Greater Greater Washington

Public Spaces


Lipstick can help the Tysons pig, a little

Fairfax County is considering dressing up the Silver Line's mammoth concrete pylons with murals. The idea could help animate the otherwise bleak, gray structures.


Mock up of a possible Silver Line mural. Image from the Tysons Partnership.

Ideally the Silver Line would've been underground through Tysons Corner. But federal rules that have since changed prevented that, forcing the Metro line above ground, onto a huge elevated structure.

That wasn't the end of the world, but it did condemn Tysons to some unnecessary ugly.

So why not dress it up? Murals can unquestionably make big gray structures more colorful and interesting. They're easy to implement, don't cost very much, and help a little. There's not much down side.

Murals are, however, still just lipstick on a pig. They don't solve the underlying deadening effect of bare walls. For example the Discovery building mural on Colesville Road in Silver Spring is surely better than bare concrete, but shops & cafes would've been better still.

And Tysons' murals won't be as effective as the one in Silver Spring. Colesville Road is basically urban, basically walkable. The block with the mural is the weakest link on an otherwise lively urban street.

But in Tysons, the Silver Line runs down the middle of Leesburg Pike, one of the most pedestrian-hostile highways in the region. If murals are added to the Silver Line, they may become the best and most interesting part of the streetscape, as opposed to the worst.

So by all means, Fairfax County should absolutely do this. Murals are a great tool to cover any large blank structure. But what Tysons really needs is walkable streets with lively sidewalks.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a professional transportation planner for the Arlington County Department of Transportation. He has a degree in Urban Planning from the University of Colorado, and lives a car-free lifestyle in Northwest Washington. His posts are his own opinions and do not represent the views of his employer in any way. He runs the blog BeyondDC and also contributes to the Washington Post Local Opinions blog. 

Comments

Add a comment »

This article is spot on. It's just lipstick but better than nothing. However I will say there is one downside not mentioned and that is that if they aren't maintained they can look even worse because they give the appearance that the area isn't cared for.

by Chris on Apr 11, 2014 12:36 pm • linkreport

Wow, I did not know that about the feds killing the underground option. Bummer. Given that it's now elevated, I do, however, like the gradated concept: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/capital-business/wp/2014/04/09/fairfax-county-considers-turning-the-silver-line-into-a-massive-public-art-project/ (2nd photo in the article)

by 7r3y3r on Apr 11, 2014 12:43 pm • linkreport

I find rte 7 there an unredeemable (at least under current VDOT policies) traffic sewer, which is why I never found the pro-tunnel arguments compelling (aside from which I LIKE a view from the train)

by AWallkerInTheCity on Apr 11, 2014 12:52 pm • linkreport

What are the thoughts on neon lights under the tracks? Like a lot of asian cities that have elevated highways/transit lines. Flooding the concrete with pastel hues can be interesting.

by Richard on Apr 11, 2014 12:58 pm • linkreport

Great example of this from Quebec City:
http://bit.ly/1gizA5x

The example above has actually become a bit of a tourist attraction. It helps, though, that it's in an area that is already bustling with pedestrian activity, not far from the heart of the city.

by TransitSnob on Apr 11, 2014 1:17 pm • linkreport

Oh God. That title. Navid RAGETHROWDOWN in 5...4...3...2...1...

by Dizzy on Apr 11, 2014 1:17 pm • linkreport

We need Robert Wyland to turn the running structure into a continuous stream of whales.

by Bossi on Apr 11, 2014 1:24 pm • linkreport

Just about anything would be better than raw concrete though I really don't love the mock up example. Judicious use of paint and lighting seems like a good way to go.

by BTA on Apr 11, 2014 1:28 pm • linkreport

If, according to that DCist post, locals were willing to chip in all of that extra money to put the SL underground in Tysons, why can't/won't any of them chip in some of the money necessary to beautify it with lighting? See the Philips links posted here yesterday, including: http://www.lighting.philips.com/main/projects/povazska.wpd and http://www.lighting.philips.com/main/projects/toffee-factory.wpd and famous dragon bridge: http://www.lighting.philips.com/main/projects/dragon-bridge.wpd

by JDC on Apr 11, 2014 1:33 pm • linkreport

It wasn't federal regulation that put the line above ground. It was idiots Tim Kaine and Frank Wolf who were lobbied by construction companies to build it above ground as it would produce a quicker and wider profit margin. Another example of government official serving special interests over the people. They had a chance to redeem Tyson's by putting the metro underground but they didn't. Tyson's Corner is a dump and will always be.

