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The Great Wall Debate 

Artists take aim at Springs' new 'Berlin Wall'

For many west-side neighbors of Interstate 25, the new 2.5-mile noise wall that runs along the freeway is a godsend, a welcome muffler on a freeway that's grown into an eight-lane monster with a constant roar.

Not only has the barrier cut down on the din of cars and trucks, said Velma Rogacki, who lives at 728 W. Buena Ventura St., the removal of houses just west of the roadway has left room for a narrow park and trail that serves as an added buffer.

"I think it's beautiful," said Rogacki, who serves as vice president of the Mesa Springs Community Association, which pushed the state transportation department to install the noise barrier. "I think it's very pleasing; it's not obnoxious at all."

But for others, who look at the wall from I-25, or from just across the interstate -- from Monument Park or neighborhoods in the city's downtown -- the wall is a less welcome addition.

For them, the new pink-hued concrete barrier is both an eyesore and, to some, an ear-sore. While some critics see the wall as a monolith that serves as a poor introduction to Colorado Springs, others complain the new wall reflects sound back onto parks and neighborhoods on the east side of the motorway.

In this first of a series on the wall's effectiveness, the Indy looks at a growing debate of the wall's visual impact and its role as a piece of public art.

"It's not that it's ugly, but it's not beautiful," said David Turner, the director of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. "It's a missed opportunity. It's not what it could have been."

Turner has recently criticized the wall, giving a lecture that compared the noise barrier to the Berlin Wall. Others are even more blunt.

"I'd rather be blind than look at mountains that are just a zigzag," said prominent local sculptor Sean O'Meallie, referring to a repeated relief on the wall depicting triangle-shaped mountains.

"It's better than it might have been, but what we have here is a large, prominent example of mundane thought to scrape against every time we drive through town."

O'Meallie recently helped organize a series of public forums on outdoor public art in Colorado Springs, and the I-25 wall project came up several times. Beyond the wall's functional value, he said, massive noise barriers like the one on I-25 make a statement and have a huge effect on the city's visual landscape.

"All I want to do now is raise a dialogue [that] could be a focal point to change the way things are done in the future," O'Meallie said of his critique.

Mostly, local art advocates say they want to improve the design process so the city ends up with noise barriers that they see as more visually appealing.

As an example, some point south to Pueblo -- to a short stretch of Highway 47 near the University of Southern Colorado. That's where state transportation officials asked local artists to bid for the job of designing a 1.5-mile noise barrier.

The result is a waving, curving, adobe-like wall that undulates almost like natural rock formations shaped by the wind. "I was trying to tie it in with the environment, rather than have it be something that would conflict with the environment," said Judith Williams, who designed the sound barrier along with her husband Ken.

"It's our version of Garden of the Gods," joked Ken Williams. "It's kind of organic-, natural-looking. We didn't want it to look like so many walls, which look like the back of a Wal-Mart or something."

Indeed, the process used in designing the Highway 47 wall was very different than the process used for Colorado Springs' noise barrier.

"We wanted the artist involved from the beginning, as opposed to 'We have a wall here, what do you want on its surface?' " said Larry Gibson, an urban designer with BRW, a Denver-based transportation consulting firm employed by CDOT to design the Pueblo wall.

"We wanted it to be a holistic piece of art," he said.

Gibson convinced CDOT officials that the agency should put out a call to artists for help in designing a sound barrier. Ultimately, a committee made up of affected residents, university staff and Pueblo artists selected the Williams' proposal.

By contrast, the Colorado Springs wall was designed with input from a few local artists and neighborhood residents. But it was an architect hired by the state who drew up the ultimate design. "We figured that rather than have an engineer design it, we'd have an architect design the wall," said Steven Watt, a project manager with Wilson & Company, the consultant hired by the state to help manage the project.

"So we had the eye of an architect, but also an architect's knowledge of structural design and construction methods to make sure we can do things without running the cost too high," Watt said.

And cost is definitely a big issue. "You do not want to have 2.5 miles of unique design, because the cost to cast a panel is prohibitive," said Watt, noting that the wall contains over 1,000 panels.

Still, the architect was able to come up with 20 different panels, which are repeated in varying patterns. To Dave Poling, the CDOT program manager who oversees the I-25 widening project, the Springs wall is a lot better than most. "I'd say as compared to most other noise barriers, this is definitely an upgrade," Poling said.

In addition, Poling said, CDOT and Wilson & Co. held dozens of public meetings on the wall's visual impact. At those meetings, he said, CDOT brought pictures and models of the proposed wall for comment.

Some on the West side, such as Rigocki, are happy with the process. "I tell people, 'Just give the people who live between Fillmore Street and Bijou Street the credit, because they are the ones who helped design it,' " she said.

"The coloring we chose, because we wanted it to blend in with the Southwest," she said of the wall's pinkish-granite color. "They did the mountains just like we wanted. ... The idea was to bring the mountains down to us."

Meanwhile, Wilson and Company's Watt said his designers varied the height of the wall and created "pockets for landscaping" such as shrubs and trees, to break up the monotony of the wall's east side.

Other ideas were considered but discarded. Designers were severely restricted from even more variation in the wall's design because of a complex maze of new water and sewer lines that run under and around the new wall, Watt explained. "It's very busy down there," Watt said of the underground lines.

And designers could not create an earthen berm in lieu of a wall, because there was not enough room between the highway and the homes for a gently sloping mound, he said.

But unlike in the Pueblo process, it is clear that artists did not figure prominently in the design process. State transportation consultants only met only once with a group of artists Watt could not even name when asked about the meeting.

Those artists, however, did give designers with his company several ideas, Watt said. For critics, that's a part of the process they'd like to see improved.

"The wall is there, we have to learn how to live with it, though I hope there can be some refinements," said Turner. "But most importantly, we have to learn how to do this stuff better."

  • The first piece in a series on the new I-25 wall.

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