How Light Rail and Density Transformed Seattle Neighborhoods

When I arrived here in 2007, I had no idea how Seattle would emerge from the Great Recession into a transformed city.

It gave me the opportunity to write at length about the dramatic changes that have taken place in South Lake Union. Downtown has always been the focus of this column, both because it accounts for the majority of the city’s jobs and business tax revenue, but also because a metropolitan area cannot succeed without a core dynamic center.

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

An example is in Uptown, renamed Lower Queen Anne. There was already the Seattle Center (site of the 1962 World’s Fair), what is now called SIFF Cinema Uptown and Queen Anne Avenue with small family businesses and apartments in two- and three-story buildings.

Now it is much denser. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has built its headquarters across from the Seattle Center.

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

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

Downtown had over 63% renters, compared to 53% citywide in the latest study (the transition to a city with a tenant majority has led to profound political changes). Residents are also better educated and wealthier than the city as a whole.

Many other areas where I observed major changes 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 up opportunities for transit-oriented development along the way.

A district most affected by light rail was othello in South Seattle. As of 2019, it had a minority of renters compared to the city as a whole, was poorer, and was 86% people of color. The apartment building boom I saw on the train raised issues of gentrification and displacement of long-time residents.

“People in the neighborhood are worried that all this market-priced housing will appear immediately,” Sharon Lee, director of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), told Andrew Engleson. on the town planner’s blog. “And affordable housing takes so long, there’s been such a lag.”

Engleson reported, “Despite this lag, LIHI has actively created subsidized housing near the light rail station, with its 106 George Fleming Place units opening late last year at 7357 43rd Avenue S, next to Othello Park. The complex includes a mix of studio, 1, 2 and 3 bedroom homes, all priced to suit those earning between 30% and 60% of the area’s median income.

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

The light rail expansion to the University District has been transformative. I remember taking bumpy 45-minute bus rides from the University of Washington to downtown. With Link, the journey is now smooth and takes less than 10 minutes. It also opened up more density, helping to fuel Seattle’s top spot in the 2010s as the nation’s construction crane capital.

The line’s extension to Northgate in 2021 opens up this neighborhood from a declining strip mall and single-family homes to thousands of apartments, along with the Kraken Community Iceplex, two proposed hotels, and strip mall redevelopment. Trains can reach the city center in 14 minutes.

Ballard is still waiting for light rail, but that’s another neighborhood I’ve watched for the past 15 years. Although Ballard experienced an increasing densityit has retained much of its authenticity even though the Scandinavian flavor is on the decline.

Density is a hot button, of course. Many rightly see it as a way to reduce housing costs. Others rightly fear that it will cause neighborhoods to lose their character.

I also avoided some of the critical issues facing Seattle’s future: homelessness, politics, crime and, of course, the pandemic and its aftermath.

Still, I worked at the Seattle Times far longer than at other newspapers in my career, including San Diego, Denver, Cincinnati, Phoenix, and Charlotte, North Carolina.

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

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

Jose P. Rogers