Let’s get the most painful observation out of the way early: All three of the semifinal designs for a clock tower at the coming-soon Amtrak station at Freighthouse Square leave a lot to be desired.
Like the citizen advisory committee that’s pushing for an iconic wayfinding element to be included in the new Amtrak station, scheduled to start construction next year and open in 2017, I agree that a clock tower is a fantastic idea.
I also recognize the limitations: The site demands a structure with a small base, so as not to block the sidewalk or crowd the street, and it will have to be done on the relative cheap, with federal money unavailable. The Federal Railway Administration, which is overseeing the project, has correctly concluded that a new clock tower is not essential, meaning money to pay for it will have to come from the state or somewhere else.
That’s all very reasonable.
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What’s not particularly reasonable are the three options we’ve been presented.
As The News Tribune’s John Gillie reported last week, the Washington state Department of Transportation is currently asking Tacoma residents to weigh in online on which of three proposed clock tower designs they like best. WSDOT, as Gillie explains, “will be partly guided in its final selection by comments and voting on that site as well as input from the citizens committee appointed by the city.”
In no particular order, our uninspiring choices (at this point) are:
• The “Trestle,” which, according the WSDOT blog, “references the timber train trestles of the past with updated design features.” Of the three, this one’s the best. It manages to pay homage to our history, which is something.
• The “Ghost,” meanwhile, must be well within the budget restraints. Again, according to the WSDOT blog, it uses mesh in a design that “suggests the shape rather than a complete tower.” By mesh, they might mean chicken wire; it’s tough to tell. In reality, it looks like a potentially decent idea that someone tried to erase from the page. (Which, come to think of it, wouldn’t be such a bad idea.)
• Finally, there’s the “Traveler,” described by WSDOT as “a modern take on a traveler in motion.” I like Gillie’s description better: a structure resembling “an upright oversized tuning fork with its handle in the ground.” Perhaps the best thing we can say about this option is it’s actually not an ode to Robert “The Traveller” Hill, the perennial political candidate and convicted felon.
What’s probably become clear at this point is I think we can do better, even given the restrictions. And at least one person agrees with me. As of this writing, there were three comments on the WSDOT blog post announcing the poll, with the top one reading: “Perhaps you should start over.”
That’s a diplomatic way of putting it.
Just how do we start over? Tacoma City Councilman David Boe has an idea. He’s an architect by trade (a fact he prefaces many comments with) and, it seems, he too was left desiring more from the clock tower designs — or at least more choices.
“It’s always tough for an architect to comment on another design element,” Boe says.
That’s his way of being more polite than me. Probably a good call.
“I think there could be opportunities to look at some different ideas here,” he continues. “I got to thinking, ‘You know, this is an ideal candidate for having an open design competition.’ ”
While I can’t claim Boe’s idea as my own, I certainly can endorse it. According to the councilman, the scope of such a competition could be big or small, limited to local submissions from college kids or one that casts an international net for cool ideas.
The hurdle, he admits, is the potential cost. “They’re not inexpensive to run,” Boe says of design competitions. It would probably be up to the city to manage one, if we can make it happen. And it’s probably unrealistic to expect the state to pick up the tab when we’ve reached this point and there are three options already on the table.
Still, for my money, the investment would be well worth it. Once a clock tower is built at the new Amtrak station, it’s something we’re all going to be looking at for a long time.
We might as well get it right.