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Ride Share or Ridership?

How does the design of Los Angeles’s new Expo Line stack up?

The L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) has finally rebuilt one of L.A’s original commuter streetcar lines: The Expo line, a 15.2-mile long appendage that will link Downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica. Completion of the $2.5 billion route marks an important milestone for the region’s maturing 25-year-old rapid transit system. The lead architectural and urban design was by Gruen Associates who, with planning and design firm RAW International, crafted the system’s transit stops; Parsons Brinckerhoff carried out overall planning; and Skanska spearheaded construction. The Expo line is the transit agency’s latest effort to weave light rail travel into a growing, multimodal web of mobility options available to Angelenos—it is as much a new way to see Los Angeles as it is a train.

While the system’s 1990s-era subway stations play fast and loose with decorative schemes—from massive boulders at Beverly and Vermont to highly polished kitsch at the Hollywood and Vine and Chinatown stops—Expo stations are subdued. Mostly located at-grade and topped by a half-hexagonal mop of ocean wave–inspired, perforated aluminum panels supported by a sinuous, pale-blue, crisscrossing armature, the stations try hard to be poetically mundane. A product of tight budgets, the line’s many at-grade crossings and stations result in a crude and dangerous construct: Drivers are forced to acknowledge light rail trains and passengers as a legitimate urban presence through their sheer occupation of the street. This condition could benefit from a more aggressive transformation of the intersections and sidewalks leading up to each station: Introducing simple elements like bollards, contrasting paving strategies, and other speed mitigating measures would do much to improve what should be nodes of pedestrian activity.

Stations between Downtown L.A. and the University of Southern California campus are easily approached from the street via handicap ramps and feature no-frills signage. The concourses are, again, simple in their articulation, with a smattering of concrete and aluminum benches. These stations are earnest attempts at creating planted flags in what might one day be a larger, more prototypically pedestrian urban expanse. The empty storefronts along many of the tacky, faux-Italianate perimeter block apartment complexes in the area, while highlighted by the stations’ electric bolt silhouette, have yet to benefit from the line’s booming ridership. As of now, these stops are desolate, quite a few gentrification waves away from being viable transit-oriented developments. At-grade stops between USC and Culver City are also unsuccessful as stations, with complicated tangles of pedestrians, trains, and drivers.

The elevated stations further west, however, like those at Culver City, La Cienega, and Bundy, announce themselves from a distance as a new type of elevated object in the Southern California sky. Less majestic than Chicago’s industrial-era L stations, the elevated Expo stops gently appropriate the language of freeway vernacular, subverting the typical L.A. overpass by co-locating a landscaped bicycle path and potentially, future stations for the system’s new bike share program, along the length of most of the line. These areas are straightforwardly open spaces; the overhead bridges’ weights reach the ground via four discrete and compact piers, leaving room for drop off and transfer areas. Large concrete walls designed in great relief, populated with complex, pixelated geometric motifs and lushly planted with drought-tolerant flora line the bike path itself. Instead of dank, unwelcoming troll bridges like those associated with the freeways, Expo’s overhead crossings are places for collective movement, an aspect exemplified by their minimal treatment and the location of a variety of specially-commissioned art installations at each stop. Riders ascend via elevators and stairways to reach the platforms that provide molehills from which to gaze out over the city’s flatlands. But, because one is walking—and waiting—instead of driving, the effect is potentially one of true introspection.

The western terminus at Santa Monica is also a fundamentally pedestrian urban gesture. The station is built as an elevated plaza that cascades to the north in a broad set of stairs, funneling travelers toward major pedestrian shopping areas and into the intersection of Colorado Boulevard and Ocean Avenue, redesigned as a massive diagonal crossing intersection. Here, the intersection is striped with massive white bands of paint in a strangely fitting plaza and civic space for Los Angeles.

If it is indeed Metro’s goal to normalize multi-modal transit in Los Angeles, then the Expo train, with a few tweaks, is a good template for what the rest of the region’s rapid transit system might look like in the future. Expo’s design and existence is an unexpectedly powerful, if somewhat work-in-progress expression on behalf of transit-mixed streets.

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Sea Train

New transit line links Downtown Los Angeles to the beach
For transit boosters and urbanists in Los Angeles, last weekend’s opening of the 6.6 mile extension to the city’s Expo Line linking Downtown Los Angeles with Santa Monica represents a capstone over a quarter century of hard-fought rail construction in a city notorious for its auto-dependent populace. Los Angeles systematically dismantled its pre-World War II Red Car system in the post-war era and did not begin rebuilding its rail transit infrastructure until in the late 1980s. Metro opened the Blue line in 1990, a 22-mile light rail route linking Downtown Los Angeles with Long Beach. Since then, the system has grown exponentially, with two subway routes, four light rail lines, and two rapid bus lines completed since. Much of the recent expansion has been funded with money collected via sales tax increases. The Metro has another such initiative, Measure R2, on the November ballot this year aiming to help the agency continue its vigorous growth. A first phase of the Expo Line opened in 2012 linking downtown to Culver City. The now-completed 15.2 mile route reestablishes rail transportation between the beach-adjacent westside communities and the region’s symbolic heart downtown by essentially reviving the route taken by the Pacific Electric Red Car service’s Air Line service that ran along the former Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe right of way between 1908 to 1953. The new line is expected to take around an hour end to end, about the same amount of time it takes to drive in good traffic. The Expo Phase II project was constructed via a design-build partnership between Skanska USA and Rados Construction Inc. and was administered by Expo Authority, the independent agency created by Metro to build the line. Skanska USA tapped Parsons Brinckerhoff to design the route’s tracks, stations, and bicycle facilities. Parsons Brinckerhoff also designed 24 at-grade and above-grade intersections for the line. Celebrations took place at each of the seven new stations last weekend and Metro offered free fares on Friday and Saturday to commemorate the completion of the new line. The much-hyped weekend saw so many Angelenos flock to stops along the route that service got backed up as enthusiasts and skeptics alike rode rail transit to the beach for the first time in sixty years. But in perhaps a sign the difficulty Metro faces in changing L.A.’s car-dependent culture, service ground to a halt for nearly two hours Monday morning when a drunk driver drove onto the Expo Line’s tracks along an at-grade run of the line near downtown, snarling the line’s first weekday morning commute.  
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The Eyes of Data are Upon You
Courtesy SOM Chicago

Architects and Planners across the country are harnessing the potential of Big Data to build information-laden city-scale models. By gathering and synthesizing such factors as traffic, energy usage, water flows, and air quality, the urban design field is hoping to layout smarter, more efficient, and more resilient forms of development. John Gendall logs on to find out more.

