For the next five months, the outdoor lights will be on at Coit Tower, but there won't be anyone home.
The San Francisco landmark, a fixture of the city's skyline for 80 years, is expected to close its doors in the middle of next month for a $1.1 million rehabilitation project designed to deal with a lengthy list of problems a 2012 study found with the aging Telegraph Hill structure.
On Thursday, the city's Recreation and Park Commission is expected to approve a contract with Anvil Builders to do the work on the tower. The building is expected to reopen in mid-April.
"We've been moving toward this for the past year and a half," said Sarah Ballard, a spokeswoman for the Recreation and Park Department, which is responsible for Coit Tower. "People have been aware it's coming."
There really isn't an alternative to the closure, said Jon Golinger, chair of Protect Coit Tower, a group that has often been at odds with the parks department over what critics say has been its neglect of the landmark.
"It's a shame that the building will be off limits to thousands of people who want to visit," he said. "But serious problems need serious fixes and time to do the job right."
Golinger and his group were behind Proposition B, a successful June 2012 non-binding measure that called on the city to limit commercial use and private events at Coit Tower and dedicate the more than $600,000 in payments it receives each year from the gift shop and elevator rides for upkeep and renovation of the tower and the historic Depression-era murals that cover the walls.
While parks department officials opposed the ballot measure, arguing that the profits from Coit Tower were needed to help pay for parks and recreational activities elsewhere in the city, there was no disagreement that the murals and the tower in Pioneer Park needed plenty of work. Last year's city budget put aside $1.5 million for the rehabilitation work, Ballard said.
A 2012 assessment of the building by an outside consultant found water damage in and around the murals, lead-based paint flaking from the ceilings, severe insect problems, asbestos insulation that needed to be dealt with, cracks in the building and a variety of other problems, many of them the products of age and long-delayed maintenance.
Fred Lo, the longtime concessionaire at Coit Tower, said Wednesday that while there aren't many serious problems visible, there are things that have to be done.
Jammed with visitors
"There are some cracks and flaking paint," he said as he handled a steady stream of visitors to the jam-packed gift store, most of them looking to buy $7 tickets to visit the observation deck at the top of the 210-foot-tall tower. "The bathrooms have to be fixed; they're just old."
The winter is probably the best time to close Coit Tower, said Lo, who has worked there for 21 years.
"The past couple of weeks it's been getting slower," he said. "It's slowest in January and February, when the weather's not so good."
Lo still isn't sure what's coming for himself and his handful of employees, who operate the elevator, sell drinks and candy, and run the gift shop. While the city is looking for a new concessionaire, no one has been selected.
While the parks department contract doesn't include work on the murals, the city Arts Commission, which is responsible for the artwork, will use the closure to do its own work.
"We're going to start restoration in the spring," said Allison Cummings, the city's senior registrar for its artwork.
The work, which will be paid for with $250,000 from the parks department, will include repairing water damage along the top of the murals, fixing the various scratches and abrasions that have accumulated, and restoring the stucco around the historic art.
"If you have a beautiful painting in a really damaged frame, you're not going to notice how spectacular the artwork is," Cummings said.
Since the art restoration will have to be coordinated with the work on the inside of the tower, it could cause some delays, said Ballard.
"There's a possibility the restoration work will continue even after the tower is reopened," she said.
Risk of delays
The timing of the work continues to be a concern. A recent roofing project on the second floor of the tower, for example, was expected to take two months but actually took six months to complete, as more problems were discovered.
"Anytime you open up a building that's as old as this, that's always a risk," Ballard said. "We hope everything goes smoothly, but we have money put aside in case something unforeseen comes up."
A shutdown was the last thing visitors were thinking about Wednesday in the bright morning sunshine on Telegraph Hill. The observation deck provided a stunning, 360-degree view of the city and the bay, from North Beach and the Embarcadero to the Golden Gate Bridge and the Berkeley hills.
"I've been to San Francisco before, but this is my first time at Coit Tower," said Jane London, who was visiting with her family from Portland, Ore. "There's just nothing like it."
The parks department will schedule a neighborhood meeting about the proposed closure, most likely near the end of the month, Ballard said. The closure will affect only Coit Tower and not the surrounding park.