October 2003: Preservation and Economics in North Rainier Valley
By Trevor Griffey

Sound Transit is coming.

You can't see it. You can't hear it. It hasn't yet had a "ground-breaking" ceremony.

But anticipation of a new light-rail transportation system dominates discussions regarding the future of Rainier Valley, and has provided new opportunities as well as challenges to preserving a sense of history and community in one of Seattle's most diverse neighborhoods.

Historic preservation work isn't new to the valley. Nearly all of the coordinated, public preservation work there, however, has been focused on Columbia City.

Declared a historic district in 1978, Columbia City and its immediate surroundings act as a kind of civic center for the entire valley - home to its library, its neighborhood service center, its new community center, a cultural arts center, two non-profit housing developers, its historical society, a neighborhood newspaper, Sound Transit's community outreach office, and more.

Historical knowledge of the valley is similarly focused on Columbia City almost exclusively, with the rest of the area's history left to more scattered and often anecdotal studies. The Rainier Valley Historical Society was founded in 1892, but was a family association called the Pioneers of Columbia City for its first century. Asked about the history of north Rainier Valley, the historical society president Buzz Anderson remarks, "This is the problem: there's just so little about that."

But there's about to be more.

Sound Transit published the first study of historic archaeological and architectural resources in North Rainier Valley as part of its route planning in 1999. Mitigation money from the agency will fund the city's first comprehensive survey of historic resources in North Rainier Valley, which will also include north Beacon Hill and Mount Baker. The new report is set to come out in March of 2004.

How the city's study is conducted and received by the community could help shape neighborhood planning and community advocacy in the area for years to come. With Sound Transit touting the "transit-oriented development" that will follow in its wake, such work will also have a renewed urgency for North Rainier Valley residents looking to have a say in how their neighborhood will and won't change once light-rail becomes a reality.

What is North Rainier Valley?

North Rainier Valley is what city officials call the area between Columbia City and the Central District, between the steep slopes of Beacon Hill and the bluffs of Leschi/ Mount Baker, as a way of incorporating it into the state's growth management goals. It's technically a HUB Urban Village, which means it shares similar planning goals with such very different neighborhoods as Ballard, Lake City, Fremont, West Seattle Junction, and South Lake Union. Part of it receives business tax credits as a state Empowerment Zone, while another part gets similar credits as a federal Enterprise Community.

But its real character is more local and historically rooted, a more heterogeneous and auto-oriented landscape than Columbia City's.

It includes a few officially designated landmarks, including Franklin High School, Cheasty Boulevard (part of Olmsted's Seattle parks planning), and the Black Manufacturing Building at 1130 Rainier Ave South. But most of the neighborhood's architecturally and culturally significant sites have gone officially unrecognized.

What has been preserved has come less through government funding and more through a combination of a private investment, individual dedication, and community building activities that thrived in the midst of federal neglect.

Early History

Significant development of North Rainier Valley didn't really happen until streetcar expansion in the 1890s brought the neighborhood within closer reach of downtown. The line spurred residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural development that extended the previous decades' logging to clear most of the valley.

Italian migration partly drove the valley's northern development. Italians' numerous gardens and small farms, combined with their dense collection of modest wood frame houses and small businesses in the north end of the valley, became commonly referred to as "Garlic Gulch."

In 1907, the city annexed the neighborhoods in the valley south of Hanford Street, and by the 1920s, the valley's northern properties had been more or less developed with single family wood frame housing and a significant industrial and retail strip along Rainier Avenue oriented around the streetcar business.

The rise in auto traffic before World War II both hurt and helped the neighborhood.

Both Rainier Avenue and Empire Way (later renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Way) were listed as state highways in 1913, literally paving the way for cars to replace the streetcar's importance for the valley's development. The valley's streetcar service was discontinued in 1937, and the Lake Washington Floating Bridge's opening in 1939 further reoriented North Rainier Valley around auto traffic while bisecting its Italian neighborhood with a busy expressway.

Growing Community

Like most urban neighborhoods nationwide, North Rainier Valley suffered in the wake of the federal government's massive post-World War II subsidies for suburban freeway and residential development.

Even though it had adapted relatively well to car culture, and the area's overall population increased during and immediately after the war, new development further south in the Valley as well as in outlying suburbs undermined the economic base that once sustained North Rainier Valley's businesses.

Planners in the 1950s extended Rainier Avenue's commercial zoning to encourage the development of auto-oriented strip malls. But in many respects, they were too late. A number of federal projects in the 1950s and 1960s brought even more change to the valley, not all of it positive.

The construction of I-5 diverted much of the traffic that had once passed through the valley to the other side of Beacon Hill. And in 1959, the city announced its plans to use federal urban renewal dollars to raze much of the south end of the Central District and North Rainier Valley. The original 900-acre proposal for the Yesler-Atlantic Neighborhood Improvement Project was eventually reduced to 137 acres, mainly in the Central District, 43 of which were razed. Nixon's cutting of public housing funds undermined the city's plans to redevelop the area, however, and by 1982, 76 percent of the lots cleared by the city were still vacant.

Nearly all of the clearance activities actually occurred north of what is now recognized as Rainier Valley. But uncertain plans for demolition, the displacement of hundreds of nearby residents in Judkins and the Central District, and the decades long process of expanding I-90 all undermined North Rainier Valley's already weak housing market in the 1960s and 1970s.