Scan the bookshelf of any urban designer or planner who graduated after 1980, and you will very likely spot a copy of The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, by William H. Whyte, the journalist and consultant to the New York City Planning Commission who advocated a new, more empirical way of making urban areas. Cities, he reasoned, ought to be studied with the eyes of a scientist, subjected to a sort of post-occupancy analysis providing quantitative insight into just how urban spaces performed. While his approach now has so much currency as to seem obvious, his technique comes off as quaintly primitive. Through the 1970s, equipped with a camera, pen, clipboard, reams of paper, and several research assistants, Whyte would ensconce himself in public areas for weeks and months on end to painstakingly document figures like use, traffic, and interactions, culminating in his 1980 publication.

Thirty-five years later, cities around the world are carrying out extensive performance analyses, but rather than relying on an intrepid clipboard-toting individual, they are turning to another source: Big Data. Having reshaped other industries—finance, public health, manufacturing, and, with Building Information Modeling, architecture—the wheels of Big Data are increasingly being set on cities. With that comes access to immense and complex sets of information that city planners and urban designers can now harness to make cities perform better. Applications abound: traffic can be made to move quicker, energy consumption can be brought down, view corridors preserved, and all of this can happen while budgets get trimmed. The “big” in Big Data refers not just to volume (even though there are unprecedented amounts of information churning in its orbit); it also refers to the number of different data sets. “We think of Big Data as a degree of complexity, not simply volume,” said Matthew Shaxted, a computational designer at SOM City Design Practice.” This makes it particularly well suited to sort through webs of changing interdependencies, or, put another way, through cities.


Chicago: City of Big Data

Chicago: City of Big Data, an exhibition currently on view at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, examines the interaction between digital and physical infrastructure in the Windy City and beyond. Large-scale data visualizations show, for example, the number and location of tweets sent—clustered in the LOOP—the number and distance of Divvy bike-share rides—downtown to the neighborhoods—and the frequency and location of 311 calls, many of which come from higher crime, outlying areas. Curators worked with IBM and SOM Chicago to interpret the data and develop the visualizations, making the virtual and lived realities of Chicagoans legible to the public in a new way.

Courtesy SOM Chicago

Take urban flooding, for example. With so much at stake, municipalities have started wrangling data as a way to become more resilient in the face of climate risks that are becoming increasingly hard to predict. In Chicago, where rain events perennially cause widespread basement flooding, the city’s Department of Planning and Development partnered with SOM and the University of Chicago to get out ahead of what has become a costly problem. Aggregating high-resolution point cloud data from the city, the team developed a model for how water flows and pools across Chicago. As Shaxted explained, “we then combined this with other open source data—vacant lots, single-family residential parcels, etc.—and we were able to determine locations across the city where green infrastructure would lead to the highest impact.”

But as it is with any information, big data is only as useful as it can be processed and aggregated. Invite eight million New Yorkers to lodge complaints over 311, and you will need a way to analyze whatever lands on the receiving end of that line. Cities are tooling up to do that work. In 2013, for example, New York City established the Office of Data Analytics, outfitted to aggregate data and collaborate with other city agencies in using that information. Cities, from San Francisco and Miami to Boulder and Kansas City, are similarly committed to leveraging data to tackle local challenges. Because volumes of available information exceed the capacity of any single municipality to apply it, and because cities make much of it publicly available, architects, planners, and urban designers have a new, powerful resource—and a role to assume. “When working in 2-D, it used to be that designers would come up with one or two options, then clients end up with one of those,” said Jay Mezher, the Director of Virtual Design and Construction at Parsons Brinckerhoff. “The advantage with Big Data in design is that there is so much information that you can make the best decision for each project.”

Because it synthesizes complex information, these data-laden visualizations can have a clarifying effect on project coordination. As Mezher explained, “with infrastructure jobs, it’s not just one client making the decisions. It’s sometimes five or ten stakeholders—cities, counties, agencies—so any decision needs to go through many different layers.” For its work on the State Route 99 tunnel, in Seattle, Parsons Brinckerhoff built eight different models within the city context, comparing eight different scenarios that involved underground utilities, all underground facilities, alignments, and an environmental impact statement.

This is what Justin Lokitz, a senior product line manager at Autodesk, calls “horizontal building information modeling.” To carry out that modeling, the company developed InfraWorks, the software used for the Seattle tunnel design that, as he said, “brings in data from different sources and allows different constituents and stakeholders to act on it—it makes data real.”

This modeled data allows these stakeholders to see the ramifications of design decisions. “For a highway job, for example, it’s not just cars illustrated on a road—it’s actual traffic patterns,” said Mezher, underscoring the distinction between projected traffic versus representing the traffic in real time, as found in data. “Then,” he added, “if you need to consider other factors—noise volumes, carbon emissions, construction schedules—you can incorporate that data, too, for clients to understand different aspects of a job.”


InfraWorks by Autodesk

InfraWorks, a new data software for infrastructure developed by Autodesk, is modeled on BIM, but uses “horizontal” information, including traffic patterns—which is richer information than just vehicle counts—noise volumes, construction schedules, and pollution emissions. Multiple government agencies can access the information to coordinate work, and advocates and neighborhood groups can track potential impacts on affected communities. This information can be used to model how design changes—to highways, tunnels, rail lines, etc.—can shape outcomes before construction begins.

