Seattle's Irises: are they necessary?
As I post this, the Seattle Monorail Project deal with Cascadia Monorail is being scrutinized like no other project in the city's history. All the details within the thousands of pages in the contract are being poured over by opponents and supporters. One of the more unique aspects of the project is the so-called iris structure for downtown and other areas of the 14-mile alignment. What is an iris? Citizens and business owners didn't want monorail stations or track covering Seattle's downtown streets. The north-south views along Fifth Avenue and Second Avenue are enjoyed by people visiting and working in the area. In response, a dual-height track structure was conceived as a way for stations to have ramps protruding from only one side of the guideways. Track could run along the side of the street and stations could also be placed on property to the side of the street, thereby keeping the north-south views clear. Art renderings showed how the so-called irises could look downtown with stylish curved supports. At the time, I had my concerns about their aesthetics. Now the contract details are available to the public and blueprint-like diagrams have been presented of what the track and guideway will look like. Unfortunately my concern over irises has changed to dismay. I am a huge supporter of the monorail project. I know that Seattle monorail supporters, SMP staff, board members and subcontractors have done an amazing amount of work to get us to this point. The dismay comes from the reality of the iris. What I didn't find in all of the contract illustrations online was a side view of how it would look. So I dusted off my Photoshop/artist skills.
The illustration above is what I consider to be a fair representation of what the iris track, supports and double-decker emergency walkway will look like. On the left is a diagram a support taken right from the Cascadia Monorail contract. On the right is my illustration giving a view from the side of the track. This is how you would see it looking to the west, with the northbound guideway higher than the southbound track. Between the two beams would be a cage-like structure supporting two emergency walkways. While many of us think emergency walkways are unnecessary, it looks like we're stuck with them in the USA. Never mind the fact that the beam is almost the same width at the walkway and there are doors at each end of the train! My side-view drawing probably omits some elements, because I've tried to be conservative with the illustration. I haven't included the cross or X-support structures that would probably be needed for for the walkway. They are relatively small on the Las Vegas Monorail and hidden between tracks, but my guess is they would be much bigger on a double-decker "bridge" between iris supports, and certainly far more visible. I've also put only twelve vertical supports for the walkway between the columns. Judging from other Cascadia illustrations, there could be as many as fifteen vertical supports on a 120-foot long track segment. Seattle Monorail Project officials have stated that the track will be so far above pedestrians that they won't be seen as an eyesore. Remember, SMP was asked to save the north-south views. Also, I have been informed that the design is not final, and that the actual design may be refined if the contract is approved by SMP's board and the City Council. Incentives to builders for less obtrusive structures would include lower costs in materials. There still even might be a chance that the monorail authority can convince fire officials that walkways are unecessary, but I'm guessing that's a long shot.
I went a step further with my attempts to render irises with walkways. With apologies to the artist whose rendering is modified here, I've added the lines of the double-deck emergency walkway to this Second Avenue view. To compare, the original version is at the top of this page. While I certainly don't want to give the anti-monorail zealots any fuel, I feel strongly enough to voice my concern about this type of structure. Perhaps calling this an "elevated Berlin Wall" is extreme, but in my opinion this kind of track is not a good idea. No other monorail in the world has irises like this, and I don't believe Seattle needs them. Couldn't a slimmed down track and support structure still be built to the side of the street? Can't stations be designed to be beautiful and enhance the cityscape like they do in Kuala Lumpur and elsewhere?
If the street is too "sacred" for short stations staggered over them, why would miles of this large wall-like structure be ok? We have always touted monorail track as the most aesthetic of elevated rail systems. If the irises are built in Seattle, as now illustrated in the contract, it could doom our prospects for more monorails being built in North America. Comparisons between monorail and Chicago's El would suddenly have relevance. My hope is that the folks at the Seattle Monorail Project can figure a way to deal with this challenge, as they have with thousands of other challenging details. Seattle still can have one of the world's most spectacular monorails. We've come so far, let's get it right.
Cascadia releases new rendering of irises (July 14, 2005). In response to critical comments, Cascadia Monorail released new renderings of how the iris structure may look on 2nd Avenue (illustration below). Support structures have been reduced in size and walkways sport a new design. Landscaping has also been added. Bottom line is that the side view will be almost the same to renderings shown in the above editorial. It still looks far too massive to this observer. Seattle, you be the judge!