How light rail and density transformed Seattle’s neighborhoods

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When I came here in 2007, I had no idea how Seattle would rocket out of the Great Recession into a city transformed.

It gave me a chance to write extensively on the dramatic changes in South Lake Union. Downtown has been a consistent focus of this column, both because it accounts for a majority of the city’s jobs and business tax revenue, but also because a metropolitan area can’t succeed without a dynamic central core.

Yet change has swept across many other neighborhoods as Seattle added more than 128,000 people between 2010 and 2020. In a city of 84 square miles, that’s a staggering change. (By contrast, my hometown Phoenix added nearly 163,000 but in 517 square miles, becoming the nation’s fifth most-populous city).

One example is found in Uptown, the renamed Lower Queen Anne. It already had amenity-rich Seattle Center (site of the 1962 World’s Fair), what’s now called SIFF Cinema Uptown, and Queen Anne Avenue with mom-and-pop small businesses and apartments in two- and three-story buildings.

Now it’s dramatically denser. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation built its edgy headquarters buildings across from Seattle Center.

Climate Pledge Arena is the lavishly redone 1962 venue, now hosting the NHL Kraken, WNBA Storm, Seattle University basketball and perhaps someday a new NBA Supersonics team among many other uses. Nearby are studios of nonprofit KEXP radio, which is reinventing itself for a more diverse and global audience. Taller buildings line Queen Anne Avenue.

A little farther west, I parked just off Elliott Avenue West with a mocha and the newspaper to watch trains. That train-watching empty lot is gone, replaced by office buildings. Nearby is Expedia’s new headquarters, in the remodeled Amgen campus.

Uptown was more than 63% renters compared with 53% citywide in the most recent study (the shift to a renter-majority city has brought profound political changes). Residents are also more educated and wealthier than the city as a whole.

Many other areas where I watched major change had one big thing in common: light rail.

Link completed its line between downtown and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in December 2009 (Phoenix’s 20-mile starter line opened a year earlier). This opened opportunities for transit-oriented development along the way.

One neighborhood most affected by light rail was Othello in South Seattle. As of 2019, it had a minority of renters compared with the overall city, was poorer, and held 86% population of people of color. The apartment building boom I watched riding the train raised issues of gentrification and displacement of longtime residents.

“The folks in the neighborhood have been concerned that all this market rate housing sprang up immediately,” Sharon Lee, director of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), told Andrew Engleson on the Urbanist blog. “And the affordable housing is taking so long, there’s been such a lag.”

Engleson reported, “Despite that lag, LIHI has been actively creating subsidized housing in the vicinity of the light rail station, with its 106-unit George Fleming Place opening late last year at 7357 43rd Avenue S, adjacent to Othello Park. The complex features a mix of studio, 1-, 2-, and 3-bedroom homes all priced for those earning between 30% and 60% of Area Median Income.”

In 2021, Amazon announced $100 million to build 1,200 affordable housing units near light rail.

Expansion of light rail to the University District was transformative. I remember taking 45-minute bumpy bus rides from the University of Washington back to downtown. With Link, the ride is now smooth and takes less than 10 minutes. This also opened more density, helping fuel Seattle’s top rank in the 2010s as construction crane capital of the nation.

Extension of the line to Northgate in 2021 opens this neighborhood of a declining shopping mall and single-family houses to thousands of apartments, along with the Kraken Community Iceplex, two proposed hotels and redevelopment of the mall. Trains can reach downtown in 14 minutes.

Ballard is still waiting for light rail, but it’s another neighborhood I watched over the past 15 years. Although Ballard has seen increasing density, it’s retained much of its authenticity even as the Scandinavian flavor has been declining.

Density is a hot button, to be sure. Many rightly see it as a way to lower housing costs. Others are understandably concerned that it’s causing neighborhoods to lose their character.

I’ve also sidestepped some of the critical issues that confront Seattle’s future: homelessness, politics, crime and, of course, the pandemic and its aftermath.

Still, I’ve worked at The Seattle Times far longer than at newspapers anywhere else in my career, including San Diego, Denver, Cincinnati, Phoenix and Charlotte, North Carolina.

Even now, with all its ills and challenges, I admit to being star-struck by Seattle. And I say, don’t bet against the city.

For those of you who want to fill in the gaps I’ve left or challenge me, the comments section awaits.

