Empty Lots Abound: Why Are There So Many Vacant Properties Near Rainier Beach Light Rail?

by Erica C. Barnett

Plans to turn some of the land immediately adjacent to the Rainier Beach light rail station into the centerpiece of a new “food innovation district”—a proposed network of food businesses and food-related activities aimed at creating living-wage jobs and preventing displacement in the Rainier Valley—remain stalled, after a property that advocates hoped would serve as the hub for that district sold last month to a company controlled by a local landlord who owns numerous single-family homes in the area.

As the Emerald reported back in May, the Rainier Beach Action Coalition had hoped to purchase the property on the southeast corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. Way and S. Henderson St., which is currently the site of a Mexican grocery store. Those plans were thwarted when another bidder, former city council member (and onetime food innovation district champion) Richard Conlin, outbid RBAC. (At the time, Conlin said he had no idea RBAC was bidding on the property, which he planned to develop as affordable artist housing). However, Conlin subsequently withdrew his bid, and the property sold to a mystery backup bidder.

The new owner, the Emerald has learned, is Greg Goodwin, a Rainier Beach landlord who owns and leases about a dozen single-family houses in the blocks surrounding the light-rail station. (Goodwin is the son of the late Albert (A.C.) Goodwin, a longtime property owner and manager in the area; the Goodwin family companies now include Greg D. Goodwin Co., Civetta Properties, and Roan Properties, which purchased the light-rail station property through a Las Vegas-based subsidiary called Radner Properties).

Neither Goodwin nor his sister Gael Goodwin, who is listed as the agent for the now-defunct A.C. Goodwin Properties, returned calls seeking comment about their plans for the property. David Sauvion, the co-founder of RBAC and coordinator for the food innovation district, says RBAC has tried to reach out to the family but “they don’t want anything to do with us. They are difficult to engage.” However, Sauvion says he has heard that “they have no short-term plan for the property; as far as we know, the space will stay vacant.”

Although the first leg of Sound Transit’s Link light rail opened nearly a decade ago, the corridor still has no shortage of vacant properties. Many are owned by Sound Transit—recognizable by their chain link fences and gravel lots, which leaf-blower-wielding workers periodically clear of trash and other detritus. So why are there so still many empty lots along the southern leg of the light rail line in the Rainier Valley? And why is it so hard to build new housing at light rail stations in South Seattle, given that “transit-oriented development” is such a critical component of new light-rail stations elsewhere in the city?

To answer those questions, you have to go back to the early 2000s, when light rail was still immensely controversial in the Valley. At the time, a group called Save Our Valley (whose members included Pat Murakami, a current candidate for Seattle City Council) was fighting to force Sound Transit to run its rail line underground instead of at-grade in order to minimize the impact on neighborhood businesses. Although SOV lost that battle, Sound Transit tacitly acknowledged their objections in its approach to buying land-use for light-rail construction staging in the area; they aimed, in the words of Sound Transit land use and planning director Brooke Belman, to “take the smallest amount of property as possible and acquire as minimal a footprint as possible. … The [Sound Transit] board, at the time, was certainly cognizant of not wanting to buy too much property from the existing property owners down there.”

The result was that Sound Transit was left with a large number of oddly shaped “remnant” properties that can’t be easily developed, including parking strips, narrow parcels immediately in front of existing businesses, and those weird fenced-in lots that dot the length of the light rail line.

Today, Belman says, Sound Transit’s approach to property acquisition “has done about a 180” since a decade ago. If light rail was being built in the Valley today, “We probably would have consolidated a lot of the staging that we did instead of just leaving those remnants.”

One issue Sound Transit didn’t anticipate, Belman says, is the failure of the private market to build housing, retail, and services in Rainier Beach on its own. “There was a lot of hope that private development would come right behind us in the Rainier Valley” and start to create residential and retail hubs at the stations, she says. But that hasn’t happened—at least not yet.

Sound Transit isn’t the only agency responsible for the lack of development at the Rainier Beach station; the city—specifically the mayor’s office and the city’s planning department, now known as the Office of Planning and Community Development—bears some of the responsibility as well. Right now, much of the land near the light rail station is still zoned for exclusive single-family use, rendering it off-limits for new apartment, townhouse, row house, duplex, or retail developments. The rest is low-rise or neighborhood commercial—land use designations that allow things like townhouses and four-story apartment buildings, not the kind of intense development seen at other stations (like Columbia City a few miles up the road.)

That is slated to change under HALA—the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, which would upzone much of the station area, allowing four-to-seven-story buildings—but the fact remains that the zoning throughout much of the Rainier Beach station area is more fitting for a sleepy area with limited transit access—say, Blue Ridge—than a growing, but still relatively affordable, community within a few blocks of a major light rail hub.

Robert Scully, OCPD’s point person on Rainier Beach station development, says former mayor Mike McGinn directed the department to begin work on rezoning the area, but that work stalled under new Mayor Ed Murray, who wanted to take a more comprehensive approach to updating land use throughout the whole city. “We had a rezone proposal kind of ready to go up to the mayor’s office; we just got held up,” Scully says. That proposal would have provided incentives for food production facilities—in other words, a food innovation hub. Now, Murray is focused on affordable housing, not food production.

