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Unique Landscaping, Distinctive Lighting Design Characterize Tampa's New "Meridian Gateway" Elevated Highway

By William Maiman, IESNA, and William Kent Schoenfisch, IESNA

Above and Below: The pedestrian 150-watt metal halide lighting.

Conventional wisdom has learned too often to associate most highways with mundane on and off-ramps, minimal landscape design, routine roadway light fixtures, traffic congestion and resulting crawl speeds, particularly at peak morning and evening rush hours.

Tampa and its suburban areas have experienced impressive population and business growth, and with it stop-and-go traffic in and out of the booming downtown business area. While new or expanded highways today typically meet needs for easier automotive mobility, they can be barriers for pedestrians in the city and even in the suburbs, where landscape design is too often an afterthought, witness the standard one-size-fits-all roadway lighting and acoustical noise walls dividing neighborhoods and creating isolated enclaves.

The Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority (THCEA), the public agency formed in 1963 to plan and operate local revenue-producing toll-based expressways, was determined to take steps to avoid those outcomes. THCEA eschewed the "business as usual" approach, taking an in-depth consideration of roadway design and placement, roadway landscaping and adjacent lighting and signage design.

Enter the Landscape Architect

Phil Graham and Company, P.A., Landscape Architects and Planners, was given complete charge of not only all landscaping design for the new roadway, but also for lighting, signage and public artwork design. The firm, founded in 1967 in St. Petersburg, Fla., has experience in master and site planning; urban design; park and recreational design; highway beautification; lighting, landscape and irrigation design; site graphics; cost estimating and construction administration. Phil Graham Jr., FASLA, AICP, is the company president and serves on the Florida Board of Landscape Architecture.

Elevated Reversible Highway

Tampa native Martin Stone, an architect and certified planner who serves as chief planner for the THCEA, is a man with a refined sense of design and place. He believes properly designed transportation projects enhance city environments and can foster associated development that create convenient access to cities and their amenities. He knows a landscape master plan, its budget and execution are important elements to any comprehensive transportation project. Through open design competitions and public review rounds, a unique design for the project was developed.

"One of the early plans was to add one lane in each direction to the old Lee Roy Selmon Expressway of two lanes in each direction in and out of Tampa," Stone recalls. However, it became apparent to Stone and his peers that in a mere 5-10 years that expansion would be at capacity, and to acquire the already developed land for additional lanes would result in years of eminent domain battles, public hearings and impossible costs. Faced with those realities, THCEA decided to built a nine-mile, three lane, reversible toll highway above the existing wide center median that divides the four lanes of the old ground-level highway. The old highway remained in use during construction and remains in use now.

Modular, custom designed, pre-formed, elevated concrete highway structures were fabricated off site, then trucked in to rest atop steel-reinforced concrete "piers" placed down the center of the wide median of the expressway. The new reversible-lane raised highway directly connects downtown Tampa with the suburb of Brandon and is known as Meridian Gateway.

"The elevated reversible lanes yield more capacity for the same money as nonreversible lanes, minimize ground usage, lessen negative environmental impact, have less environmental impact and greatly improve lighting throughout the area," notes Mr. Stone.

The mature greenery surrounding those existing ground-level traffic lanes on each side of the old highway, and now on either side of the elevated highway supporting columns, was kept in place. This was a particular objective for the landscape architect, Phil Graham & Co., in association with architects Fleishman Garcia Architects of Tampa, has already designed future enhancements to the landscape plan that will be added as budgeting permits.

Phil Graham & Co. implement a far-reaching vision that wove Mr. Stone's elevated reversible toll-lane concept into a plan to enhance the public spaces surrounding the new highway, creating an attractive, inviting urban landscape.

"We noted, in particular, the contrast of the vitality and high-activity of the Tampa urban center, with the pastoral, tranquil setting of the suburban community," explains Phil Graham. The unique concept of a reversible elevated roadway, used by commuters twice a day, was also a critical aspect to this mammoth project and opportunity to positively affect peoples' lives. These were primary themes we sought to address in response to the design competition and in our presentations."

The specially fabricated aluminum poles use a Beacon exclusive; a patented, hidden Sure-Link? attachment system, bolted to in-ground anchors at the base of each pole. Decorative base covers that match the aluminum poles cover the anchors. Electrical connections and the bolt-on Sure-Link are above ground. This system eliminates the time-consuming and costly practice of welding a pole to a base and prevents a possible breaking-point for the light or signage poles. This anchoring increases load capacity and prevents poles from blowing over, even in hurricane-force winds.

Inspiring Design

A truly inspiring design aesthetic, in particular, is visible in Meridian Gateway's creative, carefully selected landscaping and three distinct types of custom and unusual roadway and pedestrian walkway lighting, mounting poles and signage, all conceived by the Graham firm. In all, with Meridian Gateway and the elevated roadway, the THCEA and Tampa are now at the forefront of contemporary urban planning, landscape design, lighting, and highway planning.

