Stack of boulders in Bellingham roundabout tall, heavy and not cheap

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDDecember 22, 2013 

roundabout rocks

Rocks stacked in the middle of the new roundabout at North State Street, Wharf Street and Boulevard Street, Dec. 10, 2013.

PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

Thousands of people drive past the stack of boulders every day.

Some people love it; others don't.

That's the way it usually goes when public money is spent for something that, at the least, resembles public art.

Stacked, the four large boulders rise about 13 into the air, held in place by a central steel rod attached to a concrete footing in the ground. Steel blades between the boulders provide added stability.

The boulders were installed in the traffic island at the roundabout that was recently completed where North State Street intersects with North Forest Street, Wharf Street and the Boulevard.

"That intersection is a gateway from all different directions," said Shannon Taysi, a city of Bellingham planner who worked on the landscaping portion of the project.

Some roundabouts in the city have so-so landscaping that isn't much to look at, she said. So when the latest project came along, Taysi talked to HBB, a Seattle landscape architecture firm, about coming up with something more substantial.

Colie Hough-Beck, a principal at HBB, said the city wanted something designed with rocks.

Taysi said two designs were presented to the city - four boulders on the ground, and four of them stacked as a cairn. Mayor Kelli Linville preferred the stack.

"The landscaping we chose reflects the natural beauty of our area," Linville said in an emailed comment. "Since cairns are traditionally used to help people find their way, a cairn is an appropriate part of the landscape at this important crossroads in our community."

Such landmarks, with plantings, can add a touch of aesthetics as well as dampen glare from oncoming headlights and direct drivers' vision toward other vehicles approaching from the left inside the roundabout, said Sam Shipp, the project's engineer at the city Public Works Department.

"We're using public money, so we hope the public would like the nice, finished product," he said.

The roundabout cost about $2.6 million, perhaps a bit less, Shipp said. The landscaping portion, including design, plantings and the boulders, accounts for about $75,000, he said.

The boulders are olivine, a hard stone mined from a quarry in the Whatcom County foothills.

The bottom boulder weights about 15 and a half tons. The middle two come in at eight and a half tons each. The peewee on top weighs a mere three and half to four tons.

"It's visually appealing," Taysi said. "Something more interesting than salal on the ground."

Hough-Beck said the cairn plays into the pivotal location of the roundabout. It wasn't meant to be public art, she said, but rather a landscape feature that uses native materials.

"It's basically a trail marker," she said. "You have all these legs of transportation coming together, creating a landmark. It was a play on a trail marker."

Taysi said the cairn doesn't have a name, but that hasn't stopped people from expressing their views about it.

"As you can imagine, it's been across the board," she said. "Some people say they love it, some people say they don't."

Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-2291 or dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com.

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