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November 16, 2000

Tacoma leads in light rail construction, station design

  • Stations will balance system and community identities.

    Tacoma residents will soon be the first to see construction activity on Sound Transit’s Link Light Rail system. Link is part of an overall program approved by voters in 1996 to upgrade the Puget Sound region’s transit service.

    Tacoma Dome Station
    Photo courtesy of Otak
    A computer-generated image of the Tacoma Dome Station.

    Bids for the construction of the 1.6-mile Tacoma segment, designed by Otak, were opened in September, and are now being evaluated by Sound Transit. The segment is expected to be operational by the fall of 2002.

    The new track bed will be an exciting sign of progress. But for system users, the future will really arrive with the construction of the stations.

    Station platforms and canopies—the most visible and defining elements of the work—will be completed at the conclusion of the project. While non-rail parts of the project are less technical, station-related design projects faced tough challenges, including an aggressive schedule and approvals from a large number of groups with a direct stake in the project’s outcome.

    The heart of the design problem was a balancing act. On one hand is Sound Transit’s need for a strong system identity. On the other are the desires of local communities to have stations that reflect the character of their neighborhoods. Equally important was reaching consensus between Sound Transit, the city of Tacoma, Pierce Transit, and all community stakeholders, according to David Clinkston, Otak’s lead for station architecture.

    “Passengers’ need to identify a light rail station in an urban environment is—and should be—a priority for any transportation system,” said Clinkston.

    However, “With generic design, opportunities to enhance the characteristics that tell the story of a neighborhood are sacrificed. For Tacoma, a balanced ap-proach was needed.”

    Otak, a multi-disciplinary design firm served as the project architect for eight stations along Portland’s recent extension of its light rail system west to Hillsboro. The award-winning station designs have been cited as regional examples of response to context. Each one expresses the culture, history, or character of its community. Much of that expression is through art, incorporated as part of the design.

    For the Tacoma stations, Otak collaborated with three architecture firms. Miller|Hull Partnership of Seattle, and the Tacoma firms McGranahan Partnership, and Architects/Rasmussen Triebelhorn each took a lead role on the design of an individual station.

    Although the five surface stations are connected by a continuous ribbon of track and an overhead power system, additional elements of continuity were required to give the stations some degree of system identity.

    Clinkston led the effort to define an overarching formula and design philosophy.

    In his formula for a family of stations, weather-protective station canopies have an “A” side and a “B” side. The A side faces the train and is consistent and predictable from station to station. Facing the sidewalk and neighborhood buildings, the B side is unique and expressive at each station as it responds to its context. Within the parameters of this formula, each station designer faced the challenge of integrating the two sides of the canopy structure.

    On the A side, consistent legibility is achieved with Sound Transit’s system signage, predictable location of amenities such as windscreens, information panels and seating, painted steel canopy structures with a repeating roof framing module, and translucent glass roof panels.

    Canopy roof shapes on the A side are inverted with a standard slope that is visible from several blocks away. Elements of differentiation and character on the B side include a variety of seating types, subtle deviations in windscreen design, and the incorporation of art into the station architecture.

    Designed by Architects/Rasmussen Triebelhorn, the B side at the Theater District Station includes stainless steel theater-style seats, and theater-style lighting. One of the art components at this station is the video projection of dream-like sequences of performing artists in action onto a translucent glass windscreen — the creation of Sound Transit system artist Nanda D’Agostino. References to neighborhood history and culture are easily understood.

    A pop culture theme was developed by Blake Bolton and Ko Webowo of McGranahan Partnership in collaboration with system artist Nate Slater for the South 25th Street Station. Deemed an appropriate theme due to the transitional nature of the neighborhood, six steel pipe windscreen columns rise above the station canopy, each sporting a five-foot long brightly painted abstract steel fishing lure. The lures will orient to the wind and are reminiscent of the history of the local fishing industry.

    The McGranahan Partnership also worked on the Convention Center Station, which makes expressive use of colored glass panels in the canopy roof and celebrates Tacoma’s stature in the international glass arts community.

    The Miller|Hull Partnership has designed the only station that loads from both sides of the platform from the median of Pacific Avenue at Union Station and S. 19th Street. Dave Miller and Sian Roberts led this design effort that produced canopy forms that gracefully recall the lofting lines of wooden ship hulls that were once manufactured in this neighborhood.

    System artist Nanda D’Agostino collaborated with Miller and Roberts at this station, incorporating images etched into the glass windscreen panels that interpret the history of rail, shipbuilding, and native American tools and fishing implements.

    The Tacoma Dome Station is one of several components of a multi-modal transportation hub and will sit in the middle of a future public plaza. The plaza is bordered by the historic Freighthouse Square, Sound Transit’s Commuter Rail Station, and two multi-story parking garages for Pierce Transit’s Park-and-Ride Transit Center.

    Otak architects Clinkston and Hung-Nan Chen led the station design as they collaborated with Sound Transit system artist Norie Sato in the development of the B side canopy at this station. The canopy in this case is composed of a line of bolted blue glass panels supported by stainless steel arms. They form a sensuous wave pattern as their positions rise and fall the length of the canopy, evoking images moving water.

    The Tacoma light rail segment will serve as a key component of a larger and still developing transportation system, providing identity for the system while the stations will reflect the character of city neighborhoods.

    At the same time, the project has already become a catalyst for a new convention center and a major redevelopment project adjacent to the alignment.

    In a balancing act between the desires of the community and realities of an existing budget, the project has already come out ahead. Bids for construction are under budget.

    “I believe that when the dust from the construction of light rail has settled, the citizens of Tacoma will be very pleased with the distinctive station designs,” said Stephanie Kirby, Sound Transit’s Tacoma segment manager

    Mike Fain is an Otak principal and served as the consultant project manager for the design of the Tacoma Light Rail Project.

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