by Sam on Apr 11, 2014 1:34 pm • linkreport

The Feds have standards on total cost effectiveness for New Starts funding.Its almost certainly a good thing that they do. Its expressed in total cost per rider rather than a full benefit cost (changing from the simpler formuala to a full cost benefit requirement would be a huge change) Dan thinks (or thought in 2006?) that ridership would be higher with an underground line - I guess because of better placemaking. As I said above, the arterials are hopeless traffic sewers anyway, because of VDOT policies, so I think the belief that an underground line would have meant a big difference to place making is questionable.

by AWallkerInTheCity on Apr 11, 2014 1:38 pm • linkreport

Sam

IMO its the ARTERIALS - rtes 7 and 123 - that are dumps. The quadrant NE of the arterials, has more office space than lots of big city downtowns do, IIUC. That quadrant should be redeemable into an urban space on its own, even if the arterials remain dumps. Ditto for the SE quadrant.

by AWallkerInTheCity on Apr 11, 2014 1:40 pm • linkreport

It wasn't federal regulation that put the line above ground. It was idiots Tim Kaine and Frank Wolf who were lobbied by construction companies to build it above ground as it would produce a quicker and wider profit margin.

The primary organization advocating for the tunnel was TysonsTunnel.org. This was a front for the developer WestGroup (and the largest landowner in Tysons) which had a lot to gain from a tunnel.

TysonsTunnel.org, heavily bankrolled by the West Group, a major Tysons landowner, petitioned the FTA on March 26, asking the agency to reopen its environmental review of the project and require competitive bidding

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/31/AR2007053101596.html

I don't know the details of what you're referring to with Kaine and Wolf but I have a hard time believing that construction companies would be lobbying against the option that was more expensive to construct. Of course, the below ground contractor was different from the elevated contractor so I guess both sides had something to lobby about.

by Falls Church on Apr 11, 2014 2:00 pm • linkreport

And Tysons' murals won't be as effective as the one in Silver Spring.... If murals are added to the Silver Line, they may become the best and most interesting part of the streetscape

The two phrases above seem to contradict each other. Will the murals be ineffective or will they be the best and most interesting part of the streetscape? I'm thinking the murals in this case will be about as effective as murals can be.

As for Tysons looking like a pig, it has very little to do with elevated tracks. The El in Chicago is elevated and I think it gives Chicago's streets a cool, gritty feel, like something out of a Scorcese movie. Tysons could use some grit.

by Falls Church on Apr 11, 2014 2:04 pm • linkreport

It wasn't federal regulation that put the line above ground.

Yes, it was (at least as much as you can point to one factor).

Phase 1 of the Silver Line is using Federal New Starts funding. The funding allows the feds to pay for up to 50% of a project's costs if it meets certain requirements. One of the requirements then was cost-effectiveness. Phase 1 barely qualified at the time, and doing anything to increase costs (such as tunneling) would've pushed it over the barrier and it wouldn't have qualified for any federal funding at all.

Elevated rail is fine. I would've liked to have seen some more tasteful designs for the infrastructure itself, but the fact that it's elevated isn't the problem. The rest of Tysons is the problem - the quasi-highways, the pedestrian unfriendly spaces, the lack of any block structure. This will all change over time, but putting the train underground wasn't going to make or break anything.

We also can't afford to ignore cost-effectiveness. All else being equal, elevated rail will cost about 1/2 of underground rail. And when we're talking about extending high-quality transit (particularly into suburban places like Tysons), that difference in cost can and will make the difference in whether a project is worth it or not. Likewise, these environments have so much space (wide roads and rights of way) that you can make elevated rail work. It's not Chicago - nobody is using steel viaducts above narrow streets.

by Alex B. on Apr 11, 2014 2:14 pm • linkreport

I would rather jump off one of those elevated platforms into the 34 lanes of traffic below on Routes 7 or 123 than spend a waking minute in Tysons.

by Trollie McTrollerson on Apr 11, 2014 2:16 pm • linkreport

@Falls Church: agreed on countering Tysons' current sterility. But on the other hand, Chicago is built-up right next to the El (including apartments and such).

