The renovation of Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus route stops began in 2009, when city stakeholders chose local firm Lorcan O'Herlihy Architects to re-think the functionality, look and feel of the city's stops, and accommodate for new amenities like solar lighting and real-time arrival information. Five years later, the stops are being unveiled one block at a time.
Recently, after installers pulled the plastic wrap from the stations near Santa Monica City College, L.A. Weekly asked one bus riding student, Maricela Ramos, what she thought of the new design, “It's kind of dinky and small,” said Ramos. Hers is a reaction that's been common so far.
To be fair, the stops come in three different “sizes” or configurations depending on locations that serve higher or lower rider volumes (for instance, some stops at major intersections will have more seats and more canopies). At minimum the stops consist of one oblong column with a bright blue disc atop for shade (also a solar collector), one trash can and one recycling bin clad in a wavy, triple-tone blue pattern of metal strips, and one or two low blue metal seats.
When asked about the complainers, Suja Lowenthal, communications relations manager for the Big Blue Bus, is quick to list the numerous demands the stops had to meet. They had to be impervious to vandalism, for example. Unlike other bus stops with wide panels for advertisements, none of Santa Monica’s seats, canopy or cans have substantial surface area, lessening the potential for tagging. The stools too are intentionally small to discourage homeless folks from napping or spreading out their belongings. The stops had to maintain visibility to businesses, be solar-powered, re-configurable, and embody a design iconic to Santa Monica.
Lowenthal says the stops meet these many conflicting demands. “We received overwhelmingly positive reaction from many different groups during the design phase,” she says. Those groups included city council members, business groups, community groups, riders and even bus drivers. “I think now people just want it to be so much more.”
She adds, “But I don’t know if any bus stop can provide all that.”
Critiques from the community include multiple reader complaint letters to the Santa Monica Daily Press newspaper and to the offices of the Big Blue Bus citing the “silly blue stools” with “no back support” and suspicions about whether the seats are ADA compliant for riders with disabilities. Lowenthal counters the disability issue by saying that the seat backs themselves serve as accessible grab bars for mobility. But in a statement posted to their website on August 12, Big Blue Bus stated they were redesigning the double seat configuration, due to rider complaints.
Objections found on the BBB Facebook page include points about the technological “smartness” of the stops’ real time arrival info which can be accessed via cell phone (quoted: “Not everyone has a smart phone! Why are there no timings listed at the stops??”)
In terms of its basic structure, at 9:15 a.m during the high morning commute, for instance, the canopy at the Ocean Park and 11th street stop provides zero shade — the angle of the sun leaves the seating in the stark, shining heat. On the other hand, the bus stops' branding is in line with the BBB – the stops match the lumbering buses in their signature hue and font, and the cool cobalt color is eye-catching and serves as an okay way-finding mechanism.
Santa Monica reached out to designers with good intentions. LOHA is known for its residential work, condos and single family homes. But its other recent high profile public space project — the 8535 Sunset billboard project in West Hollywood — is undeniably successful in making an imaginative translation of an everyday humdrum object. For the billboard project, LOHA was commissioned by West Hollywood to replace an existing derelict billboard, and to make it fresh. The firm definitely delivered, with a streamlined, playful translation of the boring urban icon remade in the eye-popping color of the sky. Its play on an ubiquitous L.A. structure hangs in the air like a bright blue tendril that's been squeezed from a toothpaste tube, solidifying at mid bend – it’s very stylish and even more photogenic.
Santa Monica has a stellar track record working successfully with architects, like the recently completed Virginia Avenue Park renovations by Koning Eizenberg Architects, with its site re-vamp for recycling waste water runoff and its new compact and colorful library branch. Plus there are the city's seismic retrofits and facade improvements on parking structures – for which Santa Monica reached out to architects to adorn certain expanses of otherwise blah building walls with large-scale public art, namely the array of suspended, mirrored globes by Ball Nogues Studio that reflect the street and sky at the structure on Santa Monica Place. Hopefully, the disappointment of the BBB stops is just a one-off, and won’t sour Santa Monica's leaders on working again with other great local architects in the future.
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