Courtesy Autodesk

Long the very apotheosis of permanence, modern cities have come to be made at something of a generational pace, with major works grinding their way through approval and construction (with fingers crossed for their effectiveness). Now, as their flows of information become better understood, cities seem to be moving toward something more fluid, where projects can be tailored for maximum efficiency, and where they can be tweaked and adjusted in light of changing conditions.

Consider Hudson Yards. Earlier this year, Related Companies and Oxford Properties, the developers of the over $20-billion Manhattan development, announced a partnership with New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP) to make Hudson Yards what they called “the nation’s first ‘quantified community.’” Working with CUSP, the developers will gauge metrics like pedestrian flows, air quality, energy usage, and waste disposal. As Related president Jay Cross said in a statement, “we will harness big data to continually innovate, optimize and enhance the employee, resident, and visitor experience.” Seen in another way, CUSP will be doing the work of William H. Whyte, but on a scale unimaginable to the 20th century observationist.

“Data is not new, it’s something city planners have always used,” said Kelly Floyd, who co-curated Chicago: City of Big Data, on view through August 2015 at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, where she is manager of exhibition and visitor engagement. “Daniel Burnham included train schedules and census data in his urban plans. Big Data is a buzzword now, but it’s important for people to know how their environment will be affected by it.”

To that end, researchers at MIT Media Lab are going after innovative ways to bring Big Data into the community engagement process, long the domain of sticky notes and colored markers. Its CityScope project has developed a tangible model that community members can manipulate in real time to determine just how their suggestions would perform. As Media Lab research scientist J. Ira Winder explains, “it gives the community members what a printed map and a marker could never give them: feedback.”


Hudson Yards/CUSP

Private developers are also getting into the data game. At Hudson Yards, a vast new neighborhood now under construction on Manhattan’s far West Side, developers Related Companies and Oxford properties have teamed with New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP) to make the neighborhood the most connected and analyzed in the city. Pedestrian and transit flows will be measured, along with retail traffic and dollars spent—serving both public and commercial interests.

Energy, solid waste, and water benchmarking will also be instituted to improve environmental performance and cut costs for the building owners. Residents and area employees will also be able to opt-in to health monitoring applications, which will help demonstrate the beneficial aspects of living and working in this new urban district.

Courtesy Related Companies

“The models work to augment existing models for stakeholder meetings,” he added. “These would provide evidence-based community engagement processes.” Likening them to Lego blocks, Winder said they would allow participants to see how certain changes would affect the entire design. In this way, it bridges the gap between experts and non-experts. Rather than having community members mark up drawings and maps at a public forum, then rolling them up and having planners and experts retreat with them to evaluate the efficacy of the suggestions, the CityScope model would short-circuit that divide, allowing community members to get real-time feedback. As Winder puts it, “a lot of the knowledge of experts can now be imbued in the data.”

Placed in William H. Whyte’s timeline, the use of Big Data in urbanism would be somewhere in the mid-1970s. Hypotheses have been made, tools developed, observations made, and trials run, but it is still an emerging field.

“I always preface conversations about this topic with the disclaimer that in terms of using data sources, we are still at the tip of the iceberg,” said Shaxted. “We are just starting the exploration, and we don’t fully understand what the outcomes will be.”

If the degree to which BIM changed buildings can be made to foreshadow Big Data’s potential in urbanism, the city scale is set to change significantly, even radically. “In other disciplines, there has been a lot of emphasis on certain scales—the cell, for example, or the brain,” said Shaxted, adding that this attention normally leads to big breakthroughs. “The city as a unit of study is just getting started, so once discoveries are made into urban systems, perhaps we’ll begin to see completely new ways of making cities.”


SOM City Design Practice for Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development

Recognized as experts in the field, SOM Chicago’s City Design Practice has been asked to help solve one of the Windy City’s chronic problems: basement and street flooding and sewage overflows. Working with the University of Chicago and the Department of City Planning and Development, the urban design team developed detailed analysis of open space, impermeable surfaces, and water flows. The data will be used to precisely target green and grey infrastructure interventions to maximize their impacts and minimize capital costs. The project shows how the deployment of Big Data projects, a relatively new field and practice, is already being used to address real world challenges. SOM Chicago previously used similar analysis in the Chicago Lakeside Master Plan, the plan for a massive new neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, where stormwater will be managed on site.

Courtesy SOM
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Back on Track
Outside and inside the ETFE-covered ARTIC station. A massive curtain wall floods the space with light and connects it to its surroundings.
Sam Lubell / AN

In early December the city of Anaheim cut the ribbon on ARTIC, the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center. The building’s significance cannot be understated: It is California’s first major foray into high-speed rail, and if all goes according to plan, it will eventually be one of the southern anchors for the system. In addition to housing high-speed rail facilities, the building, designed by HOK, with engineering by Thornton Tomasetti (Structural), Parsons Brinckerhoff (project manager and civil engineer), and BuroHappold (MEP), hosts regional rail, bus, automobile, and bicycles, not to mention shops and restaurants.

California High Speed Rail broke ground in Fresno a few weeks after ARTIC opened. The network is expected to eventually stretch 800 miles from Sacramento to San Diego and include 24 stations. Other major nodes are much further behind. Los Angeles is just beginning radical changes to Union Station, designed by Grimshaw and Gruen, and San Francisco is building Cesar Pelli’s Transbay Transit Center. Even Fresno is ramping up, hiring AECOM to study a station there. But car-dominated Anaheim insisted on being first. And ARTIC will likely set the tone for stations moving forward.

Courtesy City of Anaheim

The wide-open, multi-level station, which looks out at Anaheim’s Honda Center and the surrounding mountains, is topped with a diamond-gridded, 3-layered ETFE roof, and fronted by two of the largest self-supporting curtain walls in the world, each measuring about 120 feet tall.

The extruded arch structure— whose form was reportedly inspired by the area’s huge blimp hangars—is full of complex systems, and is aiming for a LEED Platinum rating. At its heart, it is a simple building: A large translucent tent arched over a stepped edifice, climbing its way toward the tracks. It is this simplicity that calls attention to the most important elements—light, space, and circulation. Being inside feels much like being outside, and the temperature feels perfect, not too hot, but not overwhelmed by air conditioning. Even when full of people (which hopefully it will continue to be after the opening), it does not feel too loud or crowded.