Elevated median transit, like any median transit, is inherently disconnected from the community its meant to serve. Unless we can retrofit the Silver Line to be a little more like the S-Bahn in Berlin (e.g., shops and cafes under the train) - and narrow those monstrous roads around it - it will forever be a weird suburban strip mall with Metro access.

by LowHeadways on Apr 11, 2014 2:22 pm • linkreport

Can we not figure out a way to actively *use* the space under the tracks, as is done in Europe and even in New York?

There are a number of examples around the world of rail lines (or elevated roads) with retail underneath, including a long stretch of a U-Bahn line in Berlin, and under the Queensborough Bridge in Manhattan (a sizable supermarket). It serves to hide the infrastructure, even if it's above ground.

Agencies are extremely risk-averse in the US to do anything creative like this with space adjacent to their infrastructure, but the result is that it creates these craters in the middle of otherwise viable neighborhoods.

by Joey on Apr 11, 2014 2:25 pm • linkreport

Why not sell the space to advertisers for the stores . . . use it to keep fares a bit lower.

by ah on Apr 11, 2014 2:31 pm • linkreport

I’d agree with the first commenter, Chris, that painted pylons would start to look old/dilapidated within a short time.

To use the space as advertising might help ensure the space is constantly changing and maintained.

Or, perhaps VDOT’s Wildflower Program could be brought in, and some type of climbing vine be used to grow around the pylons. (No green thumb here; maybe that would be more costly than painting a mural? Or would a climbing plant damage the structure?).
http://www.virginiadot.org/programs/prog-wflowr-default.asp

Regardless of what’s on the pylons, or if there’s nothing on them at all, I like the idea of a lighting scheme.

by Rich 'n Alexandria on Apr 11, 2014 2:52 pm • linkreport

It wasn't federal regulation that put the line above ground.
Yes, it was (at least as much as you can point to one factor).

Phase 1 of the Silver Line is using Federal New Starts funding. The funding allows the feds to pay for up to 50% of a project's costs if it meets certain requirements. One of the requirements then was cost-effectiveness. Phase 1 barely qualified at the time, and doing anything to increase costs (such as tunneling) would've pushed it over the barrier and it wouldn't have qualified for any federal funding at all.

A determined community can do what they like to use the federal system. Had the funding actually been there, nothing would have stopped it from building a tunnel through Tysons as the developers/interests wanted. Then apply for federal funding. The engineering assessment would find the most cost effective route to be to use the tunnel that was just built.

The feds care about the total cost of the project, because if the rest of the funding drops out, their money is wasted. Unless they are sure the funding is there, they wont commit their money unless the risks are minimized.

by Richard on Apr 11, 2014 2:53 pm • linkreport

The neon I was talking about, this time in Shanghai

http://www.travel-images.com/photo-china66.html

by Richard on Apr 11, 2014 2:55 pm • linkreport

>The two phrases above seem to contradict each other.

FallsChurch, they don't contradict because Silver Spring has a lot of other things going for it, so the same factor that's the best thing Leesburg Pike is further down the list of nice things about Silver Spring. It's like if you have 2 sports teams with exactly identical records, but one of them wins its division and the other finishes last.

by BeyondDC on Apr 11, 2014 2:55 pm • linkreport

just open the damn Silver Line already...jeez

by Jack Jackson on Apr 11, 2014 3:22 pm • linkreport

Please, no.

One mans "mural" is another mans grafitti, and murals (nor grafitti) belong on public property. You are never going to decide on a design that isn't objectionable to most, and ever if you were to somehow miraculously do that, we all know it wouldn't be maintained and it would look 10 times worse than regular concrete pylons look in 10 years.

Lighting them? Fine, but keep the "art" off public property.

by Gallows Rd on Apr 11, 2014 3:45 pm • linkreport

I like the ivy/vine idea (assuming there aren't engineering/maintenance issues with that). While it takes a long time to grow, it helps a place look more established, like it has history. Plus, the ivy is incredibly beautiful in the fall. Boston has lots of ivy and I think it looks great.

