Selma strings along downtown cafe lights replacement

Selma City Council, staff debate putting cafe lights back in the downtown area for aesthetic, safety purposes

Selma Mayor Scott Robertson comments on consent calendar items during the Selma City Council meeting Feb. 5, 2024. (Serena Bettis)
Selma Mayor Scott Robertson comments on consent calendar items during the Selma City Council meeting Feb. 5, 2024. (Serena Bettis)
Serena Bettis
Published February 10, 2024  • 
12:00 pm

SELMA – After the cafe lights in downtown Selma were removed along with the trees that lined the streets, residents have been asking the city to replace the lights to beautify the area and make it brighter and safer at night. 

Discussion on this topic lit up the Selma City Council chambers during the meeting on Feb. 5 as city staff presented the constraints of immediately putting the lights back up and offered alternatives to address the safety concerns. The city would rather wait to re-hang the cafe lights until they have public input on the downtown strategic plan, but some council members and residents demanded faster action.

“We want our cafe lights back, and we want action on that,” Mayor Scott Robertson said. “We deserve that as citizens and as taxpayers and as business owners downtown. We need that urgency, and I know we all want to do the same thing.”

At the previous council meeting on Jan. 16, residents spoke during public comment about how dark it is in downtown without the lights. They said it’s unsafe for the young people who are at the Selma Arts Center for rehearsals until late at night, and it discourages businesses from staying open past nightfall. Robertson requested to put the item on the agenda for the Feb. 5 meeting. 

City staff said they took into consideration the comments made at the Jan. 16 meeting and looked into how they could make the downtown brighter and what it would take to be able to put the cafe lights back up. 

Brightening downtown

First, the city is replacing the old halogen light bulbs in the street lights with LEDs that emit much brighter light. Public Works Director Michael Honn said the bulbs have three brightness settings that can emit up to 300 watts of light. 

Honn said the public works department is working to replace all of the bulbs on High Street from First Street to Lincoln Park, along with replacing lights that are flickering or are out on some corners and at the parking lot of Lincoln Park. As of the Feb. 5 meeting, the city had already replaced the bulbs along Tucker Street. 

In order to change the bulbs to LEDs, the city also had to purchase conversion kits for each street light to make them compatible with the LEDs; some of those kits were on backorder, so the city had been waiting for them to arrive before they could replace all of the lights. 

According to the staff report, the conversion kits and LED lights cost approximately $800, and with 14 lights located along High Street, the total cost of conversion is approximately $11,200, funded by the Street Maintenance Fund.

Public works has also been exploring other options to add more light to downtown, including bollard lights between the tree wells that still line the sidewalks. Honn said that putting half-round lights in the tree wells that shine up through the grates is also a possibility.

“That’s our first step to give you light, to see if that’s gonna help the situation with what we can add to that,” Honn said. “A (Capital Improvement Project) for what we’re talking about doing is something that I think is gonna be cost-prohibited. We can definitely discuss that, but there are other options that we’re looking at.”

Honn emphasized that his department is trying to be as cost-effective as possible with using existing infrastructure and more simple solutions, as they are working on a tight budget for both materials and manpower. 

Public works is also looking into adding more light to parking lots in the downtown area, Honn said.

Cafe light conundrum 

The main reason that city staff have been looking at options to brighten the downtown without first putting the cafe lights back up is because they do not know how exactly they would want to design the lights. 

The city still has the cafe lights in storage, but City Engineer David Horn said that without the trees to provide structural support, the lights would not be able to simply be strung between the current lampposts. He said the decorative street lights in downtown are old, cast iron fixtures, and a cable pulled between two points at a safe height uses a substantial amount of force. 

“The summary is: you try and keep the lights up between the two street lights now, you’re gonna pull those lights down, or you need guidewires to do that,” Horn said. “So that was our first look at if we can get those lights back up. From my calculations and recommendations and looking at the fixtures, that is not a safe thing to do right off the bat.” 

Horn said there are many engineering approaches they could take to properly put lights back up, but they want to ensure that what they do aligns with the overall theme and aesthetic they are working to create with the downtown — a process that they are already in the middle of. 

