Seattle Weekly on Rainier Valley’s Lack of Development

The Seattle Weekly’s Nina Shapiro has a new article entitled “Where Development is Not Happening in Seattle and Why.” She begins with the following:

One bright day last week, people making their way to the Columbia City light-rail station might have noticed a “For Sale” sign on a vacant, litter-strewn parcel of land that climbs up Beacon Hill from Martin Luther King Way South. Or they might not have. The sign had been knocked to the ground, with the placard bearing the real-estate agent’s name unhinged from the post.

What’s more, this is not the only such parcel around there. The station is surrounded by seemingly unwanted land, much of it fenced off, waiting to be developed.

For much of the city, this would be an odd sight. In neighborhoods like Ballard and Capitol Hill, developers are maximizing construction on every inch of land they can find. So fast and fierce is the development that some residents say they scarcely recognize their neighborhoods anymore.

The contrast with the unused land around the Columbia City station is even more striking because it’s precisely this corridor that was supposed to see an economic boom when light rail came in. In fact, that’s why city leaders decided to start light-rail development in the South End first. “The hope was that if you got light rail in, everything would follow,” says longtime Columbia City booster and former Deputy Mayor Darryl Smith. “That’s not always the case.” Sometimes, he adds, it takes a pioneering project to get things going.

That may be happening now—finally—but the vacant properties serve as a glaring reminder that underdevelopment still exists in many parts of the Rainier Valley, the most economically and racially diverse area of town.

From there, Shapiro addresses the empty land surrounding the light rail station and why Sound Transit’s process for developing those parcels seems to be perpetually on hold. The piece wraps up with another look into Columbia City development:

Sound Transit is not a pioneer in this area. Already an incubator of charming small businesses, Columbia City has become a magnet for bigger development over the past couple of years. A stylish apartment complex called Green House, boasting granite countertops and a rooftop garden, opened in late 2012 just off the business district’s main drag. A few blocks north, on the site of a once-derelict little strip mall that Smith says used to draw laughs when he and others proposed it as a site for development, Security Properties is building a complex the order of which Columbia City has not yet seen. Due to open next summer, it will hold 193 apartments above what will be one of PCC’s biggest stores, complete with a smoothie bar and space for cooking classes.

Even on the western edge of Columbia City, which includes the light-rail station but an otherwise neglected stretch of Martin Luther King Way, a massive new development is on the way. The Arizona-based Wolff Company has just broken ground on six acres it bought from Zion Preparatory Academy. A six-building, 244-unit apartment complex will go in there, featuring “high-end interior finishes and outdoor amenity spaces,” according to Chris Rossman, the company’s vice-president for development.

Wolff tends to build in Seattle’s hottest neighborhoods, including South Lake Union and Capitol Hill, and its pick of Columbia City was well-considered, according to Rossman. “We’ve been keeping a close eye on the neighborhood,” he says. He calls the area “evolving,” adding that he expects Wolff’s own project to serve as a “catalyst.”

Rob Mohn, a smaller-scale Columbia City developer who runs an extended-stay hotel, says he thinks so too. In fact, despite trying to drum up more development in the area for years, he worries about it. “There’s a fine line between trying to get something happening and too much happening,” he says.

The valley has always been conflicted about development. On the one hand, residents want more amenities and are resentful about being overlooked by the city, developers, and many Seattleites in general. “Look,” Smith says, “a lot of people in Seattle have never been south of Jackson Street . . . I think there’s still a little racism out there.”

On the other hand, Smith, Mohn and others worry about gentrification and the effect of rising rents on beloved small businesses. “My hope is that there will be a homegrown type of redevelopment,” Smith says.

To read the whole piece, click here.

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