Photo depicting an empty lot near a South End light rail station.

Light Rail in the Rainier Valley, 10 Years Later

by Lizz Giordano

For more than a decade, light rail trains have whizzed through the Rainier Valley, but the development along the corridor that many expected would follow has lagged behind. 

The 2008 recession combined with a negative perception of the South End by developers are both blamed for some of that lethargic growth around the South End stations. Though the pace of development has picked up in recent years, swaths of land still lie vacant near many stations. Meanwhile, frustrations over Sound Transit’s decision to build the line along Martin Luther King Jr. Way South at street level linger because of increased safety concerns.

“The big story with light rail is that some parts of the corridor saw the kind of development that was anticipated and some didn’t, notably Rainier Beach,” said Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales. “The things that were anticipated were delayed substantially, but they are coming.”

Morales also attributes the way that Sound Transit acquired land across the corridor for hampering some of the stagnant development around the stations.

To have as light of a footprint as possible, the agency bought very small parcels along the route for staging construction. This left the agency with a collection of tiny, odd-shaped parcels of land adjacent to stations. 

Many of them won’t accommodate a 200–300 unit apartment building, Morales said. That makes them ill-suited for the original vision of transit-oriented development near stations that would add density and retail spaces.

“I think that is one of the lessons learned from Sound Transit and why they are doing things differently in the new track they are laying,” she said. “As they were laying the Rainier Valley corridor down, they learned a lot of important lessons, but learned them at the expense of folks down here in the Rainier Valley. So I think that is part of the frustration, and, candidly, I think there is a sort of palpable frustration that things seem to be going really well up north.”

Much of the acrimony stems from Sound Transit’s decision to place a large section that runs through the Rainier Valley at street level — meaning pedestrians, commuters, bicyclists, cars, and trucks navigate four lanes of Martin Luther King Jr. Way S. along with north- and south-bound trains.

It’s a safety issue no other neighborhood deals with, said Ruth Korkowski, a longtime Rainier Valley resident who lives a few blocks off Martin Luther King Jr. “They haven’t built it at-grade anywhere else and never considered building it at-grade anywhere else.” 

A recently released investigation into two people struck and killed by a train last year raises concerns about pedestrian safety along the light rail corridor, especially for Rainier Valley residents. On average, nearly once a year someone, usually a pedestrian, is killed in a collision with a light rail train, with most of the fatalities happening in the Rainier Valley. 

Korkowski belonged to the group Save Our Valley, which advocated for a tunnel and burying the track, as Sound Transit planned the route through the South End. Later she collected 1,000 signatures for the group’s push to put an initiative before voters prohibiting at-grade light rail in the city following an unsuccessful lawsuit. The measure never made it to the ballot. 

The construction of the track in the middle of the street also severely impacted the neighborhood. The retired librarian remembers Martin Luther King Jr. Way S. being a dirt road during construction on the 4.5-mile at-grade section from Mount Baker to the city’s southern limits. 

“It made everyone’s life miserable during the construction,” Korkowski said. 

Development Finally Reaching All Stations

The intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Way S. and South Henderson Street comes alive when crowds of school kids and commuters stream off trains at the Rainier Beach Station. But between light rail trains, the intersection is quiet and devoid of foot traffic. 

The Vegetable Bin convenience store sits opposite from a parking lot, and a vacant building anchors the southeast corner. Complicating the already steep terrain to the west, Seattle City Light’s transmission lines cut across Martin Luther King Jr. Way S. just north of the station, leaving a wide strip of barren land.

Along with the topography complicating development, the perception of crime and safety in the neighborhood probably made developers a bit more cautious about investing in this area, said David Sauvion of the Rainier Beach Action Coalition (RBAC).

“If they haven’t seen a successful project come out of the ground, they are going to hold back and let someone else take the risk,” he added. 

Sauvion is pushing for something a little different around the city’s most southern station: a Food Innovation District to spur jobs and economic development focusing on Communities of Color who are experiencing a high risk of displacement. RBAC owns land next to the station and hopes to break ground in a few years on a building for the project.

“It’s been this difficult balancing act for us, encouraging development but at the same time wanting to make sure that the people benefiting from this would be the current residents of the neighborhood,” Sauvion said. 

The Rainier Beach Station area is ripe for development, he said. “We know it’s coming, it’s just when and who?” 

There’s about a thousand housing units in the pipeline for the neighborhood, Sauvion estimates. 

That includes a project just south of the Rainier Beach Station by the nonprofit developer Mt. Baker Housing. Early plans show a multistory building with about 200 apartments. 

Nonprofits who historically worked in neighborhoods further north are migrating south, Sauvion said. “Those are the only land opportunities that are still affordable to them.” 

The major development around Othello Station is another nonprofit project. The project, spearheaded by HomeSight, broke ground on a large piece of land that has sat vacant since the station opened in 2009. Othello Square includes a school, medical clinic, childcare facility, and affordable housing, for rent and purchase.

The neighborhood does benefit from light rail by bringing people through as they travel from Sea-Tac to downtown, said State Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, who represents parts of Seattle and Renton.

“So that is a pro; they can see our businesses, they can see our banners, our murals,” Saldaña said. “But it was built from the airport to the convention center; it was really to move other people. It wasn’t meant for us.”

Adding a station at South Graham Street, where there is community-owned property, is really important for the neighborhood, Saldaña said. 

“If we can control it, that means access,” she added. “A lot of times, where stations go historically is where the private [entities] can make the most money.” 

The long-promised station, which avoided elimination in the spring as Sound Transit grapples with a $6.5 billion funding gap, is set to open in 2031. 

Even in areas with more established business districts, such as Columbia City, development lagged a few years behind the opening of the light rail line. In recent years, growth has ramped up. 

“In a lot of places, land sat empty unless there was already a plan as the economy entered the recession,” according to Flora Tempel, the administrative director of the Mt. Baker Hub Alliance.

“There were many levels of uncertainty,” Tempel said. “Developers were unable to find capital, plus they weren’t sure who and if people were going to be riding the line.”

Meanwhile, light rail expansion continues up north. In early October, Sound Transit opened the Northgate Extension, stretching the line another three stations north from Husky Stadium through the U District and the Roosevelt neighborhood. East Link, which will bring light rail to Bellevue and Redmond, is set to open in 2023, followed by Lynnwood Link a year later.

Sound Transit is currently studying how to make fare compliance more equitable and is seeking public input. The agency found that their fare enforcement disproportionately affected People of Color, particularly Black riders, who were more likely to be cited, fined or referred to the courts.

Sound Transit is hosting two Virtual Town Halls on Nov. 9:

To request interpretation services for the event, please list requested language(s) in the registration form. 

Sound Transit has also launched a community survey for riders to share their feedback at Responses are due Nov. 17. If you’d like to talk with the Emerald about this issue or your experience with fare enforcement, please contact

Lizz Giordano is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Seattle’s Rainier Valley focusing on transit and housing. She can be reached on Twitter @lizzgior, and more of her work can be found on her website.

📸 Featured Image: Small parcels of Sound Transit land that are difficult to build on have stymied development for the last decade along the light rail corridor running through the Rainier Valley. (Photo: Lizz Giordano)

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