Image: Joe Anderson

Catch the light rail southbound, and when you erupt from the tunnel after Beacon Hill station, you see a city shifting: multicolored duplexes and mixed-use buildings. Continue, though, and development dissipates. In Rainier Beach, Seattle’s southernmost neighborhood, empty lots and old buildings flank the tracks. 

In one of these, a small brown house, resides the Rainier Beach Action Coalition (RBAC), a nonprofit working at an endless question: How do you change a neighborhood for the better—infrastructure, housing, safety, jobs, childcare, healthy food—without banishing its current residents? The RBAC’s guide is the Rainier Beach Neighborhood Plan, a document focused on improving just those things. The plan was born back in 1994, but the city didn’t approve an adapted version until 2016, and little has yet been implemented. Light rail, supposedly a boon, hasn’t much helped. 

“Many of the things we were told would occur as a result of the light rail amenity, it’s almost like the opposite has happened,” Gregory Davis, RBAC’s managing strategist, says. More mobility? Sound Transit’s fare enforcement has punished Black riders more than others (and Rainier Beach residents are predominantly people of color). It’s a lakeside neighborhood with plenty to offer, but it’s still dotted with empty lots, and food insecurity remains a problem.

Yet Rainier Beach also hasn’t gentrified as quickly as northerly areas. A 2018 University of Washington study by sociologist Chris Hess found that while Columbia City and Beacon Hill grew increasingly white following light rail, in Othello and Rainier Beach that impact faded. In part, Hess cites ride time: Rainier Beach is 35 minutes to downtown. Columbia City is 18. 

Davis thinks change has moved slowly outward from downtown, but it is coming. Of the 10 developments planned in Rainier Beach, the Office of Housing has recently backed four. Mayor Jenny Durkan announced three of those in December, the biggest investment in any one neighborhood of the $110 million the city pledged to affordable housing. The three projects amount to 496 units, and the bottom floors will be given to the Ethiopian Community in Seattle, the Rainier Valley Food Bank, and a childhood development center.

Yet around the station land sits vacant. In some cases, developers have kept lots without building. But Sound Transit’s construction also left oddly divided parcels that’ve sat empty. The agency is now working with the city, trying to fill them with affordable homes.

Tammy J. Morales, who used to work with RBAC and now holds the city council seat for District 2, thinks the unused parcels stem from a larger issue: Talks about transit’s effects on neighborhoods, with regards to equity and systemic racism, have only recently taken off. “The unfortunate thing,” she says, “is that as the Rainier Valley was the first part of town to get light rail, we were also sort of the guinea pig.” 

In some ways, Rainier Beach still is. But Davis is working with hope. Pointing to a couple buildings on a lot across from RBAC, where he plans to build the food innovation center, he mentioned the project would mean moving two current households, so they’d be finding a way to do so justly. As such changes take shape, eyes are on Rainier Beach. “Folks recognize that we’re at the crux, and other neighborhoods, who are about to experience everything, are calling on us.” 

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