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The Bright Stuff

We'll have a blue, not-so-blue Christmas.

At midnight, looking over the city from the confluence of the rivers where Denver was born, all is calm, all is bright.

But not quite as bright as it all once was. Understandably, the lights of the D&F Tower, the Adam's Mark logo, even the classic neon "Travel by Train" sign above Union Station pale in the reflected glory of the gaudy, color-blind display that is the Denver City and County Building during the holiday season. But where once a star blazed in the east all year 'round, there's now only a muted glow.

Qwest has turned down the lights.

The glowing logos of our homegrown telecommunications company haven't disappeared altogether, but this former scourge of the skyline has changed from the garish blue that once matched the garish reign of peacock Joe Nacchio -- disturbing not just the dignity of the downtown business community, but the sleep of anyone within a mile of the signs -- to a more refined, dignified blue.

What gives?

"Less is more," says Bob Toevs, spokesman for Qwest. "Congratulations. You're the first person to ask. We even had scaffolding hanging from the sign, and no one's called."

The holiday gift may have gone unacknowledged, but it's undeniable. The blue beacons encircling the top of Qwest headquarters, at 1801 California Street, first appeared in the summer of 2000, when Phil Anschutz's upstart company took over US West and replaced the Baby Bell's white signs with piercing neon. Curtis Park neighbors quickly started singing the blues, complaining so loudly that Denver officials took a look at their sign code and realized that nothing within those aged guidelines -- which allow signs to take up 3 percent of a building's exterior but say nothing about how bright those signs can be -- gave the city the right to tell Qwest to tone it down. And so people from dozens of miles away -- from Golden, from Georgetown, hell, probably even from Grand Junction, if the Rocky Mountains hadn't gotten in the way -- continued to grouse that they were guided by a very unwelcome light.

Although Qwest has met with neighbors' groups over the years, their plaintive plea for respite wasn't the motivation for the change. Neither was the lawsuit filed in Seattle in September, when members of the Save Our Skyline group protested the large, non-glowing Qwest logos added to the former Seahawks Stadium, renamed Qwest Field this summer in a $75 million, fifteen-year deal. (That suit was thrown out last week.) Nor was the dimmer light intended as a reflection of Qwest's prospects for the future in the increasingly consolidating telecommunications industry.

Instead, the real-estate group that oversees the building suggested that changing the lighting system to LEDs could save energy as well as maintenance. "We replaced the neon tubing, which does burn out," says Toevs, whose department stores its records on the 54th floor, where the signs' innards reside, so he knows how complicated the old system was. "Now if the gizmos burn out, the whole sign won't burn out." But enough with the technological jargon, since Toevs also offers this explanation that anyone opening bills this season can understand:

"It will save something like 70 percent in ongoing electricity cost."

And a lot more in aggravation. "The first time I saw it, I was coming home from shopping," says Toevs. "It seems a clearer light. I was delighted to see it."

The switch, completed December 12, was visible immediately -- if you knew what not to look for.

The problem with Qwest's signage wasn't just the wattage, but how that brightness emphasized the blue neon behind the translucent panels (with a white-neon outline adding insult to injury). "Any blue light will appear very bright to us in our nighttime vision," explains lighting engineer Nancy Clanton. "It goes back to when we were cavemen and we relied on the moon, which sheds a blue light."

So when that blue light illuminated the caves of Curtis Park, startling residents out of their slumber, it was only natural that they started hunting down the culprit. Now they can rest easier.

Clanton worked with Boulder County to help develop lighting ordinances last year; Denver is considering adopting a lighting ordinance, too, which would expand on the old sign codes. Douglas County, though, is the real Colorado trendsetter; it recently adopted a maximum brightness level of 1,000 candela per meter squared (or NITs) guideline. Anchorage, another leader in the let-there-be-less-light movement, has decreed that 600 NITs is tops. "It's beginning to enter into sign ordinances," Clanton says of lighting-level guidelines. "Communities really need to look at it."

But in the meantime, the communities around Denver will have to look a little harder to see that Qwest sign. Here where the Mount Lindo cross, the largest electrically lighted sign in the country, still stands guard over the city (its creator, Donald Frees, died earlier this month); where outdoor Christmas lights were invented a century ago for the amusement of a young invalid; where the mere suggestion that an illuminated "Merry Christmas" sign be replaced with a more-inclusive "Happy Holidays" ignites a very contemporary controversy -- Qwest has finally seen the light.

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