The land also presents other challenges—it’s shoehorned into a valley, with rising hills on each side, which makes large developments challenging and expensive. The single-family lots around the light-rail station are owned by dozens of different property owners, so any developer who wanted to build, say, a large affordable-housing complex would have to convince many different people to sell. And there’s really no way, Scully says, for the city to force land owners to include food production in private developments.

“We live in a political system and an economy that’s heavily based on property rights and the real estate market,” he says. “In doing this for the past five years, I’ve kind of arrived at the conclusion that the best tool is for the community, maybe in partnership with a developer or a nonprofit, to actually [purchase] some land down there—enough so that they could actually develop this facility, and that could help influence other development in the area.” Of course, that’s what RBAC had hoped to do. For now, the land will remain vacant.

“We tried,” Sauvion says.

Erica C. Barnett is a longtime Seattle journalist who covers city politics and policy as a freelance journalist for various print and online publications and at her blog, The C Is for Crank. Previously, she was a co-founder of PubliCola, the local politics blog, a staff writer and news editor at the Stranger, a reporter for Seattle Weekly, and news editor at the Austin Chronicle in Austin, Texas. 

featured image “chain link part 1” by e. belknap is licensed under CC BY 2.0


16 thoughts on “Empty Lots Abound: Why Are There So Many Vacant Properties Near Rainier Beach Light Rail?”

  1. It is interesting to note that the only stretch of the Light rail that is not elevated or in a tunnel is the strip down MLK way. Many of us felt we should be treated equal to other parts of town. Put it in a tunnel or maybe elevated if necessary. No one paid us much attention because we do not have much political clout in S. E. Seattle. Of course it went to the airport as opposed to South Center and then on to the airport. 100 times more people go to South Center every day than to the airport. I realize the city would like to place all the low income housing in S. E. Seattle. Why not spread these housing projects through the whole city? Could it be because land values are lower here because of the City’s previous actions? By concentrating it in one area you prevent major food stores, clothing stores, etc from opening here. Well we ever be treated equally in S. E. Seattle?

    1. You have to remember that originally the light rail was supposed to go down the Duwamish Valley at grade, but SE Seattle residents demanded that it go down Rainier Valley. The deal was that it would still travel at grade if routed down Rainier. Be thankful you got it! You were certainly treated more equal than people in Georgetown and South Park, let alone Delridge.

      1. That was never offered in any of the meetings I attended. It was it will be on the surface. Tough!! No you will not get a tunnel. Now that the city council has driven Amazon to open a second HQ some where else. S E Seattle looses again. We have the open space and workers. But the current city council did nothing but give them grief. Throw the incumbents out. They are so anti business they run them and the jobs they provide out. Vote in a new city council.

      1. That was never offered in any of the meetings I attended. It was it will be on the surface. Tough!! No you will not get a tunnel. Now that the city council has driven Amazon to open a second HQ some where else. S E Seattle looses again. We have the open space and workers. But the current city council did nothing but give them grief. Throw the incumbents out. They are so anti business they run them and the jobs they provide out. Vote in a new city council.

      2. Most of the property owners who had property taken by Sound Transit did not want to sell. Why should those in the south center path be treated differently than those along MLK?

      3. Actually ST never put Southcenter on offer. Very late in the game, the City of Tukwila offered to put their own money on the table for the marginal cost of going to the airport via Southcenter. ST’s studies showed it would lengthen the trip to the airport by as much as 15 minutes (and trips from the eventual line to FW). That would deter that ridership more than the gains from Southcenter ridership. So they politely declined money from Tukwila.

  2. It’s really sad that the Conlin group pulled out of the development ig that great corner lot across from the station. We need affordable housing.

    The so-called “food innovation district” is a joke. RBAC does not speak for the overwhelming majority of people who live in and near Rainier Beach.

    I sure hope the next mayor will seek out the opinions of the rest of us in regards to the direction of our community. Housing. Housing. Housing.

  3. Good article by ECB. Derf, There is not benefit to re-litigating the past. How do we move forward? Anti-Trump has the correct observation about RBAC and a forward looking plan that the market (all of us who buy stuff) actually will support with enough purchases or rent payments (with the proper re-zoning) to allow a developer to pay a mortgage and operating costs.

  4. RBAC has not ever claimed to speak for the neighborhood, to my knowledge. However, RBAC has gone out in the neighborhood to ask those who live, learn, work, play, worship and shop in RB what they think. RBAC has amplified that to the community at large and the powers that be. Tell us what have you done and we’ll add it to the mix? Learn more about what the neighborhood thinks on September 28, 2017 (Thursday) at the Town Hall on Education in Rainier Beach. 6:30 pm, hosted by South Lake High School principal Laura Brown at South Lake High. Challenging but exciting times!!! Come join us!

    1. When has RBAC amplified community calls for more police staffing, even though there are strong pluralities (likely as strong pluralities for other options – that are complimentary not competing, BTW) for that? RBAC is un-representative when it amplifies some policies from the community and not others.