Monday, April 6, 2009

Berlin Wall: Palo Alto Edition

On Friday, a Palo Alto Weekly post began like this:

"The sleek, blue train zips on elevated tracks along Churchill Avenue, soaring high above passing cars, traffic lights, meandering bicyclists and the occasional pedestrian."

Of course, the subject of the article was California's controversial high speed rail project, which, if it happens, will follow the current Caltrain tracks with four street crossings in Palo Alto, including one at Churchill Avenue.

City officials say the most cost-effective method of implementation is an elevated track, but according to the article, tunneling (subway style) and something sinister called "open trenching" are also on the table.

The post goes on to explain architect James McFall's endeavor to create an accurate representation of the appearance and impact of such a track. Complete with a video that is now on YouTube, McFall's computer-generated rendering presents a bleak future, and not just because of the primitive graphics.

A 21-foot concrete wall runs adjacent to the Paly football field with a square tunnel at Churchill Avenue for street-level transportation. The structure is the width of four train tracks and projects significantly into the current location of the bike path, also parallel to the football field. Atop this gray "train aqueduct" stand telephone poles, almost doubling the height of the entire construction. The landscape resembles that of either Tatooine made entirely out of dirty styrofoam or a town in Alaska. The video ends with a voiceover. The voice (presumably that of the architect) says, "High speed rail: it's going to be here for generations. Let's do it right."

Mr. McFall, I may not know much, but I know a good job when I see it. I've seen high speed rail done right. And sir, that is not high speed rail done right.

Now, to be fair, the rendering is rudimentary, only meant to show the essential aspects of construction. A full Palo Alto backdrop for the desolate rendering would no doubt make the prospect more attractive. And a wall really is less expensive than a system of tunnels, something that matters in an economic environment such as ours. Also, if elevated tracks really are built, it is highly unlikely that they would stand on an unadorned gray concrete wall.

But the fact remains that historically, a concrete wall through the middle of a city has not been the answer to the city's problems.

Commenters on the post have already begun to make their objections, with 80 responses so far.
One responded, "This high speed rail project just sucks. I hate the idea of having an ugly looking thing like that literally 10 feet away from some people's homes and from Paly's football field." And just to reinforce the point: "Geez, it just makes me so upset."
Others were more rational with their responses: "this is really terrible...but it does not give a good alternative...what does underground look like?"

And my personal favorite, "Mr. Diridon, tear down that wall."

I am not opposed to all high speed rail. I am opposed to dumb high speed rail. I would welcome the opportunity to get from SF to LA in 2 hours just as much as the next person. But my desire for fast transportation is in no way worth a split community, a blight on the face of Palo Alto, and the effective realization of a Palo Alto version of the Berlin Wall.