Kim Pham has had ringside seats on all the big changes coming to the Rainier Valley, the impoverished, polyglot district that descends like a wide slow river through Seattle’s southeast quadrant. In 1985, 10 years after the Vietnam War ended and six years after he came to this country, Kim started a graphics business in Columbia City, the run-down historic district at the valley’s heart. Soon afterward he moved to bigger quarters near Rainier Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, the valley’s main intersection. But printing flyers and menus was just a way station toward Kim’s real goal: “Ever since the war, I have a dream,” he says, smiling. “I want to start a newspaper.” In 1986 the dream came true and Kim launched the weekly (now semiweekly) Nguoi Viet Tay Bac, aka Northwest Vietnamese News.
Kim watched as one immigrant group after another poured into “Southeast,” Seattle’s Ellis Island: Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians landed where Italians, Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Samoans, and Orthodox Jews had already passed, followed in turn by Mexicans, Central Americans, and Somalis, whose bright robes and hijabs light up the sidewalks like spring flowers year-round. He saw Columbia City become a glamorous island of pubs, galleries, and theaters. He chronicled the pell-mell growth of Little Saigon, the teeming business district along Jackson Street at the valley’s head, and the rise of another Vietnamese business district, surpassing Jackson Street, along MLK Way.
Meanwhile, along that same corridor, the most dramatic transformation in the valley’s landscape in half a century is reaching fruition. Since mid-March, a stream of shiny new trains bearing Sound Transit’s ever-so-Northwest aqua-and-blue logo has tooled up and down the middle of Martin Luther King Jr. Way, racking up their federally mandated test hours before they start carrying passengers. This is the first phase in Sound Transit’s Link Light Rail, the little engine (with the big budget) that could. On July 18, after two decades of delays, cost escalations, and ballot challenges, Link will start running between downtown and Tukwila, with Sea-Tac Airport soon to follow.
Kim Pham and his staff (mostly his kids) know from personal experience how big projects like rail lines can affect established urban areas. Six years ago Link’s -McClellan Street station displaced their office and neighboring businesses. They moved to King Plaza, a Vietnamese shopping center three miles to the south, overlooking the Othello Street station. The passing trains there are a thrilling sight, speedy enough to make the Lake Union Streetcar seem like a shopping cart. Come July they will ferry passengers downtown in just 10 to 15 minutes. And they will pass as often as every seven-and-half minutes during rush hours, a boon to those commuters who live near the valley’s four widely spaced stations.
Fortunately for Sound Transit’s ridership prospects, a massive redevelopment by the Seattle Housing Authority, Southeast Seattle’s largest landlord, will plant more residents nearby—adding more than 600 owner-occupied homes to its Holly Park (now -NewHolly) and Rainier Vista housing projects, next to the Othello and Alaska light-rail stations. The operative buzzword is “transit-oriented development.” Clustering stations, stores, services, and residential density together, putting everything within easy walking and pedestrian access. “When the trains start running, investment will follow,” says one booster, Seattle City Council member (and Rainier Valley resident) Sally Clark.
But so far two other players essential to any Rainier Valley renaissance have held back: private developers and retailers.
Since the 1970s virtually no for-profit, market-rate condos or apartments have gone up in the valley. Then, starting in 2006, a slew came off the drawing boards, spurred by three factors: the imminent light rail, Columbia City’s popularity, and the late great real estate boom. Bye-bye, boom. The market chill and financing freeze have killed some projects and slowed others. The largest, 370-plus apartments that Harbor Properties wants to build on a soon-to-be vacant industrial site in Columbia City, is still proceeding, but on a slower track.
Throughout the Link line’s planning and construction, Southeast Seattle has ridden an emotional and political roller coaster. Transit officials first proposed running through the largely uninhabited Duwamish industrial corridor. Southeast Seattle advocates urged an alternate route, down Rainier Avenue, their district’s main commercial corridor. Be careful what you wish for. Sound Transit agreed to a valley route, but down MLK instead. And rather than tunneling, as it will under neighborhoods north of downtown, Sound Transit opted to run the tracks down the middle of MLK Way.
Southeast Seattleites cried unfair at the disparity: Once again their district—with its surfeit of subsidized housing and shortages of parks, police, swimming pools, and crosswalks—was getting the short end of the funding stick. As they feared, the line’s construction made MLK a near-impassable gauntlet, displacing many of the businesses along the route; 71 out of 310 moved and 25 closed. Many more doubtless would have closed if Sound Transit, prodded by the neighborhood uprising against surface rail, hadn’t established a mitigation fund. So far it’s dispersed over $15 million to 178 affected businesses, from pho joints and minimarts to car repair shops and an Elks Club.
Despite that lifeline and rail advocates’ rosy forecasts, new retail is conspicuously absent from Seattle Housing Authority’s redeveloped Rainier Vista. “Why would anyone want to live there if they can’t get a latte?” asks veteran valley Realtor Ray -Akers. The housing authority blames the poor economy and hopes to sell a couple vacant parcels at the corner of MLK and Alaska for mixed residential-retail development. But Akers, who helped bring a movie house, a hip bar, and other amenities to Columbia City, sees the retail shortfall at Rainier Vista as symptomatic of a broader failure to attract new business to the corridor. The first business to open at the new McClellan station was a pawnshop—“our first ever in the valley,” he notes bitterly. “And the most notable new businesses down here are payday loan outlets.”
Down the valley, the Vietnamese merchants—Kim Pham’s customers—have held on. But Kim fears that the trains that were supposed to bring new life to this Little Saigon 2.0 will doom it instead. The reason: You can’t get here from there. And if you do, you can’t park.
MLK Way emerged from the construction as a sort of slow-motion divided highway, broad and stately but hell to cross or turn left on. Its on-street parking was lost to the rail line, and King Plaza’s lots are already full. Soon commuters will try to park here and ride, and competition for spaces will get even fiercer. The stations have no park-and-rides; the City wants passengers to walk, bike, or bus to the train, not drive. It will institute residents-only street parking, further squeezing the merchants’ customers, who drive in from areas far off the rail line. Already, says Kim, rising rents have pushed many out to smaller suburban shopping districts.
“Before,” he says, “it was like Vietnam here”—a cohesive, concentrated ethnic district. “Now we can never have that. Where do we go?”