Re: maintenance, some quick research indicates that ivy protects walls:

http://www.ox.ac.uk/media/news_stories/2010/100514.html

by Falls Church on Apr 11, 2014 3:54 pm • linkreport

You are never going to decide on a design that isn't objectionable to most, and ever if you were to somehow miraculously do that, we all know it wouldn't be maintained

Well, that's never been a problem for Silver Spring's famous metro mural. Are there people who would actually object to this:

http://www.silverspringdowntown.com/_files/images/20060227-170218-penguins.jpg

by Falls Church on Apr 11, 2014 3:57 pm • linkreport

and some type of climbing vine be used to grow around the pylons.

I like the idea of 'greening' the infrastructure.

I'm not sold on the blank wall/mural comparison to this kind of elevated infrastructure.

A blank wall is at least a wall - it frames a space. It provides a different kind of presence than these pylons do. These pylons are supporting things. They may be dull concrete, but they're not 'blank' in the same way that a wall is. It's not a blank canvas - the very nature of the structure already emphasizes the pylons.

The illustrative pictures, in my mind, would just highlight the pylons even more. They'd draw more attention to the infrastructure. It's not a neutral canvas the way a wall is. It's one thing to paint or light a structure like this as a means of highlighting it or adding emphasis, but I'm struggling to see how it would mesh with the idea that the existing concrete is 'ugly.' I don't think the painting helps.

by Alex B. on Apr 11, 2014 5:05 pm • linkreport

Here's an example of the green option, from Vancouver's Canada Line:

http://goo.gl/maps/rZrW8

They've put a fence-like trellis in place to grow vines and greenery around the base of concrete columns; they've also made use of lots of other nice landscape elements along the underside of the elevated structure. For the largely suburban environment, I think it actually produces a pretty nice place to walk (or so it seems from Google Maps).

by Alex B. on Apr 11, 2014 5:14 pm • linkreport

put mosaics on it

by asffa on Apr 11, 2014 6:02 pm • linkreport

Like anything, who they pick and what they do will make all the difference. The Washington Post article makes it sound like they're just spitballing.

Any art would be complementary to lighting. In fact it might be best to have them work together.

The murals will be nice, but the above example feels a little uncanny because the murals hide the sense that the columns are load-bearing. With the continuous box beam above, it feels a little surreal to me, like the bridges are just floating...

by Neil Flanagan on Apr 11, 2014 6:53 pm • linkreport

Is Dan trolling me?

Nah joking, honestly the title is spot on. The issue at hand isn't the aesthetics, which are easy to remedy, its the commuter gods that have put highway onramps with acceleration lanes on a 35 mph road. Its the 8 lane wide asphalt sea that is much more offensive than the elevated rail.

I am fine with elevated rail, I am not fine with anyone who thinks that Route 7 needs 8 lanes. The remediations are a good step, its fine, it is an open canvas, but the market has spoken in terms of the development proposals, and they say Route 123 and Route 7 are hell scapes with not a single interest party saying they want retail on that corridor. All projects to date have turned their proverbial back on those corridors because no one wants to have dinner looking over a stroad.

To those who "would never blah blah in tysons" I doubt you have ever been to most parts of Tysons. You likely know the mall, you likely have heard about Route 7 and 123. You've likely never heard of Westpark Drive, or Old Courthouse, or Greensboro Drive which are actually fairly walkable if not for some areas of super blocks. Biases and prejudice towards Tysons is nothing new, clowns to the left of me and definitely jokers to the right.

by Navid Roshan on Apr 11, 2014 10:23 pm • linkreport

"Put a bird on it."
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0XM3vWJmpfo

by Robby on Apr 11, 2014 11:15 pm • linkreport

So many reasonable and wise people worked so hard to put these trains and structures underground. Now with the cost overruns and at least one year delay we are stuck with these massive structures which will never go away and begin making noise as soon as the system ever gets going. Now we are faced with decorating and redecorating and maintaining these giant features forever. The economic trajectory is very clear now. In the next 100 years Tysons could have been a trillion dollars better than it ever will be with this system overhead. The “choice” was a complete failure of leadership and wisdom; Virginia Inc at its worst.

by AndrewJ on Apr 12, 2014 7:35 am • linkreport

I'm clearly in the minority in actually liking that the silver line is above ground, and I think it has a sleek look sort of like one from futuristic movies. As long as it doesn't start looking dilapidated, I think the line will continue to look nice.