At a time when African Americans were unable to move into other Seattle area neighborhoods segregated by aggressive homeowner associations and redlining banks, the changes in North Rainier Valley provided a means for them to escape the crowding of the Central District.

The resulting change in the neighborhood's racial demographics was dramatic. During the 1970s, Rainier Valley displaced the Central District as the neighborhood with the largest concentration of Seattle's African Americans.

North Rainier Valley had always been relatively working class. But when the economic crises of the 1970s hit the nation's economic woes combined with Boeing's massive layoffs to turn the neighborhood into one of Seattle's poorest.

The consistently low incomes and low land values of the area have been both a blessing and a curse for the valley. Though private investment was weak during the 1970s and 1980s, and jobs paid worse and were harder to find than in the rest of the city, the valley's affordable rents benefited communities that lacked substantial capital. African Americans, and later Asian and African immigrants have all established themselves and built up their own businesses, churches, and residential enclaves in North Rainier Valley, giving the neighborhood a character distinct from the rest of the city.

The 1990s

The past decade brought change to the valley.

New, large chain stores now line a significant part of Rainier Avenue's commercial corridor between Walker and Charleston. Homesight, an affordable housing developer, in collaboration with the city of Seattle, redeveloped a substantial amount of property cleared for I-90's expansion, creating a new, less dense neighborhood of affordable homes where "Garlic Gulch" once was.

Through the new HOPE VI federal program, both major public housing projects in the valley -- Rainier Vista and Holly Park -- are being redeveloped to include higher density and more market rate housing. Rainier Valley's average housing prices increased from $108,495 to $210,164 during the 1990s. Yet for all its change, Rainier Valley still has a weaker economy and lower housing prices than most other neighborhoods in the city.

A report published by Southeast Effective Development (SEED) in 1996 claimed that the valley has $28 million in uncaptured retail demand and $29 million in uncaptured service demand each year. In 1999, Rainier Valley's average home price was the second lowest of any neighborhood in the city; its average rent for studio apartments was the lowest; and it had the highest percentage of Section 8 vouchers in Seattle. These statistics are from different geographic definitions of the valley, but they offer a general picture of the area's economy.

Travel Plans and New Horizons

Rainier Valley's recent history revolves in no small part around a legacy of being negatively effected by federal projects promising renewal. But it's also a neighborhood where negative impacts have been turned into assets.

Sound Transit could change this experience significantly. Whereas past projects drove people out of the valley, Sound Transit is promising to bring people and private investment back in. And whereas previous projects had limited funds available to help those displaced by public works, Sound Transit is providing the neighborhood $50 million in mitigation money.

Some improvements anticipating light rail's arrival have already begun. This includes the current repaving of Rainier Ave South, which hadn't been done in 26 years. On parts of Cheasty Boulevard, the city is helping coordinate the removal of private encroachments such as hedges and fences, and putting in a walking path.

SEED is in the process of constructing the first phase of a four-phase project conceived to increase density and affordable housing in the valley. The 8-acre project at Rainier Ave South and Charlestown Street, called Rainier Court, promises to include a total of 536 units of housing and 23,000 square feet of retail space, to be fully open by 2008.

Beyond these specific projects, the North Rainier Neighborhood Plan is in no small part structured around accommodating a future light rail line. Much of the plan focuses on the rezoning of the area immediately surrounding the intersection of Rainier and MLK Jr. Way into a "Town Center", in order to encourage greater commercial and residential density where Sound Transit's first valley stop will be.

Amidst all this change, historic preservation could offer an important way for diverse communities to participate in the reshaping of North Rainier Valley. A number of non-designated sites already stand out as places likely to generate public interest, though what's offered below is necessarily an incomplete list:

The Colman School and its nearby parking lot Technically located in North Rainier Valley on the edge of the I-90 lid, the Colman School, built in 1909, was purchased this year (2003) by the Seattle Urban League to be transformed into a mixed use development, with both housing rental units and an African American Heritage Museum and Cultural Center. The Seattle Parks Department recently considered installing a park for skateboarders in the parking lot next door to the school. The proposal met strong opposition from residents who would like to see the parking lot redeveloped in a way that is consistent with the theme of local African American heritage.

Industrial Buildings on Rainier Avenue South A number of industrial buildings just south of I-90, and already acknowledged by Sound Transit as significant, date back to the early heyday of Rainier Ave South. They include Stewart Lumber and Hardware Company, at 1761 Rainier Ave S, which has been in continuous operation since 1926; and Occidental Sheet Metal Works, at 2310 Rainier Ave South, built in 1925, and currently used by Liberty Sidecars.

Churches In any neighborhood, churches tend to be the oldest and most socially, and architecturally significant buildings. A number of North Rainier Valley churches undoubtedly deserve attention. One in particular is Our Lady of Mt. Virgin, at 1531 Bradner Pl South, a Catholic Church with a strong connection to the local Italian community -- from Garlic Gulch to the present day.

Social Service Agencies The Atlantic Street Center at 2103 S Atlantic Street, established as the Deaconess Settlement in 1910, and based in a two story masonry building constructed in 1927, is a longtime community service provider in the valley.

For more on the history of North Rainier Valley, visit the Rainier Valley Historical Society's website at www.rainiervalleyhistory.org.

View last month's Neighborhoods article

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