Sam Lubell / AN

The interior’s dramatic easiness is all the more important considering the concrete-dominated, shade-challenged landscape outside, which, while punctuated by rows of palm trees, is not as lush or welcoming as it could be. And because of alignment necessities, the station is far removed from its tracks, sucking some of the rail-inspired energy out of the project.

High Speed Rail has the potential to transform how Californians think about transportation, and to transform the state’s cities. But because ARTIC is located far from any notable urban center—the area is dominated by freeway interchanges and stadium parking lots—its significant architectural impact is more symbolic than practical.

But one cannot underestimate that impact. Approaching the station from the tracks, despite their lack of proximity, opens up a breathtaking, multi-story expanse below you. High-tech materials suggest the future, but in a natural, breezy way, not in the cold, generic one that many new airports and train station evoke. You are no longer thinking of the car-based atmosphere around you. You are thinking of how you can catch a train down here again. Hopefully thousands more will agree.

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Eavesdrop> West Coast Odds and Ends
In one of the few towns where the AIA has serious pull, the AIA San Francisco has named Jennifer Jones as its new Executive Director. Longtime HMC principal Kate Diamond has left her position and is looking for a new job. While it pales in comparison to the news that AECOM has merged with URS, forming the biggest firm in the galaxy, WSP has bought “global design giant” Parsons Brinckerhoff for $1.35 billion. That’s no joke either. Finally, after more than six years of waiting, SOM has begun work on its massive redevelopment of the WWII-era housing development, Park Merced. In San Francisco that’s like waiting for fifteen minutes.
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The Golden Ticket
Denver's expanded Union Station.
robert polidori

In cities around the U.S., train stations are being converted to multi-modal transit hubs anchoring impressive new neighborhoods, and private developers are cashing in. John Gendall rides the rails to skyrocketing real estate prices.

One of great rites of passage for most Americans, from baby boomers to Generation Y, was the trip, often on a sixteenth birthday, to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get the first driver’s license. But research from automotive data company Polk shows the share of car purchases made by young adults (ages 18–34) plummeted by 30 percent between 2007 and 2011, while the share for adults aged 35–44 fell by 25 percent. Younger Americans, it would seem, are not as eager to get licensed up at the soonest opportunity. Not only has this sent carmakers scrambling to render the driver’s seat with all the trappings of a smartphone—the commodity that young adults actually do covet—but it has also instigated a series of land use trends that are reshaping American cities, and train stations are taking center stage.

“Teenagers and young adults aren’t even getting driver’s licenses,” said Amtrak chief of corridor development Bob LaCroix, “These trends are making our stations very interesting to the real estate community.” ‘Interesting’ would be one way to put it. ‘Potentially very lucrative’ would be another.

Opened this summer, Denver’s revitalized Union Station has stimulated urban development in its surrounding areas as well as along the transit lines that feed into it. Real estate prices near the station have jumped from around $435 per square foot to $600 per square foot.
robert polidori

New Yorkers will be familiar with this effect from Hudson Yards and Atlantic Yards, where the Related Companies and Forest City Ratner are, respectively, developing on the formerly uncovered rail yards of Penn Station, in Midtown, and Atlantic Terminal, in Brooklyn. But in cities across the country—Denver, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Miami, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles—developers and municipalities are making serious investment in transit and transit-oriented develompents. “Every major metro area in the country, really, is doing a pretty substantial build out of its transit systems,” said Rachel MacCleery, Senior Vice President at the Urban Land Institute (ULI).

Since developing suburbs by the swath is becoming less tenable for economic and environmental reasons, municipalities and developers are more tactically considering land use within city centers. In Philadelphia, for example, the main train station, 30th Street Station (which happens to be the third busiest station in Amtrak’s system) is ringed with significant real estate anchors: the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, and, just across the Schuylkill River, City Hall, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Center City district. Though the station itself is an impressive historic structure and though it has this orbit of vibrant neighborhoods, its immediate context leaves something to be desired. One local architect, who wished to remain unnamed, called it “the hole in the middle of the donut.” Amtrak, which owns the station and over 80 acres of rail yards, including—and this is important—the air rights over them, is teaming up with neighbors Drexel University and Brandywine Realty Trust to develop a comprehensive master plan for the station and its context. To do this, Amtrak tapped SOM, Parsons Brinckerhoff, OLIN, and HR&A Advisors in May 2014 to undertake the two-year planning process.

Plan for a new Los Angeles Union Station.
Courtesy Gruen Associates

Real estate professionals and transportation advocates point to Washington DC’s NoMa district as a particularly compelling precedent. Close to Union Station, the area, once dominated by parking lots and warehouses, had long suffered from high vacancy rates. In 2004, though, an infill transit stop was added to the Washington Metro commuter rail line, instigating a surge of real estate activity. Now, Washington is looking to build on that success with a redevelopment of its Union Station. Working with the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation, the U.S. Department of Transportation, Maryland Transit Administration, Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, Amtrak engaged Parsons Brinckerhoff and HOK to author a 15-to-20-year master plan that will triple the passenger capacity in the station, double the train service, and plan for real estate development on and around the station.

For Washington D.C.’s Union Station, Amtrak hired Parsons Brinckerhoff and HOK to author a master plan that will tripple passenger capacity, double train service, and plan for real estate development around the station.
courtesy hok

The Washington project highlights one of the challenges of working with historic train stations in urban contexts: they come with what LaCroix called “serious constraints.” Unlike the suburbs, which, for the most part, can be transformed into buildable lots with the sweep of an earthmover, train stations typically demand greater finesse. “There tends to be more complexity to transit-related developments,” said Eric Rothman, president and transportation expert at HR&A Advisors. “There are always very important operational concerns.” As a simple case-in-point, LaCroix explained, “we can’t expand south because there is a little something called the U.S. Capitol.” Each of the other cardinal directions come with their own inviolable obstacles, so the Parsons Brinckerhoff/HOK plan goes below grade, but, LaCroix is quick to point out, “in an elegant way—not a Penn Station way.”

courtesy hok

In Seattle, where ZGF Architects completed a restoration of King Street Station in 2013, Daniels Real Estate is undertaking the so-called North Lot Development, a four-acre, 1.5 million-square-foot mixed-use project directly adjacent to the station. Though he identified the transit hub as the catalyst for the project, Daniels president Kevin Daniels conceded, “working with transit is a challenge,” citing the intricacies of moving people through infrastructure, between heavy rail and light rail, rail and bus, regional busses and local busses. “Developers can tend to get very myopic from our side, and transit folks can get very myopic from their side,” he said. “While it might be easiest to line up busses in front of restaurants, that doesn’t work from the development side. The design has to find common ground with what works for them and what works for us.”

