Anaheim Reinvents the Train Station

 

The $188 million Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center (ARTIC), which broke ground earlier this month, is the most recent example of a fast-growing list of public facilities with big ambitions: the local transit hub that connects local and regional transit rail lines with bus service, taxies, bicycle locks and sometimes business services for travelers.  The anticipation of high-speed rail also adds some drama to the Anaheim transit center. 

Even if high-speed rail never gets built, however, the Anaheim complex promises to be one of the first of a new type of civic building: a flamboyant train station meant to be a high-profile civic ornament. With its dramatic, parabolic roofline, ARTIC has the confident, puff-out-your-chest architecture that in some cases wants to evoke the train stations of a century ago—even if it’s not yet clear what exactly these buildings should look like or what ultimate purpose they will serve. Unlike an airport, typically an anonymous-looking expanse of infrastructure on the edge of town, the rail terminal is a downtown building. It needs to be visible, swelling with civic pride, a beacon.  

Driving the development of massive projects like ARTIC are several factors, notably regional air quality goals, efforts to expand ridership on light rail systems and, in the case of Anaheim, perhaps the chance to give the city an “image” building that is not an artificial alp. The financing for ARTIC reflects policy goals on federal, state and local levels, with $143.1 million coming from Measure, the county’s half-cent sales tax devoted to transportation improvements, $29.2 million from the 2008 State Transportation Improvement Program, and another $11.8 million from federal sources. An additional of $3.6 million for environmental studies rounds out the budget. Located at the site of existing Amtrak and Metrolink stations, ARTIC is within close distance of Angel Stadium and the “Platinum Triangle” commercial district in downtown Anaheim.

Dozens of intermodal transit hubs are currently planned in California, although the exact number is difficult to identify, in part because it’s difficult to talk the range of projects and their urban-design ambitions are extremely wide, ranging. They include everything from suburban park-and-rides with train platforms, to large-scale city building exercises like the multi-block TransBay Terminal currently under construction in the SOMA district of San Francisco and the expansion of Sacramento’s historic train station situated between the city’s downtown area and the enormous Railyards project immediately to the north.  The largest projects integrate office buildings and other uses into the transit projects, increasing their importance as civic linchpins.  

Projects appear to be both more popular and more useful in Northern California, where BART and local rail systems seem like natural station generators. In the nine-county area comprising the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in the Bay Area, at least 51 transit hubs of various sizes are under review.  Other places are banking almost entirely on high speed rail – a still-uncertain proposition. 

The positive aspects of the HOK-designed ARTIC is that it is prominent, has a graceful shape and will likely be an ornament to a city that has long worked to make its downtown area seem at least as big and prosperous as Disneyland, the resort-within-a-city which has been Anaheim’s monstre sacre for half a century. The negative aspects, arguably, is that the building, with its soaring, glass-lined ceilings, is not readily identifiable as a train station or perhaps anything else. If we were flying over the completed building in a helicopter, and knew nothing about it, what would we think it was? My first guess is an opera house or community theater, because the half-shell profile of the building suggests a band shell. A second guess might be an Olympic-sized sports venue, although this building, with its half-round foot print, looks more like a basketball stadium cut down the middle. 

When we find out that ARTIC is a transit building, however, it’s clear that HOK has wisely chosen to evoke the soaring spaces of old-time rail stations—Grand Central and the late, great Penn Station, both in New York, are the textbook examples—with the height of the building symbolizing the great press of people down below, all hurrying past one another in search of their travel connections. The new-style transit hub is different from Grand Central, however, because the transit hub is a building sitting alone in the middle of a parking lot--an awkward condition that tends to isolate these structures from the business districts they serve. 

A much smaller, but equally intriguing, transit center is the proposed Hercules Multimodal Transit Center in Contra Costa County. If I’m reading it correctly, the Hercules station evokes a different building type, in this case the long-barrel vaulted train stations of Great Britain and France. (Think of the train station in Paris that became the Musee D’Orsay.) The “signifier” or symbolic piece in this design is a set of three broad-shouldered station buildings with curving roofs, which remind me of the industrial-looking buildings, with their long, “extruded” cross sections.  In suburban Hercules, however, the station buildings are narrow, rather than the long platforms found in big-city train stations. A prominent clock tower that serves as a place marker is another traditional device. 

In terms of making sense at first view, I find Hercules more easily identifiable as a transit station than ARTIC. At the same time, the rapid growth of transit stations suggests that there is something like an architectural version of “shake out” happening, whether competing images of what best symbolizes the intermodal transit station. Cities like Sacramento and Los Angeles, which have created new transit centers at the site of existing rail stations, have a certain advantage, although the 19th   Century or early 20th Century facades of those stations may not give an adequate idea, from the outside, of the 21st Century transit technology that someday may roll in behind their walls. It’s clear from the contrast between ARTIC and Hercules, in any event, that the image of the present-day transit center is still early in its evolution.