Descend a set of trash-littered stairs into any balmy New York subway station, and you'll have more to stare at than the rats scampering across the tracks. As a part of the Metropolitan Transit Authority's Art in Transit program, New York City commissioned hundreds of artists to add flair--often in mosaic tile form--to dreary subway stops. When Capital City Development Corporation recently decided to replace downtown Boise's old transit shelters with newer designs, they took a cue from the MTA and also opted to incorporate unique art into each structure.
"CCDC has been a strong supporter of the arts for a lot of years," said Karen Bubb, public art manager for the City's Department of Arts and History. "They got direction from council members David Eberle and Alan Shealy, who requested specifically to look at integrating art into the shelters."
But what initially induced CCDC to propose changing these shelters--which involved changing the Elements of Continuity, a guide that sets specific standards for public improvements downtown--had nothing to do with adding a little artistic lipstick to the face of downtown Boise.
"Actually, what kind of prompted this--why we did it now, rather than earlier or later--was when North Face was considering bringing their store to downtown Boise. They said they really didn't think they could come to that space where they are now located unless something was done about the transit shelter," said Pam Sheldon, planning director at CCDC. "There were some other situations where there were prospects looking at downtown as a possible location and they had issues about the transit shelters. So, we thought we'd better get going and see if we can come up with a better solution."
To meet North Face's demands for better storefront visibility, CCDC had a temporary, clear shelter put in on the corner of Idaho and Eighth Streets. Before they could develop a more comprehensive new shelter design for all of downtown, CCDC had to consult with all of the folks who would be affected by the change: business owners, Valley Regional Transit, the Ada Country Highway District and the Downtown Business Association. From increasing visibility for downtown merchants to increasing passenger visibility for transit vehicle drivers, each entity had their own reasons for green-lighting the update.
"From our perspective, the shelters that were down there were getting a little bit old, in terms of lots of nooks and crannies and corners, which makes them very hard to keep clean and sharp-looking," said Mary Barker, planning manager at VRT. "We were looking for a simpler design that was easier to maintain from our perspective."
After checking out some sleek examples from other cities, CCDC finally approved a three-sided transit shelter with "modern lines, an angled roof, glass walls, bench and a protective horizontal bar on the outside of the rear wall." CCDC shopped around and decided to contract with local builder Pacific Steel in order to reduce shipping costs. The initial shelter will set them back approximately $15,000, not counting installation, and will replace the temporary shelter now in front of North Face.
"The first one will arrive with nothing added, from an art element standpoint. It will arrive and be put in place and we'll have about six to nine months to test it," explained Sheldon. "Meanwhile, while it's there, we'll see if there are any particular things we'd like to tweak in how it's built or how it works before we start adding artistic elements. Then we'll do the call to artists and get that part done so it will come together at the end."
Though it will still be close to a year before the city sends out a call to artists for this project, they've already established some necessary artistic parameters. In addition to being durable and vandalism resistant, the art pieces adorning the transit shelters will also need to thematically invoke the uniqueness of downtown Boise.
"In doing permanent works, we want to do things that seem place specific, that add interest and spontaneity to the pedestrian environment, that it's integrated with whatever the structure is," said Bubb.
But transit shelters aren't the only structures being spruced up. CCDC has also heeded the cry of the cycling community and is working with Downtown Boise Association to replace old bike racks. Currently, most of the bike racks downtown are the squiggly, ribbon-shaped sort. While they look nice, bikers have expressed concerns over their utility--they don't support bikes very well and it's difficult to run a lock through both wheels and the frame.
"We consulted with the bike community, all the different organizations that work on bicycle issues," said Sheldon. "They did not feel that the wave rack was a very good rack. It's a good quality rack, it's durable, it looks pretty, but for the functional parts of what a rack needs to do, there were other choices that were better."
So, CCDC and DBA decided on the more simple, upside-down U-shaped racks. Some basic racks have already been installed in a few spots--clustering along Eighth Street and Idaho Street--and there are also plans to incorporate artistic flourishes into the new rack designs. Downtown merchants have three options when it comes to new bike racks: the basic, unadorned design (see above), the off-the-shelf artistic design or the customized artistic design. Though CCDC will pay for installation of the basic rack (around $250), individual merchants will have to pay out of pocket if they want any off-the-shelf designs--like metal cut-out dragons or swirling cursive letters--or if they choose to customize their own unique design. Unfortunately, according to DBA, there are some practical draw backs with these artistic bike racks.
"There are some really nice looking--more of an artistic style--bike racks down in BODO," said Geoff Hundt, operations and events director at DBA. "However, the feedback is that they're almost too nice and if it looks too much like art, people aren't really inclined to chain their bike to [it]."
Though it will still be a while before artistically adorned bike racks and transit shelters dot downtown sidewalks, the fact that CCDC, VRT, ACHD and DBA are pushing for the incorporation of art into new public structures will undoubtably help ensure that downtown Boise continues to grow creatively as it grows more cosmopolitan.
"We look for things that emphasize the positive parts of Boise and the positive parts of downtown living," said Barker. "We feel that transit really adds to that positive atmosphere."