Architectural Review: The Old Greenwich Train StatION
by Laura Kaehler and John Motay
A wall grows in Old Greenwich:
Station project reveals a lack of vision
An Abridged Version of this Article was published in The Greenwich Time on November 26, 2018
The huge wall, on the south side of the Old Greenwich train station, has become more than just a retaining wall. It’s a symbol for the frustration and fatigue of construction weary residents who see it as a painful reminder of what seems like a decade-long maze of detours, noise and traffic jams in their village.
The wags came up with such monikers as “the Berlin Wall,” “the Great Wall of OG” and the like. Some evoked the dystopian HBO series “Game of Thrones,” saying it was built to protect the village from the White Walkers.
However, we really need is protection from the town and state officials who designed and managed “The Old Greenwich Rail Road Station Upgrades and Bridge Re-placement Project.”
All construction projects begin in a glow of hope. The end product promises “a better tomorrow.” Large, high-visibility, publicly funded projects, like this one, impact the lives of many people. And as they draw to a close, they raise a very important question: Were the delays, inconvenience, frustration and cost of the project worth it?
If the design helps to transform our world and turns it into a space we are drawn to rather than one we want to avoid, the project succeeded. If not, all we’re left with is an unattractive wall that offers protection from imaginary creatures from a television show.
The initial purpose of this project was to replace the Sound Beach and Tomac Avenue railroad bridges. Originally constructed in 1894, they were in need of replacement due to the extensive deterioration of their structural steel and concrete superstructures. However, over time, as more funding slowly became available, the scope of the project increased signifi-cantly by “bits and pieces.” Jay Young, Project Engineer, CTDOT described the process: “We started with “A” then added “B” then thought, if we’re doing “B,” then why not do “C”?”
Unfortunately, this “piece meal” approach never allowed for the development of a master plan-a “big picture” perspective that could serve as a blueprint for the final overall design. The advantage of a more holistic approach is the integration of immediate and future requirements, which makes for greater organization and efficiency.
However, proactive design requires an upfront investment. And over the years, the state has not made the type of capital investment needed to adequately fund one of the most complex, important, and congested rail lines in the world.
The timeline for this project was four years. Construction was scheduled to start during the fall of 2011 with an anticipated completion date of November 2015. However, a series of delays postponed the start date. Actual construction of the project did not begin until May 2015-almost 6 years after an initial Public Information Meeting was held to introduce the project. At the time of this writing, commuters and residents helplessly watch as construction sits idle while Metro-North completes safety work on another ‘block” of the Line.
Some think of design as a “problem-solving tool” and view the design’s features as solutions to these challenges. However, that is a fairly narrow view of what design can and should be.
I think good architectural design is a response to human needs and preferences. This broadened perspective fosters designs that try to enrich human experience and create a physical environment that nourishes, replenishes, and contributes to our sense of well-being. This approach adds a whole new layer of complexity to the design process by balancing functionality with the need for features that invite an emotional connection.
“Good design is not about efficiency-that doesn’t mean good design can’t be efficient, but the shortest path between two points is more likely to be a straight line than a good design.”
It appears the overall design process of this project tended to focus more on functional considerations, indicative of the “design as a problem-solving tool” school of thought. For example, since this is a station where there is a 3-year wait for a “commuter- parking permit,” the decision was made to increase par-king by approximately 100 spaces. Town and state officials “solved the parking problem” by reconfiguring the upper and lower parking lots, which required major “earth-moving,” and the construction of “an architecturally aesthetic” retaining wall.
Their quest for “as many parking spaces as quickly as possible” became the opera-ting mantra. But at what cost?
Good design is not about efficiency-that doesn’t mean good design can’t be efficient, but the shortest path between two points is more likely to be a straight line than a good design.
What if the project engineers had approached the parking problem and need for a retaining wall from a broader perspective, not as just a “solution to a problem,” but also, as a way to respond to what people need? Commuters and residents may have ended up with a wall that was attractive, well sited, and perhaps most importantly, contextually aligned.
What if instead of 100 new spaces they decided on 90, and used the newly gained area to design a double-tiered wall with room for a planting area between them? Or a serpentine shaped wall. Either would have decreased the scale of the wall and softened its appearance. Instead, they attempted to make the wall visually more appealing by staining it a shade of “desert rose,” which was not successful.
Reducing the number of new spaces may have prolonged the frustration of those on the parking wait list. But the gains would have outweighed the losses because we would have had more parking and an aesthetically pleasing wall. Lest we not forget, commuters, residents, clients, politicians, town and state officials may come and go, but architecture lives on and on.
Sometimes the magic of design is in the details. For example, as I stand at the new staircase that connects the upper and lower parking lots, I see that it is somewhat aligned with an existing stairway that leads to the train platform. However, as I turn to look away from the tracks, and face the town, the staircase is centered on the loading dock of the Post Office (not the most attractive view). By moving the staircase about 20 yards to the right, it would have been centered on a small street leading to into town. Some may dismiss this realignment as a meaningless detail, something that is not essential. But maybe some weary commuter, walking from the train, down this staircase, might appreciate this more inviting vista.
Or even better, perhaps there could have been two staircases to and from the parking lots, reducing the distance of the morning dash and the end of day retreat. Details like this do not make or break one’s world, but they can be the “soft touches” that enrich our lives in small, but important ways.
But the “design as a problem solving paradigm” may have blinded local and state officials from seeing the project’s full potential. What if, they had assembled a team of volunteer designers, (not just architects, but anyone who values aesthetics and enjoys thinking creatively) to come up with several designs for the parking lot re-configuration. My guess is the project would have had a better outcome.
Instead, we are left with a trail of missed opportunities.
As the project drags to completion, many residents are appreciative of the new station enhancements and amenities and relieved that the end of the project is in sight. Some continue to raise concerns, questioning why it took so long or why a pedestrian overpass allowing easy access from one side of the tracks to the other wasn’t included in the project.
There is one missing piece in all of this-the Old Greenwich Train Station, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1892 and moved to its current location in 1895, the station used a relatively simple late 19th century “stick-style” design.
Yet nothing about the upgrades, enhancements, or changes of this project seems connected to the station. Nor do they feel like they are contextually aligned with the village of Old Greenwich, recently described by writer Nancy Ruhling, as a town defined by its historic railroad station, mom-and-pop boutiques that line its block-long strip, and people who prefer to walk or bicycle to their destinations.