Amtrak has partnered with Drexel University and Brandywine Realty Trust to develop a master plan for the area immediately surrounding Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station.
Courtesy SOM

Cases abound of historically preserved train stations that contribute little to community and economic development. What these cases demonstrate is that architectural attention on the station itself needs to be coupled with a serious commitment to the underlying transportation infrastructure. While the historic restoration of Seattle King Street Station was a critical element for the success of the project, that alone was not sufficient to anchor the neighborhood. The city and its transit agencies have committed to investing in transit and undertaking the gritty, long-term work of transforming the historic building into a multi-modal hub, orchestrating heavy rail, light rail, and local and regional buses.

Courtesy SOM

Cutting the ribbon on its transit hub this summer, Denver Union Station has become an important model for other transit-related developments. Having effectively reshaped the metropolitan experience in Denver, the project has stimulated urban development both at and around the station itself, but also along the network of transit routes that the station catalyzes. The Denver Union Station Neighborhood Development Company, a joint entity between developers East West Partners and Continuum Partners, has essentially shifted the city’s center of gravity toward the train station, which, for decades, had been dangling on the margins of Denver’s downtown area. The project included the historic preservation of the station itself, a robust public investment in transit, but also a real commitment to neighborhood building. Where Amtrak passengers once looked out onto acres of dusty landscape is now in the midst of becoming over five million square feet of commercial, residential, and civic space spread over nearly 20 acres. Several restaurants and a new hotel opened this summer. A Whole Foods is on the way. “It’s an incredibly complex station, but we’ve created a neighborhood, not just a transit station,” said Chris Frampton, a managing partner at East West Partners. Private developers play a fundamental role in realizing these transformations. “We typically seek developers through competitive processes,” said LaCroix, acknowledging that Amtrak is not in the best position to build neighborhoods. “When transportation agencies do the developing, they do it wonderfully, but they do it for trains,” said Frampton, making the case for private development to help in making neighborhoods.

“Transit investments are important, but they are only one part of making a neighborhood,” said Rothman. “The stations should be as inviting a place as possible to non-transit riders and transit riders alike. It needs to be a civic asset, not just a transit asset,” said Rothman. “Transit itself is not going to make a neighborhood.”

This is not just an act of civic altruism. “The marketplace is paying,” said MacCleery. In Denver, where the property leases had peaked at $435 per square foot, East West and Continuum recently leased One Union Station at $600 per square foot.

With this arrangement between transit agencies, private developers, and architects, everyone stands to profit. “We don’t have to own the real estate to get value out of it,” said LaCroix. “Smart, good development works for us. We can develop a very symbiotic relationship with private developers.”

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The New Wave
Courtesy HNTB

Downtown Los Angeles is about to get a lot curvier.

The competition to redesign one of LA’s great landmarks—its Sixth Street Viaduct—finally ended today, with HNTB’s surprisingly challenging scheme, made up of ten sets of concrete arches wildly winding across the Los Angeles River, taking the commission.

The Sixth Street Bridge, an instantly recognizable Art Deco span designed in 1932, was one of a series of nine overpasses built atop the Los Angeles River between 1923 and 1933. Although imbedded in the city’s psyche and a mainstay of movies and television shows, it was recently proclaimed unsalvageable due to irreversible decay, and last spring the city’s Bureau of Engineering called for a competition to design a new, $400 million, cable stayed structure. The other teams competing for the job were heavyweights AECOM and Parsons Brinckerhoff.


"Los Angeles is where the world creates and innovates,” said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. “The selection of HNTB as the winning team reaffirms our ability to cultivate and attract the best and brightest in architecture, design, and engineering right here in Los Angeles.”

HNTB’s team also includes Michael Maltzan Architecture, AC Martin, and Hargreaves Associates. Their design, inspired by the “cinematic” experience of crossing the Sixth Street Viaduct, echoes the existing bridge’s rounded shape.  The staccato rhythm of rough concrete arches will create a memorable experience by car or on foot. In fact some of the arches actually contain pedestrian pathways atop them, combining circulation and architecture, a rare feat that will create very unique perspectives of the city. The walkways will also make their way down to street level, maintaining an important connection to the ground and the river.


Below the bridge the scheme is full of life and will hopefully bring pedestrian activity and commercial viability to an area that, while bordering the Arts District and Boyle Heights, is currently car dominated and unremarkable. The plan contains a hard-scaped Arts Plaza under the bridge’s western span, containing a café, outdoor seating, a lookout, and terraced riverbank hardscape. Nearer to the bridge it contains a slightly softer Viaduct Park, containing a promenade, amphitheater, and skate park. Under and around the bridge’s eastern span the plan includes the Boyle Heights Gateway, which will consist of playgrounds, sports facilities, a pedestrian promenade, a transit plaza, a lookout point, and the adaptive re-use of existing industrial buildings, a vital extension of the city’s Clean Tech Corridor on the other side of the river.

All three competing schemes incorporated pedestrian-friendly designs and iconic profiles. While HNTB’s scheme struck a chord in the design community, many thought AECOM and Parsons Brinckerhoff might have the upper hand because of their experience and clout. HNTB’s design appeared to be the most ambitious of the three, and some worried that it would be too costly. HNTB team members have pointed out that the easily replicate-able forms and ultra thin deck, among other factors, will keep costs down.

