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Friday, August 10, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Metro Shows Off Tunnel Vision -- High-Tech Artwork Dazzles Thousands At University Street Bus Station

They came by the thousands yesterday to eat free ice cream and yogurt and preview the high-tech artwork at Metro's University Street Station.

Each of the five stations in Metro's 1.3-mile-long, $455 million tunnel project has a theme. And everyone seemed to agree the black-and-white tiles, computer-generated wall and door etchings and flashing lights and symbols at University Street Station are perfectly suited to Seattle's financial district, on the streets above.

``It's fun,'' said Joel Gilman, an attorney in the First Interstate Center, as he stood at the south end of the station and watched words and symbols change in Seattle artist Robert Teeple's wry commentary on our computerized lives.

``It's great. It's entertainment while you wait,'' said Tammy Baribeau, a Seafirst Bank employee.

She and others at the north end of the station squinted, twisted their heads around and tried - not too successfully - to see subliminal objects in 23 randomly flashing bars of lights designed by Boston artist Bill Bell.

``I thought I saw a fish,'' Baribeau said. ``But I couldn't be sure.''

University Street Station - reachable through the Cobb Building Parking Garage at University Street and the Seneca Street Entrance of the Washington Mutual Tower - was open for public viewing for one day only.

The next public viewing - Sept. 14, at the Convention Place Station - will also mark the christening of the entire tunnel system, nine years after the dream was born, three years since the first shovelful of dirt was turned.

On Saturday, Sept. 15, the entire system will be open for use. And on Monday, Sept.17, the system will get its first commuter test.

Dan Williams, a Metro spokesman who led an underground tour of all five stations yesterday, thinks the tunnel will work well, even though only 48 buses - of an eventual 236-bus fleet - will be hauling passengers at the outset.

``The important thing is that with the completion of the downtown tunnels, the most expensive and difficult section of any future light-rail system will be in place,'' said Williams.

All rides within the downtown core will be free.

There was a line outside the Washington Mutual Tower entrance to the University Street Station long before it was opened to the public yesterday. People snapped up Metro literature outside the station. The most-often-heard remark as people walked down the stairs, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the gleaming marble walls and the colorful artwork was, ``I hope they can keep graffiti off the walls.''

So does Metro, which also has to grapple with such problems as wandering musicians, vendors, transients and what background music to pipe into each station.

Williams said it appears musicians will be allowed on the mezzanine if they do not solicit money (a hat on the floor will be permitted). To discourage overnight sleepers, each built-in bench on the bus-rail level has a sharp hump in the middle.

Carol Valenta, arts-program coordinator for Metro, said the goal will be to find unobtrusive music that fits the theme of each station.

``This is my favorite station,'' said Valenta, who believes the public is getting its money's worth and then some for the $1.5 million expended on art on the tunnel project.

One could stand for hours in front of Teeple's sculpture and never see the same thing twice. There are more than 100 different symbols, constantly moving and changing. In addition, there are more than 1.2 million word combinations possible in Teeple's spoof on computerized language.

Samples that flashed on the wall yesterday: ``Crazy noise heals tough thrills.'' ``Cold touch probes weird tension.''

One set of words is in English, the other in Spanish.

``I worried a bit about the Spanish, because I didn't want to insult anyone,'' Teeple said. ``I got some help.''

Robert Rosenkranz of Bellevue, a 78-year-old retired Boeing engineer, wore a hat covered with Metro pins. He had, he said, attended all the station openings, toured the tunnels and awaited the opening of the entire system.

``This one is one of the best,'' Rosenkranz said. ``But they're all good.''

If the high-tech station isn't to your taste, catch a Metro bus at one of the others:

-- International District, Fifth Avenue & Jackson Street - Asian theme. Seasonal plantings. Grillwork. Poetry on crossbeams. Tiles at the entrance designed by children from Beacon Hill and Bailey Gatzert Elementary Schools. An outdoor stage for musicians and theatrical productions.

-- Pioneer Square, Third Avenue, between Jefferson Street and Yesler Way - Historical theme. This is where Seattle was born. High-vaulted ceilings, clocks whose faces are made from the rubble of Pioneer Square Buildings, a piece of equipment from the Yesler cable car and quotes from Chief Sealth, and Arthur Denny. The entrance is covered by a pergola.

-- Westlake, underneath Pine Street, between Third and Sixth Avenues. Retail-trade oriented. Glitz, glamour and high fashion dominate. Stylized murals pay tribute to Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Snow White and a traveling, partying and always spending public.

-- Convention Place, Ninth Avenue and Pine Street. Tied in with Freeway Park and the state Convention and Trade Center, it features outdoor plantings and marquees that reflect offerings of the nearby Paramount Theater. It is the only station that is not underground.

Traveling underground, before the diesel engines kick in when the buses emerge from the tunnel, is so quiet and things flash by so quickly that ``it's sort of like a ride at Disneyland,'' said Metro spokesman Williams. The real test of that statement will occur when there is standing room only on a Metro bus at 5 o'clock on a Friday afternoon.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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