Sunday, April 20, 2008

Light rail construction impacts on the Rainier Valley

Last month my wife and I were invited to attend a party in Columbia City, sort of a restaurant opening. The timing worked out, we got child care for the kids, and we attended, just the two of us, for a nice date. The food was good, the company was good, and the music was good, but it was nonetheless a fairly unique experience for us, as everyone else at the party was African-American, and we're not.

No, this wasn't uncomfortable, and we both enjoyed ourselves quite a bit, even getting up to dance despite not recognizing a single song the DJ was playing, I have always enjoyed such rare and precious exposure to the warm generosity of other, parallel cultures, but in the past I've usually had to travel to get it. My wife and I got to sit and talk at our table like we would have on any other date, and which we have so few opportunities to do now as busy parents, but we also talked with others and got a little bit of the story behind why the restaurant had opened there. You see, the restaurant used to have another location in the Rainier Valley, which had its business destroyed by the light rail construction there. Yes, some money was made available to help mitigate some of these construction impacts on existing businesses there, and some may have been applied to this particular business, but not enough to save it. So they opened a second location and eventually closed the first one.

Last weekend an article came out in the Seattle Times titled "New light rail clears way for an MLK makeover", which related that all the expected new development spurred by this new light rail line's real estate boom would be "forcing out some businesses", much as has been discussed in many similar previous articles on the same subject.

Well, this has obviously occurred, but I wonder at the scale of business closures that have occurred, which do not seem to have been fully reported.

There is certainly some closure to the light rail system being developed to run through the Rainier Valley, which last weekend's Seattle Times article on the subject seems to explicitly address: its main beneficiaries seem to be developers, some of whom were interviewed explicitly on that account. Likewise, the Interurban line on which construction was begun in 1891 (and which ran through 1937) was also built largely to facilitate development in the Rainier Valley, though of course in those days the number of people displaced by construction was rather smaller. One hopes that Central Link light rail will provide somewhat safer, faster, and more reliable service than the old Interurban did, but I don't think anyone is under any illusions that operating such a transportation link will be any more profitable now than it was then, raising the question of which group will benefit from the construction of this new transportation link most. "Developers" seems to be the answer, though of course the benefit to future residents will be tangible, as it will be to some local businesses that are able adapt to change by spending enough to cater to the new and more gentrified clientele, and of course to anyone who owns property in that area.

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