'Iris' blooms as monorail columns

Seattle's monorail stations of the future may rise three stories high, featuring unique columns called "irises" that allow easy access from a building.

As many as 10 of the 19 Green Line stations are candidates for the new design, which will be featured in environmental-impact studies that are to begin next month.

Though the early sketches look more like a concrete coat rack than a flower in bloom, the iris concept has enchanted monorail planners because it simplifies the challenge of designing a station. With irises, the elevated tracks can sidle next to off-street buildings, where platforms can easily reach the northbound and southbound trains at different heights.

After leaving the station, the outside track dips and the inside track rises so they become level — that way, views of Elliott Bay or the Olympic Mountains are blocked only once, not twice, by tracks stacked on top of each other.

The irises replace an earlier concept called "steel tulips," which would have positioned trains directly over each other, blocking views in two places.

"They're a huge improvement over the tulip," said Dick Falkenbury, founder of the city monorail movement.

The irises are also compatible with emergency-escape catwalks, which monorail advocates omitted from earlier artist renderings. Deputy Fire Marshal John Nelsen said he is in negotiations with monorail officials and expects walkways to be a requirement.

Project director Joel Horn said irises would give neighborhoods an alternative to traditional side-by-side tracks, which would require larger stations. Irises also would lessen the risk of construction delays, because they could be built before the stations were completed. If new buildings are erected later along the route, boarding platforms could be attached afterward.

John Pastier, a Seattle design consultant, said he's glad monorail designer Alan Hart is thinking creatively. But Pastier says the monorail project created its own conundrum by choosing to put stations and beams on downtown sidewalks instead of in the street. Seattle ought to emulate Chicago, where elevated trains run above the streets and provide visual separation from buildings, he said. Pastier also criticized the floral theme.

"When I hear the names I think I'm being sold something, kind of in a patronizing way, like it's air freshener or something. These are not delicate flowers; these are concrete structures. It's not a champagne glass, it's not a tulip, it's not an iris. It's something else."

There are still many aesthetic and engineering questions.

Can the bases of the columns be built at the relatively narrow 36-inch width that boosters promoted during last fall's monorail campaign? Is a metal support rod needed between the diverging branches? Will the irises require a bulky, square base instead of sleeker round columns?

In downtown, where some stations are only five blocks apart, passengers might be in for a nauseating ride if the tracks rise and fall between stops. It is conceivable a downtown station might be dropped to smooth out the ride or to shorten trip times, Horn said.

Hart said his drawing was meant as a preliminary diagram and will evolve as engineers discover what shapes will work.

"There's room for lots more poetry here," he said.

He defended the term "iris" to describe the columns.

"If we just called them hunks of concrete, hunks of steel, we'll get just that. What we're trying to do is catch the imagination of the designers and public, so the expectations go beyond just being a hunk of concrete and piece of steel. We want public expectations to be high for these. Otherwise, these will just end up being pieces of brutalist architecture."

In other news, the Seattle City Council yesterday nominated architect Rick Sundberg for an open seat on the Seattle Popular Monorail Authority board, subject to confirmation by the monorail board next week. Sundberg's design projects have included the Seattle University Law School and the expansion of the Frye Art Museum.

The City Council also confirmed the monorail board's nomination of Cindi Laws. Laws, a resident of the Alki neighborhood, is a former congressional aide and restaurant manager who worked on a monorail-planning board and the pro-monorail campaign last year.

Assuming Sundberg is confirmed, one more of the nine seats remains to be filled.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

Tall monorail stations

Vertical "iris" stations, with the northbound boarding platforms about 37 feet high, are being suggested for these sites: Crown Hill at Northwest 85th Street; Ballard at Northwest Market Street; Interbay at West Dravus Street; Fifth Avenue at Broad, Bell and Stewart streets; Second Avenue at Pike Street, Madison Street and Yesler Way; and the West Seattle Junction.