New rail line spawns TOD in Seattle

The Seattle area’s first light-rail line, Central Link, opened on July 18, carrying passengers from downtown Seattle southward for 14 miles, to just short of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The line passes through a bedraggled, auto-oriented section of the Rainier Valley in southeast Seattle that is expected to eventually blossom with new housing and other development, now that it’s comfortably linked to the city center.

Beneath downtown, the $3.9 billion Central Link runs in a tunnel — the world’s only tunnel shared by buses (diesel-electric hybrids) and light-rail trains according to the operator, Sound Transit. The trains run at street level in Rainier Valley, and use elevated tracks in the City of Tukwila, temporarily the line’s southernmost point. By December, another 1.7 miles will be added, reaching the airport.

More than 300 units to be built
Ground was broken in August for the first transit-oriented development along the route — a six-story complex in Rainier Valley that will contain 351 apartments and 20,000 sq. ft. of retail. Called The Station at Othello Park, the $70 million project will be adjacent to the rail system’s Othello Station. The retail portion will have 20-foot sidewalks, part of which can be used for café seating, says Steve Rauf, president and CEO of developer Othello Partners. Across a street from the development, Othello Partners intends to build another 370 apartments and 20,000 sq. ft. of retail, possibly starting in 2010 or 2011.

The Seattle Times last year described Rainier Valley’s principal road, Martin Luther King Jr. Way, as lined by aging houses, strip shopping centers, auto repair shops, and parking lots. Much of that landscape is expected to evolve into compact, walkable neighborhoods centering on transit stations — after the current recession ends. Rauf says the area near Othello Station has already improved because of the 102-acre, 1,400-unit NewHolly HOPE VI development, a new urban community built on the site of worn-out Holly Park public housing.

From Othello Station, residents can ride the rails to downtown’s Union Station in 15 minutes or to Seattle’s Westlake Center in 22 minutes. The airport will be 15 minutes in the other direction. Rainier Valley is known for its racial and ethnic mix: Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, African-Americans, Ethiopians, whites, and others. Some of the units in Rauf’s development will be reserved for people of below-median income.

By early 2008, developers had announced a number of projects they would be building along the rail line. Nearly all were later put on hold because of the depressed economy and tight credit.
“Once the housing market turns around, there’s a lot of interested developers who want to do apartments and condos around stations,” says Andrew Austin, policy associate with the Seattle-based nonprofit Transportation Choices Coalition. Along future light-rail routes as well, “there’s a lot of opportunity for compact growth and development,” Austin observes.

Construction has already begun for Sound Transit’s second light-rail line, University Link, which will go to the University of Washington.