This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.


Saturday the 28th of April was a sunny Spring day, so I decided to take a bike ride through the Rainier Valley along the Light Rail route. I thought about riding the lunch bus, but decided it was better to go “unembedded.” At least I’d get some exercise.

(You can see all my photos on Flickr, or browse the Orphan Road photo map )

When friends come to visit me in Seattle, we do the usual tourist things, like the Market and the Needle (the Sculpture Park and the Library are the latest additions to the tour). But they rarely get a glimpse of South Seattle. Driving between downtown and the airport, your view of Seattle’s most diverse neighborhood is obscured by Beacon Hill. It’s incredibly easy for visitors to miss the thriving Muslim, Vietnamese, and Aftrican immigrant communitites that call Seattle home.

But that will change in 2009, as light rail snakes its way through the Rainier Valley between Sea-Tac Airport and Downtown. How will it change our visitors’ minds to ride past the Vietnamese supermarkets and community centers that dot Martin Luther King Jr Way? How will it change Seattle’s image of itself? These are the questions that consumed me as I rode my bike down the (mostly) paved MLK Way, dodging construction sites and marveling at all the new housing developments.

Of the 14 miles of track that will open for business in late 2009, the 6-mile stretch through the Rainier Valley is by far the most interesting — and most controversial. The train will slow from 55mph to 35mph as it winds its way through here. The choice of route is a double-edged sword. Had Sound Transit simply wanted a straight shot to the Airport, it could have simply followed the I-5 corridor all the way, which would have easily shaved $1B or more off the price tag and probably 10-15 minutes off the travel time between Downtown and Sea-Tac. It would also have prevented a lot of the tension between community groups who were less than excited about seeing their neighborhoods uprooted. On the other hand, it would have drastically cut the potential ridership and may have even made the transit agency ineligible for Federal grant funds, which give preference to projects that redevelop underserved communities.

McClellan Station Goes Up IMG_0407

The Rainier Valley segment begins at McClellan St. in the Mount Baker neighborhood, where the tracks emerge from the Beacon Hill tunnel. You can see the station going up across from the Franklin High School football field. From there it hops right onto MLK Way. The sheer volume of freshly poured concrete is overwhelming, its presence made more intense by its virgin white sheen and the reflection the sun. It will take several rainy Seattle winters and years of wearing in before it feels like part of the landscape.

For now, the new road spreads out in all directions like a concrete version of the Yellow Brick Road from the Wizard of Oz, which is fitting for a place often referred to as the “Emerald City.” The sidewalks have also been re-done, although a few gaps remain.

Out with the Old... New Construction

New housing construction abounds, juxtaposed with some older buildings. The new neighborhoods are still very much ethnically mixed. The size and scope of these new developments serves as a reminder that, for all their attendant costs, rail lines generate the kind of transit-friendly urban redevelopment that bus routes can never match. Rail offers a sense of permanence that’s understandably comforting to someone about to sign off on a 30-year mortgage.

If you build it, they will come. And they may even get here before you finish building.

Tread Carefully Businesses Open

Of course, all this building comes with its share of consequences. It’s been a hellish couple of years for businesses along this corridor, despite ST’s efforts to mitigate the effects of construction with “open for business” signs and, in some cases, cash payments. Some homeowners have seen their basements flood as construction workers churn the surrounding landscape. (If you want to see some truly disruptive construction, look into the building of New York’s IRT in 1904.)

Vietnamese Businesses Grandma and Grandchild Navigate MLK Way

But the concrete marches on. And along the way we still see plenty of signs of life, from temples to taco buses. From what I’ve last read, ST is not going to put up crossing gates at the intersections along the route. This seems a bit risky, but one must assume they’ve put a lot of thought into pedestrian safety. There will be crossing gates in SODO, because, ST claims, people are used to having them there (due to the freight tracks that run through the area). Portland’s light rail and streetcar network don’t use crossing gates, so it must be standard.

Buddhist Temple Taco Bus!

The rails have only gone in south of Orcas St. Between McClellan and Orcas its still just a wide patch of dirt between the highway. Speaking of dirt, I was initially surprised — and a bit disappointed — as I wove from street to sidewalk, that there are no bike lanes on MLK, nor will there be once construction is completed. This seems like a glaring omission for a multimodal transportation system. But as I approached Henderson St., I caught a glimpse of the new Chief Sealth Trail, which follows a Seattle City Light power corridor and roughly parallels MLK way. It will be a boon to bike riders when it opens later this year:

P-Patch The New Chief Sealth Trail

South of Henderson St. (and the Community P-Patch above), MLK way becomes a mostly industrial area, as it heads for an intersection with I-5. South of I-5, the tracks run on their own dedicated right-of-way almost all the way to the Airport.

Bridge Over Boeing Road Bridge over I-5 at Boeing Road

Once I hit the Boeing Access road, I decided it was uninteresting — and probably unsafe — to try and follow the route any further. So I turned around, headed up South Ryan Way, and made my way north via Seward Park and Lake Washington Boulevard. It still amazes me how quickly the neighborhood changes on that side of the ridge.

Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but I believe that the light rail will be, in the long run, a positive development for this part of town. Sure, there will be some amount of gentrification, but that was going to happen anyway. There’s a finite amount of land inside the city limits, and it’s all going to get gobbled up eventually. But hopefully, as tourists and locals are whisked between the Convention Center and the Airport, they’ll gain a new appreciation for this part of the city, which is all too easy to forget about as you drive south on Rainier Avenue, Lake Washington Boulevard, or Interstate 5.

When I lived in Philadelphia, taking the train into the city meant winding through the industrial wasteland of North Philly, full of burned-out and abandoned factories and warehouses. It was a perspective you couldn’t get while driving in on I-95, but it helped to put the history of the city in context. To be sure, the Rainier Valley is nothing like North Philly, but opening up a new corridor will give those of us who don’t frequent the area a new perspective on our city its people. And that will be a good thing.