From the earliest days of automobile ownership, engineers have used limited-access and toll roads as a means of speeding cars and passengers from one location to another. Gradually, a truism emerged: "More lanes mean more traffic."

City planners have noted that construction of newer, wider, often better-illuminated roads, can foster unbridled urban/suburban sprawl, an increase in irritating lighting glare and, frequently, the destruction of mature landscaping and plantings. This can be followed by commercial over-development and the slow but steady deterioration of the urban core. The THCEA took these observations and combined them with its own considered ideas to benefit the public area.

A Grand Boulevard

The resulting Meridian Gateway is a grand boulevard lined with sidewalks on one side, a meandering jogging and bicycle path on the other and creative landscaping and lighting design throughout, inspired by the nearby port, surrounding urban fabric and by the feeling of Tampa, a city on the move. Meridian Gateway is fostering new uses and major private construction for a previously outmoded, largely vacant, warehouse district.

Key local streets in Tampa have now been reconnected, overcoming barriers caused by old railroad tracks, industrial buildings and local overpasses. Lush, thoughtfully planned and carefully landscaped greenways now flank the roadway, linking the reversible lanes with the Tampa terminus. Heavily landscaped berms along the bicycle/jogging path create a visual barrier to the railroad tracks and part of an active multi-story grain processing plant.

The Phil Graham & Co. design incorporates shade trees, accent shrubs and special plantings that surround larger utility poles; and a comprehensive irrigation system that helps the drought-resistant flora get a healthy start. The choice of high-rise oak trees provides pedestrians with immediate shade, while minimizing tree limb spread and resulting canopy, so as not to create conflicts with the traffic or bicycle riders.

"Over time, as the tree grows," notes Hunter Booth, RLA, project manager with Phil Graham & Co., "the canopy will enlarge. Conflicts with traffic will be avoided by virtue of the height of the trunk."

Among the Landscape Architect's design principles incorporated into the Meridian Gateway project was a nautical theme. From a meandering pedestrian walkway, to curving and colorful over head signage, and to the Gateway's strikingly different pole-mounted lighting, the imagery of ocean waves is present. As befits a waterfront city, the nautical theme is entirely appropriate.

Along the road where there are also pedestrian walks, 13 and 25-foot upright aluminum poles are interspersed. High-mounted, integral wavelike light diffusers produce nonglare indirect lighting; below them are shielded150-watt metal-halide light enclosures to illuminate the adjacent pedestrian walkway, jog and bicycle areas economically (long operating life), without glare and with perfect color rendition of people and objects. All the Meridian Gateway custom lighting is the result of the Landscape Architect's collaboration with Beacon Products, Inc., of Sarasota, Fla.

Signature Elements

Signature elements of the revitalized waterfront area and of Meridian Gateway are custom, 38-foot high, aluminum (not typical steel) poles and nonglare, direct-downward aiming, 250-watt custom metal halide roadway lighting fixtures in a unique wavelike design. Flush-mounted HID light fixtures are incorporated into the wave motif, hidden up inside the "wave." The wave-like motif was designed by Phil Graham & Co. to complement the highway's long Tampa entry and exit ramps and the views of the water visible to motorists going in or out of the city.

In pedestrian walkway areas the wave motif is carried over by the LA in a different manner, owing to the need for different lighting for pedestrians and for local traffic. Specified 13 and 25-foot upright aluminum poles have high-mounted, integral light diffusers to produce nonglare indirect lighting. Integral 150-watt metal-halide light enclosures, and extra sturdy decorative banner supports, are part of these fixtures.

The custom pole and fixture designs illuminate adjacent walkways, jogging and bicycle areas without glare and with perfect color rendition of people and objects, and have a long operating life. These, and the Meridian Gateway fixtures referenced previously, were the result of Phil Graham & Co.'s collaboration with national commercial light fixture and site furniture manufacturer Beacon Products, Inc., from nearby Sarasota, Florida.

As an experienced commercial outdoor and landscape lighting specifier, Phil Graham & Co. sought to highlight the contrast of elemental suburban and urban environments. He accomplished this by incorporating the engineering achievement of the elevated reversible lane aspect of the new toll highway into the landscaping and into the lighting design. The refreshing wave-like form of the roadway lighting used for Meridian Gateway, and an innovative approach to light pole and light arm coloration, provide drivers with two markedly different experiences. The Phil Graham & Co. conceived a palette of two distinct color families for accent elements on lighting poles, the wave-like light arms and surrounding signage throughout the Meridian Gateway. To their pleasant surprise, motorists see painted shades of red, orange and yellow for that sunrise and early morning commute into Tampa. During the p.m. rush out of the city, drivers see posts, light arms and sign backgrounds painted in shades of blue and purple for a calm, cooling effect for the trip home.