The bridge will be paid for substantially by state and federal funds, with only about one percent coming from the city. The design is set to be ready by 2014, with construction completed by 2018.

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Visions of Sixth Street
HNTB's proposal for the Sixth Street Viaduct replacement in Los Angeles.
Courtesy HNTB

Last night at the packed Puente Learning Center, a school in Los Angeles’s Boyle Heights neighborhood, three design and engineering teams attempted to predict the city’s future.

The groups—headed by HNTB, AECOM, and Parsons Brinckerhoff— have all been shortlisted to create the city’s new Sixth Street Viaduct. Their vivid public presentations were the first glimpse of what will likely be LA’s next major icon.

The original 3,500-foot-long structure, a famous rounded Art Deco span designed in 1932, has been deemed unsalvageable due to irreversible decay, and in April the city’s Bureau of Engineering called for a competition to design a new, $400 million, cable stayed structure.

Following the city’s lead, all three teams presented plans that not only showcased memorable forms, but embraced people-friendly designs, including pedestrian paths, parks, and connections to the river below. The push reveals Los Angeles’s focus on attracting people and talent through increased livability. Such moves are a welcome, if uphill battle considering that so much of the city has been designed for cars, not people.

AECOM's proposal for the sixth Street Viaduct.
Courtesy AECOM

The first presentation, by HNTB with Michael Maltzan Architecture, AC Martin, and Hargreaves Associates, among others, showcased the most exuberant design, a riotous collection of tall and short, slightly canted concrete and cable arches pulsing over the river and well beyond in both directions.

Because of their exact repetition, the concrete spans would be affordable, pointed out the team. They would also be rougher than their steel competition: “The last thing we need is something that looks like it’s meant for a pastoral setting,” explained team member David Martin, a principal at AC Martin.

The arch that spans the river, and a slightly depressed arch below it, would both contain pedestrian walkways which people would be able to enter by literally walking into the bridge.  Below the bridge the scheme would contain a hardscaped Arts Plaza to the west, with restaurants, paths, and graphical representations of the bridge’s boisterous arches on the ground; a slightly softer Viaduct Park, containing a promenade, amphitheater, and skate park; and a landscaped Boyle Heights Gateway to the east, bordering the Boyle Heights neighborhood.

Parsons Brinckerhoff's proposal for the Sixth Street Viaduct.
Courtesy Parsons Brinckerhoff

The AECOM plan was centered on a series of three sculptural steel and inverted cable masts, loosely abstracted from images of angels, with a ribbed concrete structure exposed on its underside. The central mast would be the largest, and hence the focal point. A pedestrian path would be suspended underneath while at bridge level lookouts would bulge outward.

The plan calls for several public spaces, including the Mateo Street Gateway Park, a ramping space bordering the Arts district to the west; the Viaduct Plaza, a hardscape under the bridge; the Open Space Paseo under the bridge to the east, and the East Gateway Park, at the entrance to the bridge in Boyle Heights. Steel elements from the original bridge would be used to form lighting for the plazas, existing monuments would be restored, and new pathways to the river would be built around the bridge.

The Parsons Brinckerhoff plan was centered on a smaller mast (the size of the original Sixth Street Viaduct’s collection of piers over the river) that firm principal Ricardo Rabines described as the “wings of LA.” Indeed the steel structure looks like a bird’s wings stretched to fly. Under the bridge a suspended lower walkway would lead to a circular lookout point called the “nest.” Above a colorful covered walkway would split the bridge’s two roadways and, at times, could become a congregation zone, with one roadway shut down for major events. Continuous stairs and elevators would maintain a steady connection to the areas below the bridge.

HNTB's proposal for the Sixth Street Viaduct.
Courtesy HNTB

The proposal included several landscape and planning proposals at the foot of the bridge’s V-shaped columns, some designed by Mia Lehrer, who headed the La River Masterplan, an ongoing effort to make the river a recreational resource. They include an Arts Park to the west containing areas to display art installations; stepping and landscaping of the river below, and a plaza containing a series of clean tech research modules under the bridge to the east.

“It’s important that the bridge engage the river in multiple ways,” pointed out Lehrer.

"You understood what we were looking for," said Mayor Antonion Villaraigosa, who described the city as “people rich and park poor.” “This begins a new era. We're going to reimagine the city as a place where people can work, play, and recreate.”

The bridge will be paid for substantially by state and federal funds, with just one percent of the money coming from the city, pointed out city councilman Jose Huizar. The winner, chosen by city engineers and the state’s highway building division, will be announced by the end of this year. The design is set to be ready by 2014, with construction completed by 2018. Three more public presentations will take place this week and the next, after which the plans will be presented at the city’s Public Works building on Broadway until October 5.

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Cap-ital Improvements
The H Street Bridge will run at grade with Akridge's development creating a new thoroughfare to compliment the new north-south axis.
Courtesy Akridge, SBA

This week officials from Amtrak and developer Akridge unveiled plans for an ambitious development atop tracks leading into Union Station in Washington, D.C. The 3-million-square-foot project promises to unite the neighborhoods of Capitol Hill and NoMa, a former industrial area transformed into a leafy residential neighborhood.

“The gash in the urban fabric will be closed,” said Mark Gilliand, a principal at Shalom Baranes Associates, Akridge’s master planners for the project.

But with nearly $9 billion in investment needed, questions remain as to whether the public-private partnership, similar in scope, if not scale, to New York City’s Hudson Yards, would be able to muster the political will at the federal level. Union Station is owned and operated by the United States government. But despite high-speed trains and mass transit becoming a political football in states like Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin—and even New Jersey—most agree that the Northeast corridor is at capacity and needs expansion. “It serves as the only existing high-speed rail, and people on both sides of the aisle believe in that for the Northeast corridor, whether you’re from California or Florida,” said Akridge vice president of development David Tuchmann.

