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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

Positioned on the boarding platforms like free-standing umbrellas, these structures make a simple but elegant statement about shelter and motion, at a minimal cost. Their clean lines fit in equally well with a historic district or next to new construction or in the middle of an urban no-man's land. They are strong enough to stand out and create a sense of place where they need to stand out, yet recessive enough to blend in where they ought to blend in. Their scale is such that they appear equally comfortable when populated by one lone commuter or a crowd coming off a three-car train, and that's no small feat.

Cho, Wilks & Benn designed the shelters so their colors can be brightened up or toned down, depending on the community's wishes. The effect is not unlike the way artist Stan Edmister employed a multicolor paint scheme on the Guilford Avenue bridge to highlight its different parts. Lit at night, the light rail arcs cast a warm halo that envelops the tracks. When a train pulls in the station, it all works together perfectly.

South of Dolphin Street, the design of the shelters changes in several ways. At Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the shelter is green and has a hipped metal roof, a special condition intended to make it more compatible with its old-fashioned ballpark neighbor. Shelters for the Ferndale station, on a segment of the line that opens next year, will also have hipped roofs, echoing an older station that no longer exists. For Howard Street, the architects did not design shelters at all, but opted to reuse and repaint the barrel-vaulted shelters installed when Howard Street was a buses-only transit mall.

One could argue that these shelters work against the notion of providing a consistent architectural treatment for the entire line. But the recycled Howard Street shelters are above all a cost-saving solution that shows the architects don't have such big egos that they had to start with a clean slate. They also fit in with the larger theme of the system, which is to be flexible enough to adapt to varying conditions. The Camden Yards and Ferndale stations are justified within that larger vision as well, since those communities asked for those stations to have

special treatment, and the MTA complied.

Oases of opportunity

In a sense, the variety of buildings along the line can be seen as a metaphor for the community-friendly design approach that guided the entire project. Planners have gone to great lengths to respond to the concerns of the individual communities, as they should. But no one seems to have balanced that approach by looking at what is best for the whole system. What's missing is the kind of comprehensive urban planning effort that helped make Oriole Park at Camden Yards such a smashing success.

Where, for example, does the line have the potential to be a catalyst for additional development, and how can that potential be realized? Where should development be discouraged? How could the line be used to bring new employers to the area? What stops ought to be added and when? Where else might the line be extended?

Also open to debate are questions about the best and highest use for certain oases of opportunity near the stations. The Timonium State Fairgrounds, for example, has the potential to be the kind of rail-reliant "pedestrian pocket" residential community that West Coast planners such as Peter Calethorpe would love to design. Yet it has also been eyed as a possible site for a large indoor arena. Given its proximity to the light rail line, what is the best use for that land?

On Howard Street, passengers have a chance to ride past

LTC numerous empty lots and boarded-up storefronts just waiting for redevelopment. But where do the real opportunities lie and who might best take advantage of them? And on a more pragmatic level, isn't there a way to synchronize the traffic lights so the trip along Howard Street isn't so frustratingly slow?

Ronald Hartman, the MTA administrator, said no master planning effort was initiated for the line because funds were limited, time was short, and the line had to follow the path of the old Northern Central line. He added that the line goes through three political jurisdictions -- Baltimore County, Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County -- and the MTA has no legal authority to make plans for those entities anyway. He believes it was appropriate to get the line built and let the people in the separate jurisdictions discover the opportunities it presents. And he argues that the system is flexible enough that any deficiencies or flaws can be remedied as needs or problems arise.

To be fair, the state is taking a broader view where it can. A city-state group is studying the best uses for the state-owned property near the Meyerhoff Concert Hall, including the Baltimore Life Insurance Co. property and the University of Baltimore campus. Its reasons for limiting long-range planning activity may indeed be valid.

But if the MTA is unwilling or unable to look at the big picture, someone else should. The three jurisdictions could assign planners to work jointly to identify options for sensible, long-range growth. An organization such as the American Institute of Architects might also provide an independent, regional vision that cuts through political boundaries.

When an environment becomes better organized, the urban planner Kevin Lynch once observed, users respond by making changes to suit their needs. And that's all to the good, he argues. "An environment which is ordered in precise and final detail may inhibit new patterns of activity. What we seek is not a final but an opened-ended order, capable of continuous further development."

As built, Maryland's light rail line is the epitome of "open-ended order." It is a tribute to the work of Cho, Wilks & Benn that the stations turned out so well architecturally, but there is still much work to do. What's needed now is a different level of design attention that will ensure the system not only looks good as an organism unto itself but also functions as well as possible in relation to the communities it was built to serve.

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