April 2003: Preservation in Columbia City
By Heather MacIntosh

Columbia City, located due south and east of downtown, is one of few Seattle neighborhoods that were once independent towns. The neighborhood's main street (Rainier Avenue South) and the many historic houses near this core, well represent these autonomous roots. Columbia City is one of few designated historic districts in Seattle. Designation and strong community support have helped the neighborhood turn around since the 1970s and 80s.

Valued Past

Like Ballard, another once-independent town, Columbia City has a solid sense of its past. In 1891, community members formed the Pioneers of Columbia City and Vicinity that served to document, preserve and connect the lives of early residents. According to Charles Payton, Heritage Program Manager at the King County Cultural Development Authority, Rainier Valley's is one of the oldest continuously-operating historical societies in the state. Originally, the Pioneers had highly restrictive membership criteria that excluded anyone who had not lived in the Valley more than 50 years or ancestors with roots in the neighborhood. In May of 1993, the organization opened its doors to anyone interested in Rainier Valley's history and changed its name to the Rainier Valley Historical Society.

The story of the place is captured in an extensive archival collection consisting of historic photographs, newspapers, maps, letters, and documents reflecting Rainier Valley history since 1853.

An electric railway begun by promoter J. K. Edmiston and his partners in 1889 helped the nascent community grow into an incorporated city, formed in 1893. In 1907, Columbia City residents voted in favor of annexation with Seattle to support basic amenities in the growing town. Until the Great Depression, business in the neighborhood was brisk. The dissolution of the Rainier Avenue interurban hurt the area which saw many economic ups and downs since its founding. The 1970s were arguably the neighborhood's lowest point. Reuben McKnight, a one-time Historic Seattle intern, spent his first years in Columbia City (born 1974) and remembers that his father slept with a baseball bat under his bed. The family moved to Queen Anne shortly after discovering a gun shot victim on their front porch. Exodus was the trend in the 70s, which left more room for violence and crime.

This neglect thwarted development, but also prevented much demolition or insensitive alterations to the many historic buildings in the town's core. The high concentration of early 20th century buildings, and its Carnegie Library surrounded by a "village green" park, helped much of Columbia City become a designated historic district in 1978.

District designation, and the distinctive character of the area, helped create a foundation for revitalization, but it took a strong, grass roots effort to reshape the community.

Work in Progress

The Columbia City neighborhood is a great example of historic preservation and community revitalization working together well. The "diamond in the rough" has emerged as a racially and economically diverse community strengthened by its heritage. The neighborhood's growing success points to the potential role of heritage and preservation in other communities. Columbia City serves as a center for other South Seattle neighborhoods, and has a large number of organizations and services that support the area's cultural and economic vitality.

SEED (SouthEast Effective Development) was founded in 1975 to aid in the redevelopment of the area even before Columbia City became a historic district. SEED encourages business retention, housing preservation, and effective partnerships that stimulate increased revitalization of the neighborhood. SEED administers a fašade improvement program called the Good Neighbor Fund that has improved the appearance of 30 local businesses and generated over $150,000 in private reinvestment.

SEED owns and manages the Rainier Valley Cultural Center which is home to a number of cultural and arts programs as well as the Rainier Valley Historic Society. Originally the Fifth Church of Christ Scientist, built in 1921, the Cultural Center is a signature building at the edge of the district. The adaptive reuse of the historic church provided a fantastic 250-room auditorium space.

Since 1995, with support from the City of Seattle's Department of Neighborhoods, a grass roots community group calling itself the Columbia City Revitalization Committee have done a great job of conceiving and implementing programs that bring good press and business to the neighborhood. Among these are a farmers market, a "Beat Walk," (a moving feast for the ears), public art and parks projects, and significant support for the neighborhood's comprehensive plan.

Points of Interest

After the work of these groups took hold in the Columbia City community, business and general revitalization followed. Historic Seattle recognized the good work of one good neighbor, Rob Mohn, in 2001 with its "Preservation in My Neighborhood Award.

Mohn purchased two commercial buildings along Rainier Avenue South in 1999 and rehabilitated them, using historic photos.

Community investment has attracted outside attention. In 1999, Magic Johnson financed a new Starbucks on Rainier Avenue, which brought press to the neighborhood's efforts.

The Central Link of Sound Transit's proposed light rail line, and a number of potential stations lie along Rainier Avenue South near the historic district. An Environmental Impact Statement drafted in 1999 notes the district among the many historic resources affected by the route. The regulatory overlay of the historic district, and significance of nearby properties is not an obstruction to transportation development. Given the relationship between the neighborhood's history, its historic buildings, and its growing vitality, careful identification of significant buildings and sites is a critical. Thanks to environmental laws (which include historic preservation) large transportation projects must acknowledge, avoid, and/or mitigate impacts which include demolition of significant resources, both natural and cultural.

Plans for the expansion of the district's Carnegie Library will also effect the character of the park around it. Cardwell Architects, selected to expand the library as a part of the Libraries for All bond measure have been working with the Seattle Landmarks Board to reduce impact to the significant green. Elevations of current plans appear on the Seattle Public Library's website.

The Rainier Valley Historical Society (RVHS) is one of our city's best heritage organizations, and recently received a National Endowment for the Humanities Challenge Grant which will help it grow in the future. The organization, staffed by a part time manager Mikala Woodward, has a fantastic cultural education program, combining oral history and archaeological digs. An exhibition of recent student projects is now on display at the RVHS offices in the basement of the Rainier Valley Cultural Center. The well designed RVHS website reflects the organization's dedication to outreach, the century of work behind its archives, and is a great model for historical societies with energy, great collections, but little funding for staff.

In the midst of our region's current economic doldrums, RVHS President Buzz Anderson remains convinced that the community will continue improving itself. Anderson notes, "with all this enthusiasm, all the hard work of people in the neighborhood, I'm sure we'll keep getting better with age."

View last month's Neighborhoods article

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