Tampa was faced with revitalizing the old languishing and gritty warehouse and industrial district on one edge of downtown. The highway project has now transformed the area, not only helping commuters get to work, but making the area inviting to pedestrians, dog-walkers, joggers and bikers. New residential and commercial real estate development has followed.

Essentially, a motorist, commuter or otherwise, has two very different experiences while driving over the same roadway. This color effect, in combination with lush, mature landscaping and custom wavelike designs for lighting and pole-mounted signage, emphasizes the totality of the Meridian Gateway project. It signifies there is a new, more considered approach to urban and environmental design at work from Tampa to Brandon.

The urban color scheme in the Tampa part of the roadway is also a contrast to the Brandon terminus. Brandon has more of a college campus or park feel, punctuated with a large clock tower, distinctive water fountain and public art wall. The Brandon terminus and its structures were conceived and designed by the Landscape Architect firm after soliciting community input through public meetings and conversations with government and local groups.

"The Expressway Authority was always inclusive, pushed responsibility downward and wanted us to make sure that our ideas fit with a community's vision and with its needs from the roadway elements," Mr. Graham notes.

Hunter Booth of Phil Graham and Co. explains how landscape maintenance issues were incorporated into the planning process, without compromising design elements. "The medians on which the elevated portions of the new highway reside are covered completely with plantings. This eliminates weekly mowing and the need to create lane blockades that impede traffic flow. The decorative plantings have a full, pretty and altogether striking visual effect for passing motorists. Concurrently, special date palms in the median bring a mature, vertical landscape-design element to the project."

"They form a line of sentinels," is how Phil Graham describes the view. "The palm trees are a uniform size, currently 18 to 20 feet high. They will be 30 to 35 feet tall when fully grown." Landscaping was a priority for the entire construction project, as green plantings surround the concrete piers the entire length of the elevated roadway, helping unite urban and suburban end points of the expressway.

The new reversible-lane raised highway directly connects downtown Tampa with Brandon, Fla. Modular, custom designed, pre-formed, elevated concrete highway structures were fabricated off site then trucked in to rest atop steel-reinforced concrete "piers" placed down the center of the wide median of the old expressway.

The Graham architects created an entire design motif for the Meridian Gateway and Brandon ends of the elevated, reversible lane expressway. Every structural element was reviewed for being part of one "look," and for the purposely spacious on/off highway areas that motorist encounter entering or leaving the new artery.

New Development

Meridian Gateway is revitalizing a languishing, old warehouse and gritty industrial district on one edge of downtown Tampa. The area is now not only more welcoming to commuters and motorists but for joggers, bicyclers and dog-walkers.

"Six new high-rise condo residential buildings are under construction near Meridian Gateway, all attributable to the downtown revitalization underway," notes Stone. Dozens of sleek, new residential towers are now being built in the Channel District adjacent to the new road, changing a neglected part of Tampa into a hub of housing and recreational activity that links the downtown and convention center via historic trolley to the already thriving Ybor City, an entertainment district with more than 60 restaurants, bars and nightclubs.

Looming over downtown and the reversible lanes is the port of Tampa. Its presence is felt throughout the Meridian Gateway area by seeing the cranes of ships and the nautical-theme lighting.

In this rendering the green regulatory sign is attached to 48-inch-diameter pipe spanning the roadway (125 to 155 feet in length) painted in an undulating design???yellow hues as you enter Tampa and blue colors as you depart the city. The date palms are currently 18-20 feet high and will be 30-35 feet tall when fully grown.

Funding Issues

Because of new federal deficits, program cutbacks and greater burdens on state mandates, highway funds are more limited than in years past. Meridian Gateway project was funded by bonds sold with the backing of user tolls, avoiding the cumbersome and lengthy process of using gasoline tax revenues or the already limited Florida Department of Transportation funds.

The day and evening views: The look of the two 250-watt custom HID light diffusers mounted flush to the aluminum pole with the 150-watt metal halide pedestrian lights below.

Many roads in the U.S. are nearing the end of an average design life of 50 years. Funds available for new projects are and will be scarce. Toll roads offer a proven method of financing roadway construction. Tolls enable projects to proceed, backed by revenue bonds issued on the projection that usage and payment of tolls will be sufficient for bond payments. Florida's "Sun Pass" is the special pre-paid toll program used on the Selmon Crosstown Expressway and for access to Meridian Gateway. This program is similar to programs such as "EZ-Pass" in the northeastern section of the U.S.

Meridian Gateway is substantially completed in the first quarter of 2006. Its award-winning design is now a reality for Floridians, tourists and business people to enjoy as they drive along one of the largest, newest, most innovative???and certainly best landscaped and illuminated???construction projects in the United States.

About the authors: William Maiman is a commercial lighting industry specialist and freelance writer based in New York City. William Kent Schoenfisch is a marketing and public relations consultant in the architectural and lighting industries, based in New York state.

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June 15, 2019, 10:26 pm PDT

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