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South Seattle Development Is Slow, Despite Promise Of Light Rail

The Puget Sound region hopes new growth will spring up in urban villages clustered around mass transit. The goal is to avoid further congestion.

Yet in Seattle’s Rainier Valley, where light rail has been running for over five years, development has been slow to come. 

Seattle’s Rainier Valley has always been a refuge for people who can’t pay the higher rents in other parts of Seattle. At one point, it was one of the only places ethnic minorities could legally own a house.

Light rail was expected to bring growth and opportunity to the people who live here. But a visit to three stops along the way shows the challenges of trying to make that happen.

We start in the place where it’s been the hardest.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Nora Liu in front of Rainier Beach Station. Liu helps communities strive for equitable development for Seattle's Dept. of Planning and Development", "fid": "115657", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201502/Nora_Liu.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "Rainier Beach", "style": "full"}]]

[asset-images[{"caption": "An architectural drawing shows a vibrant sidewalk and several buildings dedicated to instruction near Rainier Beach Station", "fid": "115658", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201502/Educational_Complex.jpg", "attribution": "Credit VIA Architecture"}]]

Businesses around Rainier Beach station include a junk yard full of wrecked cars and a fur trader that's been in business for a century; not the kind of industries that attract developers to sink a lot of money in the neighborhood.

Sahra Farah runs the Somali Community Center, close to Sound Transit’s Rainier Beach station. She said she wants growth. She wants to see more shops, places for people to work.

"Because right now, I see a lot of young people they didn’t have no job," she said. "Some of them graduate high school, university and still they looking for a job." 

Farah has set up vocational classes for those kids at the community center. It’s a start, and it could lead to something bigger. The City of Seattle has talked to Seattle Colleges about putting a vocational training center at the Rainier Beach station.

Nora Liu is with Seattle Planning and Development. She stands on a hill overlooking the station and describes how an educational facility could energize the now-vacant sidewalk.

"Wouldn’t it be great if somebody was getting off the train – a young person was getting off the train – and they were able to see one of their mates in that facility, either in that class or making something as part of a project for school?" Liu said.

The idea is that people could stay in the neighborhood when their rents rise – if they could earn more. Right now it’s just an idea, with a lot of planning ahead. It’s been hard to get the momentum started. 

A big project like that was supposed to build momentum a few stops north of here. That'll be our next stop.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Standing on the sidewalk in front of the Mt Baker Lofts, Artspace's Cathryn Vandenbrink says the building is an island of pedestrian-oriented development in a sea of traffic. She says more needs to happen around Mt Baker Station to make this feel like a community.", "fid": "115662", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201502/traffic_2.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "Mt. Baker Station", "style": "full"}]][asset-images[{"caption": "Developer Dan Rosenfeld has deep roots in the Rainier Valley. He hopes to develop an apartment complex with 20 percent affordable units, but is waiting for the right moment.", "fid": "115660", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201502/Dan_Rosenfeld.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]The Mt. Baker Lofts is a building full of galleries and affordable apartments for artists. There’s a blind painter who runs a gallery here. Another gallery focuses on African Art. But from a development standpoint, one project is still not enough to get the ball rolling. 

Dan Rosenfeld owns the QFC grocery store property near the station. He wants to develop, but is waiting for the right moment. He said there are risks to going first.

"Well there's always been an adage in business that the second bite of the apple is the best one," he said.

"We have to appreciate pioneers for what they do," he said of developers who take the first risks in new neighborhoods. "Some pioneers are terrifically successful and others are instructional in the legacy that they leave for us."

There’s a great case study of exactly what he’s talking about, at the final stop on our train ride, two stops south.

[asset-images[{"caption": "HomeSight's Kristin Pula holds up the sticker she says helped brand the neighborhood and attract development.", "fid": "115666", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201502/O_Hello_Othello!.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "Othello Station", "style": "full"}]][asset-images[{"caption": "Othello Station had \"good bones\" to help kickstart pedestrian oriented development, including this strip of restaurants and stores, beloved by the neighborhood.", "fid": "115664", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201502/Othello.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]A few years ago, a developer almost lost his shirt when he built a big apartment building at Othello Station. That was right before the recession. Plus, he made miscalculations about what kind of retailer could thrive here.

Today, things are looking up. Four big projects are preparing to break ground at Othello station. And with a public housing project nearby and at least 10 percent of the coming apartments designated as affordable units, this station has a moon shot at growing without displacing current residents. 

The downside of that success comes in the form of rising rents. The city is looking at ways to preserve existing low-income apartment buildings as a way of slowing that trend.

So how did this station do what so many others have failed to do?

It helps to have community spirit and a good set of bones. There was already a beloved one-story strip of multi-cultural restaurants and stores here. 

But it takes money, too.

Seattle’s Office of Economic Development swooped in to try and help those local businesses avoid being displaced. They gave the businesses financial advice. They gave the commercial strip a makeover.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Hai Le runs the Vietnamese restaurant Hoang Lan on the commercial strip across from Othello Station", "fid": "115665", "style": "offset_left", "uri": "public://201502/Hai_Le_2.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]Vietnamese restaurant owner Hai Le said he’s noticed a change in the attitude of his customers since the improvements. "Before, they were just scared because it was just dirty. There was no sidewalk, people were just walking around cars, and it was very dangerous."

And now? Hai Le gets compliments: "They're like, 'Wow, I like how you did the signs.'"

He said when people look at his restaurants, they're not scared anymore. "It turned out great"

A neighborhood group helped turned that sense of community pride into a brand. There’s a sticker you see all over the neighborhood: “O! Hello, Othello.” 

Kristin Pula is with a neighborhood development organization called HomeSight. She’s been trying to help the community grow. She said the stickers have really helped. 

"Developers came to us because they were seeing this visible identity and they thought, 'Well, there's a real community here that really cares and has a lot of pride in what they're doing. And we want to be part of it,'" she said. 

Now, almost a thousand new apartments are being planned around Othello station alone. That’s a big change for the Rainier Valley, a neighborhood that’s been haunted by decades of economic stagnation. 

But getting the ball rolling hasn’t been easy, and helping the people who already live here avoid being displaced will get even more difficult as wealthier neighbors move in by the thousands.

[asset-images[{"caption": "This apartment building failed to thrive when it was first built, just before the recession. But with the recession now in the tail lights, more development is coming to the neighborhood around Othello station.", "fid": "115663", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201502/Othello_2.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]