I’m usually cautious when someone asserts that less is more.
Too often, it is used to tart up a minuscule restaurant entree or oversell next year’s budget.
In the case of the final design for the segment of the Prairie Line trail through the campus of the University of Washington Tacoma, though, it works. After initial designs for turning the abandoned but historic rail corridor into a trail and linear park were panned as fussy and too costly, university brass changed direction.
Make it respectful of the history of the rails and earlier warehouse uses. Make it work as a trail for bikes and walkers. Make its secondary function as stormwater collection and treatment in fact secondary and not dominant. Make it serve as both a passageway and a gathering place for students and neighbors. And make it complete through campus with the money available rather than phase it in one segment at a time.
That’s what Chancellor Debra Friedman and Vice Chancellor Harlan Patterson asked for a year ago in response to feedback from the public and the university community after earlier designs were unveiled. And that’s what the designers at Portland-based Place accomplished. (To download a presentation, go to http://bit.ly/prairieline.)
Gone are the pretty but a bit too precious design elements. Gone are the outcrops and seating areas that disrupted the gentle curve of the right of way and threatened to do physical damage to bicyclists who didn’t slow to a crawl.
Brick and concrete and steel are the dominant materials. The remnants of the rail line – the rails themselves, the signals and equipment doghouses, the crossing arms – remain and are well placed into the design. And the stormwater filtration ponds – required by terms of clean water grants and the UWT’s goal of sustainability – are more subtle and passive.
The trail incorporates spaces for sculpture and historic markers. Already commissioned is a Gerard Tsutakawa bronze commemorating the former Japanese Language School and the Japanese community that once occupied the area.
And best of all, by simplifying the design, a workable trail and gathering place can be completed with the $4 million budget available. Look for construction this spring and summer and a reopening in the fall.
Friedman inherited the project when she became chancellor 18 months ago. But she said last week she didn’t realize its importance until two things happened. The first was a summertime visit to New York City’s High Line, a much-celebrated linear park built on an abandoned stretch of elevated rail on the lower West Side of Manhattan.
The second was completion of a pedestrian overpass near the Tioga Building that let her see how the trail right of way could change the urban campus.
“I can’t imagine that it won’t be one of the most beautiful places to take a walk and bring visitors,” Friedman said.
Patterson said it will complete the UWT’s evolving relationship with the railroad tracks.
“It started with ‘too bad we have a railroad,’ to ‘Yay, the railroad isn’t coming through anymore,’ to ‘Oh, we can make it a bike trail,’ to this,” he said of the final design.
Perhaps as important is how the trail links the UWT to the community in both physical and emotional ways. Once the city completes its portions, the trail will foster the concept of the borderless campus. The way the university responded to complaints and concerns about the original design shows that it is not only willing to listen to the surrounding community but respond.
“The campus is here because of the collective action of the community,” Friedman said. “We’re very cognizant of being of the community.”
What the UWT has been able to accomplish puts even more pressure on the city of Tacoma to do well by its own segments of the Prairie Line – south of campus into the Brewery District and north as it crosses Pacific Avenue and heads toward tidewater. The latter segment is perhaps the most significant – both historically and for its urban design potential. This is where, after all, the transcontinental railroad reached its ultimate destination in 1873.
Tuesday, I’ll post an update on how all the moving parts are falling together and the challenges that remain.Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657