Clockwise from top left: The entire project backs up against Daniel Burnham’s 1908 station; side view of the undulating entranceway; Undulating green rooftops allow natural light to flood concourse; the railyards as they now stand.
Courtesy Amtrak, HOK, Akridge, SBA

As the southern anchor to the corridor, Union Station’s significance goes beyond its importance as a hub (D.C. train delays ripple as far north as Boston). The project is a key component of a $151 billion investment to region’s rail infrastucture to be completed over the next several decades. The proposed renovation was framed as a “pathway project” in an updated vision plan for the Northeast Corridor released earlier this month. And unlike the oft-delayed Moynihan Station in New York, Union sits literally within view of the legislators on Capitol Hill. “We like our prospects here,” said Bob LaCroix, Amtrak’s chief of corridor development. “Through this process, key stakeholders from the city, Maryland, Viriginia, and the federal government generated a consensus that this is the vision that we all need to pursue.”

Courtesy Amtrak

While the project holds regional as well as national significance, it breaks down into a very urban plan, integrating long-divided D.C. neighborhoods and incorporating the capital’s bicycle network. As Union Station was built on landfill, the terrain to the east and the west of the station slopes down beside the tracks, with the rail lines shored up with a giant stone wall, affectionately referred to as the Burnham Wall, for architect Daniel Burnham, the station’s original architect.

The station’s new masterplan, engineered by Parsons Brinckerhoff and designed with HOK, maintains the integrity of the terrain and track levels while burrowing east-west passageways beneath the tracks and creating a north-south corridor above them. Side-street entryways will be cut into the Burnham Wall to allow pedestrians to cross between neighborhoods. Escalators from the passageways will take visitors up onto the developer’s new deck, where Akridge hopes to build a multiuse neighborhood. The H Street Bridge will meet the platform above the tracks, transforming the now-desolate overpass into a Main Street, as well as home to the station’s new north entrance.

Entryways pierce the Burnham Wall allowing pedestrians to pass beneath tracks to access the neighborhood above or on the other side of the tracks (left). An elevated walkway atop the west Burnham Wall incorporates bike and pedestrian networks (right).
Courtesy Akridge, SBA

Undulating green rooftops of the entrance recall the individual tracks below and dispel the impression that the north entrance is a back door. “We wanted to design a train shed that supports movement and a vegetated roof that you can see from the street,” said Bill Hellmuth, president of HOK. Hellmuth noted that the overall design underscores the inherent sustainability of mass transit.

The developers, architects, and planners kept a keen eye on recent developments in New York. The project’s integration of open space recalls Hudson Yards, but without the developer’s massive floor-area payoff hovering some 60 stories above the site. The buildings maintain D.C.’s 130-foot height limit established in 1910, making the open space seem all the more generous. Instead of gobbling up the every square foot, the north-south promenade becomes a symbolic, if not literal, extension of the L’Enfant plan, reclaiming for Delaware Avenue a bit of what the railways took away over a century ago. But perhaps the most benevolent aspect of the plan occurs on the west side of the site, where the new buildings atop the development platform step back to make way for another promenade atop Burnham Wall. This High Line-esque gesture incorporates an existing city greenway, bike path, and pedestrian walkway. The gentle arc begins nearly a mile north of the project and culminates at Columbus Circle in front of Burnham’s 1908 masterpiece.

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Be My Sweetheart Deal
Construction work takes place in the Vanderbilt rail yards in 2007.

The value engineering continues.

That was the message out of today’s MTA finance committee hearing, at which a new agreement for the purchase of the Vanderbilt rail yards was announced. With the Nets arena cut down to size, the rail yards beneath Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project will also shrink from nine tracks to seven. Also, as previously expected, the developer will pay only $20 million upfront for the rights to build the arena, with the remaining portion of the $100 million deal being paid out over the next 22 years.

The committee took no action on the new arrangement, which critics are already calling another sweetheart deal for Forest City Ratner, waiting instead for a new General Project Plan from the Empire State Development Corporation, which is due out tomorrow. The committee and full board is then expected to vote on the new agreement on Wednesday, though given the tough questions asked by committee members at today’s hearing, it could be a close call. Still, in a staff report prepared for the committee, a favorable vote was recommended.

Local photographer Tracy Collins has long been photographing the Vanderbilt yards and surrounding environs. These three photos, taken in June, are some of his most recent shots of ongiong work. See more here.
Daniel Goldstein, head of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, the lead Yards opposition group, said in an interview after the hearing that he was not surprised by the agreement, except that it gave an even longer timeline than the 10 year one he had expected. “Ratner’s failed,” Goldstein said. “He’s defaulted on his commitments but the MTA appears to be giving him a passing grade, to the detriment of the MTA.”

Following testimony from 18 speakers, split roughly between opponents from the neighborhood and advocacy groups and supporters from the Carpenters trade union and BUILD, MTA chief financial officer Gary Dellaverson outlined the new deal as revised from one initially approved in 2005. “We did not complete these discussions until yesterday,” he noted, as a means of apologizing for the lack of a prior briefing to the committee. “Today there will be no vote. Everything we’re having right now is a conversation.”

In addition to the upfront payment, the new deal for the remaining six development plots to the east of the arena includes four annual payments of $2 million beginning on June 1, 2012, followed by 15 $11 million payments. The total cost for the remaining parcels thus reaches $173 million, but that accounts for inflation, with the “net present value” remaining $80 million. Originally there was to be an upfront payment of $100 million.

As for the new rail yards, they are expected to cost $147 million, down from an expected $240 million. (Some accounts put the ultimate amount at closer to $340 million in infrastructural and environmental work, much of which is now out of the deal.) The scaled-down seven-track yards will have a capacity of 56 cars, down from the 76 cars allowed by nine tracks. While questions had been raised as recently as a month ago about whether a reduction in tracks would jeopardize the planned East Access megaproject, MTA officials said this was no longer the case.

“Helena is satisfied her usage will not be impacted,” H. Dale Hemmerdinger, the board chair said, referring to Helena Williams, president of the Long Island Railroad, which operates the yards. A number of committee members struggled to grasp how this was possible, repeatedly asking question about it, without ever getting a clear answer. It was also revealed that the developer approached the MTA about value engineering the site toward the end of last year, and worked with Parsons Brinckerhoff on “value engineering” the design of the station.

