said he can see the lighting making a nice addition to the cornices of his building as a means to show off the dimensional architecture.

And, he said the equipment is so easy to control that it could be customized to the day and the time and to avoid light pollution.

"It would reinforce the positive momentum that people are feeling," Oakes said.

Lou Allegrone, an owner at Allegrone Cos., said he'd welcome light designs at any of his company's buildings. The company owns several downtown properties, including the Howard and Onota buildings and 54 North St. He said the company would cover the maintenance costs if organizers help figure out a collective way to address upfront costs for the equipment.

"Hopefully, we kind of develop a plan that integrates lighting throughout the downtown in a way that makes sense and is artistic," he said. "Lights just kind of make everything look a little better and more alive."

Reach Amanda Drane at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter or at 413-496-6296.

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