Get on the Bus

By staff June 1, 2005

The test for any civic architecture is its functionality.

Design excellence is important, to be sure, but handsome modern architecture that doesn't accomplish the purpose for which it was commissioned is worse than useless-it's a hollow monument and a waste of money.

Private commissions such as residences, corporate offices and commercial businesses are often the idiosyncratic expressions of their owner's personality and taste. If they don't function well, their failure is a matter between client and architect. But civic facilities, paid for by the public purse, must improve everyday life for those who live, work and visit in a particular place.

Probably nothing is more important to the fabric of a successful urban entity than its transportation system. Ease of movement ties people together, making it possible to communicate and interact in both personal and professional activities. This transport infrastructure, which includes streets and roads, traffic management, parking and pedestrian amenities, must also incorporate a way to move people from place to place without the need for automobiles.

In recent years, thanks to urban and suburban sprawl, not to mention the showy display of personal affluence, more cars have clogged our cities, neighborhoods and outlying roads. The effect they have on our environment is well-documented; their negative impact on the sustainability of our natural resources is a subject of national and international debate.

Public transportation that works-and that people want to use-can answer those problems. In a city such as ours, it's not enough simply to create more bus routes or to purchase more and better buses, although these steps are important.

No, the solution lies in making the bus system desirable, user-friendly, devoid of real or implied class distinctions. To achieve these goals, riders must want to ride the buses. If they don't, they'll find another way to get to where they need to go, adding another automobile to the already strained roadways. They'll revise plans to shop or dine downtown, perhaps heading for the nearest mall. Public transport must be attractive as well as efficient if it is to succeed. And Sarasota's new downtown transfer station rises to that challenge. It's a jaunty, youthful place where bus routes come together and exchange passengers, giving them a rare measure of shelter and comfort never before available in Sarasota.

Thanks to the vision of some county and city officials and the perseverance of architect Dale Parks, a transportation pavilion now graces the increasingly attractive precincts of Lemon Avenue in the center of town. Sporting a festive roofline dominated by bright exterior trusses above undulating walls of glass block and colorful tile enclosing support facilities and restrooms, the structure is both open and protective, providing some shelter from our occasional bouts of wind and rain while encouraging riders to mix or mingle, standing on the platforms or sitting on the slick modern benches.

Given the rather restricted site, SCAT (Sarasota County Area Transport) buses come and go with relative ease thanks to the angled platforms where they embark and discharge their passengers. Clear signage above each of these bays indicates the routes. No one is forced out into the street to search through long lines of chugging buses for the right one. Best of all, the graphics here and elsewhere in the station are really cool.

In short, this civic facility really works well, while making a strong statement about our city. It expresses a newly invigorated downtown spirit as well as our commitment (however shaky of late) to a walkable, workable city core. And it does so with a fanciful, functional design.

Architect Parks says the feedback from riders as well as officials has been gratifying. "Both on-site and elsewhere, people have told me how much they enjoy the station," he says. "That's the real test of success in something like this."

And guess what? It all came in on time and under budget!

Given that it faces the regrettable blank wall of the Whole Foods Market's backside, near the decidedly unattractive loading dock for the market, the bus station holds its own as an important part of the renaissance of the Lemon Avenue area, now enlivened by new brick paving, a pair of attractive restaurants and a fountain promised but not yet in place at press time.

Next on the transportation wish list? How about an exciting inter-modal station on the periphery, a place where those upwardly mobile folks who are the engines for our economy can park the SUV, grab a latte and hop a bus to their downtown offices?

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