Bright lights, big city: Is Sacramento’s night skyline about to shine?

Purple lights bathed some of Sacramento’s signature buildings late last month, advertising the start of a new season for the Sacramento Kings.

That relatively modest light show could be just the beginning. With a new Kings arena in the works for Downtown Plaza, city officials and business leaders are talking about ways to use lighting as a major calling card for the arena district, including LED lights that would flash product ads on the sides of buildings, or simply turn building facades into massive canvasses for dramatic light shows.

Michael Ault, head of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, a business and property owners’ group, is among those interested in using LED advertising as a way to bring life to the arena and boost commerce downtown.

“They’re talking about (millions) of people coming down here a year,” he said. “It is kind of an exciting time. We should look at as many creative ideas as we can.”

The practice of lighting buildings to promote social causes, sell products, or highlight architecture has become increasingly common in recent years, enabled by the development of LED technology. Prominent buildings across the country, including Sacramento’s state capitol, have gone pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Locally, the new Crocker Art Museum and the L Street Lofts are bathed nightly in various colors. The Esquire building on K Street boasts a blue light column – its developer David Taylor calls it the blue spire – to identify its surrounding neighborhood as an entertainment district, and Taylor’s U.S. Bank building on Capitol Mall is topped with a cascading blue light show mimicking river flows.

In some larger cities, the lighting is much brighter, busier and often used to promote products. Visitors to New York’s Times Square or the LA Live entertainment district, home to the Staples Center arena, are greeted by an extravaganza of colors and ads flashing on digital, LED billboards.

Sacramento city officials are sounding a cautious note. They say they are exploring updating city signage rules to allow more advertising and light displays at the arena, but they do not plan to jam the site with advertisements.

“We definitely want to enliven the area, and add color, movement and excitement to the district,” Assistant City Manager John Dangberg said. But “we’re not talking about blocks of advertising.”

Sacramento Kings officials, who are teaming with the city to build the city-owned arena, say they are considering a brightly lit interactive arena facade. That may include message boards that recognize and welcome season ticket holders by name when they arrive in the plaza outside the building. The more often the fan shows up, the larger his or her name might appear on the welcome board, team president Chris Granger recently said.

The team arranged with city officials and other property owners to bathe a handful of structures, including old City Hall and the Tower Bridge, in purple light last week on opening night of the NBA season. Capitol officials declined a request to light the Capitol building purple, however.

Downtown Sacramento Partnership head Ault said he has talked with advertising industry representatives who say the arena and its front plaza at 6th and K streets, along with new buildings around the plaza, could offer numerous opportunities for LED-lit advertising boards on buildings.

“We are not trying to do Times Square,” Ault said. “We are trying to engage under-utilized spaces and (take advantage of) opportunities this new facility is generating.”

Taylor, whose U.S. Bank building sits across L Street from the planned arena, said he also has been approached by a group interested in using adjacent buildings for lighting displays. “I think it would be effective,” he said.

Others say the city is right to be cautious about how commercial it allows the arena area to become.

“It is a sticky wicket: What is too much?” said Michael Sestak of Sestak Lighting Design, who helped bathe the old Governor’s Mansion in new white lights this week. “That is a discussion that has to come up.”

City official Dangberg said the city must keep in mind the effect of arena district lighting on surrounding properties, including nearby residents.

“Signs are a sensitive thing,” he said. “You want to get it right.”