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When I came here in 2007, I had no idea how Seattle would rocket out of the Great Recession into a city transformed.

It gave me a chance to write extensively on the dramatic changes in South Lake Union. Downtown has been a consistent focus of this column, both because it accounts for a majority of the city’s jobs and business tax revenue, but also because a metropolitan area can’t succeed without a dynamic central core.

Yet change has swept across many other neighborhoods as Seattle added more than 128,000 people between 2010 and 2020. In a city of 84 square miles, that’s a staggering change. (By contrast, my hometown Phoenix added nearly 163,000 but in 517 square miles, becoming the nation’s fifth most-populous city).

One example is found in Uptown, the renamed Lower Queen Anne. It already had amenity-rich Seattle Center (site of the 1962 World’s Fair), what’s now called SIFF Cinema Uptown, and Queen Anne Avenue with mom-and-pop small businesses and apartments in two- and three-story buildings.

Now it’s dramatically denser. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation built its edgy headquarters buildings across from Seattle Center.

Climate Pledge Arena is the lavishly redone 1962 venue, now hosting the NHL Kraken, WNBA Storm, Seattle University basketball and perhaps someday a new NBA Supersonics team among many other uses. Nearby are studios of nonprofit KEXP radio, which is reinventing itself for a more diverse and global audience. Taller buildings line Queen Anne Avenue.

A little farther west, I parked just off Elliott Avenue West with a mocha and the newspaper to watch trains. That train-watching empty lot is gone, replaced by office buildings. Nearby is Expedia’s new headquarters, in the remodeled Amgen campus.

Uptown was more than 63% renters compared with 53% citywide in the most recent study (the shift to a renter-majority city has brought profound political changes). Residents are also more educated and wealthier than the city as a whole.

Many other areas where I watched major change had one big thing in common: light rail.

Link completed its line between downtown and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in December 2009 (Phoenix’s 20-mile starter line opened a year earlier). This opened opportunities for transit-oriented development along the way.

One neighborhood most affected by light rail was Othello in South Seattle. As of 2019, it had a minority of renters compared with the overall city, was poorer, and held 86% population of people of color. The apartment building boom I watched riding the train raised issues of gentrification and displacement of longtime residents.

“The folks in the neighborhood have been concerned that all this market rate housing sprang up immediately,” Sharon Lee, director of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), told Andrew Engleson on the Urbanist blog. “And the affordable housing is taking so long, there’s been such a lag.”

Engleson reported, “Despite that lag, LIHI has been actively creating subsidized housing in the vicinity of the light rail station, with its 106-unit George Fleming Place opening late last year at 7357 43rd Avenue S, adjacent to Othello Park. The complex features a mix of studio, 1-, 2-, and 3-bedroom homes all priced for those earning between 30% and 60% of Area Median Income.”

In 2021, Amazon announced $100 million to build 1,200 affordable housing units near light rail.

Expansion of light rail to the University District was transformative. I remember taking 45-minute bumpy bus rides from the University of Washington back to downtown. With Link, the ride is now smooth and takes less than 10 minutes. This also opened more density, helping fuel Seattle’s top rank in the 2010s as construction crane capital of the nation.

Extension of the line to Northgate in 2021 opens this neighborhood of a declining shopping mall and single-family houses to thousands of apartments, along with the Kraken Community Iceplex, two proposed hotels and redevelopment of the mall. Trains can reach downtown in 14 minutes.

Ballard is still waiting for light rail, but it’s another neighborhood I watched over the past 15 years. Although Ballard has seen increasing density, it’s retained much of its authenticity even as the Scandinavian flavor has been declining.

Density is a hot button, to be sure. Many rightly see it as a way to lower housing costs. Others are understandably concerned that it’s causing neighborhoods to lose their character.

I’ve also sidestepped some of the critical issues that confront Seattle’s future: homelessness, politics, crime and, of course, the pandemic and its aftermath.

Still, I’ve worked at The Seattle Times far longer than at newspapers anywhere else in my career, including San Diego, Denver, Cincinnati, Phoenix and Charlotte, North Carolina.

Even now, with all its ills and challenges, I admit to being star-struck by Seattle. And I say, don’t bet against the city.

For those of you who want to fill in the gaps I’ve left or challenge me, the comments section awaits.

#light #rail #density #transformed #Seattles #neighborhoods

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