And I agree wholeheartedly with Navid--I don't understand the massive hate for Tyson's. It's actually a nice set of neighborhoods and isn't as unwalkable as many of the people spouting from DC think it is. I often walk from West*Park (side note: I find it to be a dumb name) to Tyson's Corner Center and it's always a pleasant walk. And crossing Route 123 isn't the worst thing in the world...I attribute most of the "problems" to the endless construction that closes sidewalks. But a lot of places in DC have the same problem where it's hard to walk on a sidewalk because of construction. It's just that Tyson's has been under construction for an extended period of time....

by Restonite on Apr 12, 2014 8:20 am • linkreport

A lot of contempt is simply unfamiliarity. That's seen in many comments about areas outside of a few places in DC, Silver Spring and a few areas in Arlington.

by selxic on Apr 12, 2014 8:33 am • linkreport

Places like Tysons and Mosaic will do fine. There's an entire other demographic, composed largely of upper-income immigrants with children who pay little heed to the views of the urban cognoscenti, who will patronize and move to areas with new housing and better schools than anything you'd find in DC, Silver Spring or Clarendon.

by Queens Logic on Apr 12, 2014 10:08 am • linkreport

The trellises look ok in the Vancouver example. But, why not grow the vines directly on the concrete? That way you get the concrete-protecting benefit of the vines and they can cover the entire pylon at a lower cost than erecting trellises. To some extent, the trellises add unnecessary metal and clutter.

The look I'd like to go for is like this concrete retaining wall:

http://media.oregonlive.com/kympokorny/photo/ivy2jpgjpg-8dc475f48b2aec05.jpg

by Falls Church on Apr 12, 2014 11:52 am • linkreport

The whole point of the trellis is to help the vines grow and provide some structure.

You could plant some vines and hope for the best, but part of the reason for putting in a trellis is to help make sure the vines succeed in growing.

by Alex B. on Apr 12, 2014 1:58 pm • linkreport

The new I-35W bridge in Minneapolis (which replaced the one that collapsed a few years ago) features a LED lighting system. Of course one carries a freeway and one carries rail, but the viaducts carrying the Silver Line through Tysons sort of resemble a lot of ramps/bridges built for roads these days, like the I-35W bridge. I think something like what was implemented there would make a great addition to the Metro structure going through Tysons.

Of course the LEDs are customizable, but for example here's the bridge at night with a rainbow lighting theme (I think to commemorate local LGBT pride events):

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b8/St._Anthony_Falls_%2835W%29_Bridge_night_view.jpg

by michael on Apr 12, 2014 10:49 pm • linkreport

Keep your bourgeois art off my infrastructure. Some nice design touches in the structure were value-engineered out in the cost-cutting to get it financed. Let it stay bare gray concrete to remind us how close it came to not getting built, especially in the face of the utopian tunnel nonsense.

by TysonsWanderer on Apr 13, 2014 12:43 pm • linkreport

TysonsWanderer hahah that'd all stay grey for like one night.
Maybe Borf will come out of forced retirement

by asffa on Apr 13, 2014 6:16 pm • linkreport

My favorite idea for aesthetic enhancement is the plants, like those that cover soundproofing walls along highways, and my second choice would be to turn the graffiti artists loose on the pylons. That would yield colorful, lively, and ever changing design, for free.

by likedrypavement on Apr 14, 2014 10:35 am • linkreport

But, why not grow the vines directly on the concrete? That way you get the concrete-protecting benefit of the vines and they can cover the entire pylon at a lower cost than erecting trellises.

One other thing on this: don't assume that the vines would protect the concrete. Vines can damage structures. Putting up a trellis of some sort helps the vines grow faster while limiting the potential damage to the structure.

I don't think these big concrete piers are in any danger from some ivy growing on them, but I could see WMATA being reluctant to plant stuff that would make it harder to do basic maintenance or add new conduit at a later date (for example). Instead, add a trellis and you solve that problem while still adding greenery and landscape elements.

by Alex B. on Apr 14, 2014 10:50 am • linkreport

put mosaics of birds on it

by asffa on Apr 14, 2014 2:36 pm • linkreport

And/or hire ElMac to spray paint some murals. http://elmac.net/gallery/spraypaint/page/12/

by asffa on Apr 20, 2014 11:37 am • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.

or

Support Us