The city has been working with a community planning firm since November to create a Downtown Strategic Plan that will guide beautification projects, marketing campaigns and more. 

Economic Development Manager Alicia Aguierre presented an update on the plan immediately before the cafe lights discussion and said that the plan should be finalized by August, with a public review draft published at least a month earlier.

As part of the strategic plan process, the consulting firm is taking in as much input as it can, holding stakeholder meetings and interviews with business owners, a workshop with the Downtown Business Improvement District (BID) and an open house for downtown property owners.

In mid-spring, Aguierre said the firm will hold a two-day “charette studio” for the public to participate in, provide their feedback and learn more about the plan’s development. 

With this plan in motion and only a few months away from being more developed, city staff said the most logical thing to do would be to wait until there is a clear idea of what the downtown is going to look like before they invest time and money into putting the cafe lights up. 

Horn and Deputy City Manager Jerome Keene told the council that they definitely do not want to see a design that is made solely by engineers, as it would not look as inviting or aesthetically pleasing as they want it to. 

“You generally don’t want an engineer designing or doing your placemaking; that’s what planners are for,” Keene said. “In terms of the placemaking, the Downtown Strategic Plan presentation that just came before the city council identified that as part of that process.” 

Another barrier is that some of the infrastructure for powering the cafe lights was removed when the trees were taken out. Honn said the conduit is still there, but it is buried in the tree wells. In order to get electricity to the cafe lights, they would have to dig that up — which may require cutting out small pieces of the sidewalk — and put plugs and wires in. 

Council, resident input

Councilmember Sarah Guerra was adamant that the city find a temporary solution to put up the cafe lights that could then be moved or adjusted once the strategic plan is finalized. She said they could put up planters with trees or poles that the lights could hang from, or they could just string the lights along the street instead of going across the road. 

“I’m just looking for some resolution now just to make it a little more inviting,” Guerra said. “I get that you’re gonna replace it, but that isn’t gonna make it look inviting. … We’re just trying to make it nicer, much more inviting, because we’re about business. There’s businesses coming into our city. We don’t want them to look and say ‘God, this looks terrible.’”

Robertson was unhappy with the recommendations from city staff, and said he wanted action over conversation. 

“We’ve been asking and asking and asking, and it hasn’t happened,” Robertson said. “When we propose items for the next council meeting, I’m gonna propose to open up the budget — because we’ve been doing that a lot lately, we’ve been opening up the budget and approving capital budget items — and I want more trees. Let’s put trees back … and then we will have the support for the cafe lights.”

Councilmember John Trujillo suggested the BID talk to all of the downtown business owners about keeping their lights on throughout the night to illuminate the area more — but that would be costly for business owners and is not a permanent solution. 

Robertson also brought up a comment Trujillo made in the past about his opinion that council members should not serve on the BID board because the council allocates money to the BID, and that would be a conflict of interest. 

“Maybe council members need to get on the Business Improvement District board to see if we can work together, because we’re not working together on this issue,” Robertson said. 

During public comment, resident Rose Robertson said that the last time residents tried to get the city to put up cafe lights, residents ended up doing it themselves, and if they had to do that again this time, they would. She said she would start a petition if needed. 

Resident Louis Franco, on the other hand, said that he thought the lights before “looked kind of hokey,” and he thought it made sense to go through the process of gathering public comment before putting the lights back up. 

“I think as much as we would like to see downtown transform overnight, the reality is it’s not gonna happen,” Franco said. “You guys did a lot of work — you being the council — in setting up the BID, so let them do their job, let them do their role, and hopefully things happen sooner than later.”

As a discussion item, the council did not take any official action on the matter. At the end of the meeting, Scott Robertson proposed a future agenda item on the topic of allocating money in the city budget to put trees back in the downtown area. 

There was not a consensus on adding the item, so it will not be on the next agenda; Mayor Pro Tem Beverley Cho, Councilmember Blanca Mendoza-Navarro and Trujillo said they would like to wait for the BID’s strategic plan. 

The next Selma City Council meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Feb. 20.

Serena Bettis
General Assignment Reporter