Part of the reason the quality of the station is so important, beyond it being one of the oft-trumpeted public benefits behind Ratner’s development package, is that the inclusion of new “state-of-the-art” rail yards was one of the reasons given for dismissing a competing bid offered by Extell development.

“They’re delivering what the railroad needed,” Dellaverson said in defense of the changes. “It’s a step up from the default position we have now. But it’s not quite what was first proposed.”

To ensure Ratner begins construction on those compromised yards by June 30, 2012 and completes them by September 1, 2016, the developer must secure a letter of credit for $86 million, which would then be forfeit to the MTA and used to complete the project. That number was arrived at as the bare minimum the agency would need to upgrade the yards. Ratner is also obligated to complete the temporary yards before the arena opens, though those completion on those facilities is expected by year’s end.

Asked why the MTA continued to support Ratner’s bid for the yards, and whether he could continue to be counted on, given repeated renegotiations, reversals, and revisions to the proposed development, an agency spokesperson declined to comment, though the possibility of a meager payment during these cash-strapped times is a factor.

During the meeting, Dellaverson said the deal was a winning one for the agency. “Our intent, if we were to prioritize, is transportation first and financial second, and this satisfies those needs,” he said.

In a statement, Ratner insists it is forces beyond his control that have hobbled the project thus far, but those obstacles will be overcome. “While the world has changed significantly since Atlantic Yards won public approval in December 2006, and we are trying to adapt to those changes, the project and the project benefits, including the arena, the jobs and the affordable housing will remain the same,” Ratner said.

Should Ratner fail to find financing for the project, he has until next March to cancel the deal. Ditto, should no significant construction take place by April 2011. Goldstein is already considering additional litigation to push Ratner over that threshold, though he continues to hope it will not come to that. “They’re propping up FCR and that’s not their job,” he said of the MTA. “Their job is to get the best deal for their riders.”

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All aboard

LaGuardia AirTrain proposal rolls along after Cuomo signs state legislation
Governor Andrew Cuomo’s LaGuardia Airport AirTrain project is one step closer to reality after he signed state legislation authorizing the project on Monday. The AirTrain will provide a corridor between the airport and the Mets-Willets Point station in Flushing, Queens, which serves the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) and the 7 train. State legislation, which was passed earlier this month, allows the New York State Department of Transportation to acquire city or MTA-owned land in order to build this project. Cuomo, who first proposed the project three years ago, promises that the new train will connect passengers from Manhattan to LaGuardia in under 30 minutes. Engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff was selected in 2017 to oversee and analyze preliminary engineering and design process for up to two new AirTrain stations. Estimated costs for this project have risen to $1.5 billion from the original $450 million projected cost in 2015, according to The New York Times. But Cuomo’s proposal has been met with criticism, mainly for the circuitous route that the AirTrain would take. It would take passengers past LaGuardia in order to reach Mets-Willets, and only then would they transfer to the AirTrain and reverse course back to the airport. Critics have also been skeptical of Cuomo’s promise of an under-30-minute commute. It takes 16 minutes of train time by LIRR from Manhattan to Willets Point, but Cuomo did not take into account the time it would take waiting for trains or for passengers to get to and from the LIRR, which operates out of Pennsylvania Station. Currently, the LIRR also only operates to Mets-Willets Point during the Mets season and during off-peak hours, only runs once every 30 minutes. The actual AirTrain time is estimated to take six minutes with trains running every four minutes. Altogether, total commute time may end up being much more than the 30 minutes and may even take longer than using existing infrastructure like the express buses, according to Yonah Freemark of MIT. The AirTrain project is a part of Cuomo’s $8 billion push to update the deteriorating airport. A new Terminal B is scheduled to be completed in 2020 and the new Delta Terminal C in 2021. Although the AirTrain project is not finalized, the next step will be an environmental review that will begin later this year.
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Philadelphians: How should architects revamp 30th Street Station?
As part of Philadelphia’s massive downtown redevelopment efforts, new plans were released on Tuesday for an integrated civic space surrounding 30th Street Station—the third-busiest Amtrak station in the country—by a design team including FXFOWLE, !melk, and ARUP. Over the next three decades, the station’s traffic is expected to double, according to a marketing brochure for the overall project, bringing renewed interest to the surrounding business district dubbed University City. This 30th Street Station Plaza revamp is part of a wider, $6.5 billion 30th Street Station District Plan being led by Amtrak in partnership with Brandywine Realty Trust, Drexel University, PennDOT and SEPTA. Back in 2016, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), in association with WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, OLIN, and HR&A Advisors, completed the initial design of the District Plan. In parallel, SHoP and West 8 have been working with Drexel and Brandywine on the Schuylkill Yards project, a 14-acre redevelopment which makes way for a 627,000-square-foot office tower as well as the redesign of public commons and arterials that tie together the district’s core: Market Street, J.F.K. Boulevard, and Drexel Square. Station Plaza, with its team of FXFOWLE, !melk, and ARUP, is one of several other early-phase District Plan projects advancing simultaneously. While 30th Street Station is currently surrounded by a closed ring of parking lots and concrete infrastructure, FXFOWLE and partners are looking to install a public plaza encircling the building. Their plan incorporates raised planters, pedestrian byways, seating areas, a public pavilion, and a food truck area. Pavers in the shape of concentric dots correspond to below-ground train routes and mirror the circular fountains and skylights incorporated into surrounding green space. According to the plan, the taxi and automotive area—which utilizes about 50% of the space at present—will be relocated to a transportation zone at one side of the station, opening up the decongested space to foot circulation and flexible programming. In addition to increased pedestrian traffic, this move will also allow room for a new underground entrance at the West Portico; the entrance is an unbuilt feature of the station’s original 1934 plans. The plan, in its entirety, is designed to decongest the area around the station and reinvigorate a historic railway, connecting it to other developments in the comprehensive plan and the adjacent Schuylkill River. Amtrak and the project’s team have opened up the renderings (viewable here) for public comment via an online survey (accessible here). Garnering opinions from commuters, visitors and locals alike, the survey will be open until 8 pm on Wednesday, July 26, 2017.