Light rail design details work smoothly, but overall planning effort needs tuning up


May 31, 1992|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

Baltimore's new light rail line may be a throwback to an earlier mode of transportation -- the old streetcars that crisscrossed the city until 1963 -- but at least one aspect of the system is intentionally not reminiscent of the past.

From the clean lines and sweeping curves of the pedestrian shelters to the bright colors and upbeat graphics of the maintenance facility in Bolton Yards, the architecture up and down the 13-mile corridor is infused with a freshness and vitality that capture the spirit of this new vehicle for urban mobility.

That's a bit of an aberration for 1992 Baltimore, where the newest buildings all seem to have come out of the 1930s or before, including the old-fashioned ballpark in Camden Yards, the step-topped Commerce Place office building downtown, and the neo-traditional HarborView condominium tower off Key Highway.

Maryland's Mass Transit Administration wanted a progressive image for the $446.3 million light rail line, to convey that it was a forward-looking system rather than a step back into the past. And it got just the right tone from Cho, Wilks & Benn, the local architectural firm in charge of designing the 22 stations from Timonium to Glen Burnie.

Although the scope of the architects' work was limited by a no-frills budget and a do-it-now timetable, they came up with a surprisingly pleasant series of stations -- new public spaces, in many cases -- that serve the immediate needs of the traveler, brighten the landscape and provide a positive image for light rail that just may help overcome some people's aversions to using mass transit.

Looking at how well the design details turned out, one can't help but wonder how much better the whole system would be had the architects been able to devote the same degree of attention to some of the larger issues that have not been adequately resolved, including the shortage of parking spaces at certain stops and the need for stops at certain places where they don't exist, such as Ruxton and the Village of Cross Keys.

Although the system gives every appearance of being forward-looking architecturally, with its smart colors and aerodynamic shelters, one suspects it's not as forward-thinking as it might have been in terms of urban design. Many of the stations need stronger connections to the communities they serve if the state is ever going to maximize ridership and capitalize on its investment in the line.

When the MTA set out to build nine stations for the first phase of the Metro line that opened in 1982, it hired different architects for each stop and asked them to come up with distinctive designs that would reflect the neighborhood where each station is located.

For the low-budget light rail line, where the average station costs only about $300,000, the MTA had neither the funds nor the inclination to carry out such an elaborate plan. Instead it relied on its architectural consultant, working as a subcontractor to Parsons Brinckerhoff Inc. and Morrison Knudsen Engineers Inc., to design each station along the 22.5-mile line that will eventually stretch from Hunt Valley to Glen Burnie.

From the beginning, this project had more constraints than most architectural commissions. The location of stops was limited because they had to be along the right-of-way of the old Northern Central train line, and the architects had to work closely with the communities near each stop. MTA officials wanted a "family" of shelters that wouldn't upstage the Metro station entrances or bus shelters. Above all, they didn't want anything too expensive.

The assignment was a natural for Cho, Wilks & Benn, a 12-year-old, women-owned design firm with extensive experience in retail and residential design and public spaces, often with minimal budgets. Given the many constraints, principal-in-charge Barbara Wilks and project manager Nikolaus Philipsen hit upon the concept of working with a flexible "kit of parts," including shelters, windscreens, graphics, lighting and landscaping. Their goal was to assemble components that would provide a consistent system image up and down the line yet be adaptable to a variety of site conditions, such as sloping terrain. All were designed to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs.

Working with the landscape architecture firm of Catherine Mahan & Associates, the architects developed plans for a prototypical station, with entry plazas leading to boarding platforms on both sides of the tracks. All the elements in the stations, such as railings, windscreens, and shelters, trees and fare machines, were carefully laid out on a 5-foot grid. Large light poles and special paving materials help define the stations' boundaries.

By far the most distinctive features at each stop are the pedestrian shelters. Along most of the line, they are metal structures with a gently tilted arc on top that opens toward the trains. They are made of individual materials joined much like old-time shelters, but their character is modern and dynamic, implying movement.

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