The Fairfax Times ran an article this past week about how the Tysons Metro Rail is a complete monstrosity and aesthetic horror. Outside of clearly being a soft news day for them, based on the fact that they are running an opinion piece as subjective as “Green Peppers on Pizza Tastes Bad” (more at 7), the story completely disregards the fact that they are viewing a project still being built. In no way did the article fairly discuss what future streetscape could do to modify the commuter and pedestrian interaction with the system, nor did they highlight the fact that some of the tallest buildings in the region will be located directly behind the rail making it ultimately muted in comparison. Finally the article has the same kind of defeatism that is prevalent in our society during these tough times, it is what it is and there is no way to fix it now.
Complete and utter gibberish. Now let me be clear, when Bechtel and Washington Group International announced in 2006 that full tunneling through Tysons would be unfeasible while remaining under the federal funding maximum budget, a part of me felt defeated and crushed too. I believe it could have helped reduce the total right of way involved along the Route 7 and 123 corridor, helped bring buildings closer in, and overall creating a safer ultimate pedestrian condition. What’s done is done, and while we think Bechtel’s argument should continue to be reviewed for accuracy and oversight, it is time to come up with solutions.
Many people have brought up the point that elevated rail is inherently ugly, and that 1st world nations around the world continue to create subway systems instead. Actually, the facts prove otherwise, as other nations face budget restraint a clear trend has risen towards the use of integrated elevated rail as is the case in the photo to the left in Holland. What are some tricks in creating this integration?
First let’s start with the concept of structure vs facade. Many home owners know that what a house looks like on the outside is no reflection of its material bones. A vinyl, brick or stone facade often is used to screen what is typically wood and board construction. Where the metro through Tysons is right now is monolithic concrete piers and track way, similar to seeing a house without its facade. The concrete and steel bones of a high rise building are almost never (except in the case of Brutalist architecture) seen at the end of construction.
We need to start visualizing the system with its next step. View the original construction as part one of a multi decade evolution of the system. The utility is complete, and in late 2013 commuters will be able to get to work in an alternative manner. Step two will be integrating and urbanizing the system, without public funds, via a myriad of options. Some stones, brick, or other aesthetic materials can be lain as a facade to hide the concrete bones of the system. The system to the left is the elevated passenger rail through Italy. Piers have been covered over providing pedestrian friendly tunnels which can be used as public space or simply to connect from one side to the other.
Another interesting option is seen in France’s elevated passenger rail. Here the elevated system and piers have been covered with a facade, but the locations between the piers have also become interior spaces sheltered from the weather which could be part of the train station (as in this case) or could be converted to retail store fronts and popup stores as well. Think Union Station. Yes, its a rail station, but its retail and interior space has been privately developed outside of the rail system and incorporated into the architecture. Also note that the facade has projected forward several feet providing space along the roof for landscaping which can provide screening and aesthetic benefit.
Another method for integration occurs completely separate from the rail line itself. It involves the structures that surround the system. The mind converts what our eyes see in very interesting ways. Often something that by itself would be viewed as “ugly” can become beautiful when viewed as a whole with its surroundings. Think of a Monet painting. When isolated and focused in it is a mess of color without any recognizable image, but when you step back the image comes into focus and becomes pleasing. A rail line being placed in front of 2-story 1970s brick office construction sticks out as an eyesore. The entire view is plain old ugly because the piers and track become over powering and there is nothing to pull your eye away other than the concrete monster. However, when a series of 300′ or 400′ high rises with unique architecture are placed behind the rail, the system appears smaller and less overpowering. In some cases the architecture can actually be incorporated into the rail as is the case with the London Docklands Light Rail. Buildings can encompass or partially cover the railway creating an elevated subway. The additional cost of spans over the rail are acceptable for a developer when this design returns far greater density potential and therefore more lease, rental, or sales space.
Finally, and most simply, landscape architecture will be essential to how we observe the system. Visiting any construction site whether high rise or subdivision will highlight one fact, a half built site has NO trees. We are seeing a half built site right now along Route 123 and Route 7. Review of the plans from developers like Cityline, Capital One, and Georgelas all show significant landscaping occurring on the developer side of the tracks. Additionally, review of Fairfax County’s streetscape concepts from the Comprehensive plan also shows significant landscaping. Just as a house with a plain grass (or sod) front looks off putting and uninviting, a metro with construction fence and dirt looks unwalkable and unattractive. Integrating pedestrian walkways and trees will be the most effective early step to giving the system a sense of place as is the case in Edmonton Canada and Miami Florida.
It’s time to move forward with ideas not complaints. Let’s learn from this as a lesson in penny wise but pound foolish, but let’s not become crippled to the new design constraints. We have to continue to innovate and improve. By providing either airspace or ground space within the metro rail right of way, the improvements can be funded and constructed by the private developers who will attain the revenue from the additional assets. Don’t fall prey to the snobs and mockers who have no vision and start seeing the opportunities to make a unique identity for Tysons Corner.