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Originally published | Page modified July 11, 2009 at 12:53 AM

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Columbia City light-rail station: Off the beaten path

Electric trains clacked through Rainier Valley from 1891 to 1936, bringing development to a swampy hinterland that real-estate boosters...

Seattle Times transportation reporter

About Columbia City

PLATFORM

Surface level, in the median of Martin Luther King Jr. Way South at South Alaska Street.

CONNECTIONS

Bus 39 west to V.A. Medical Center or east to Seward Park. Walk six blocks east to Rainier Avenue South.

NEIGHBORHOOD ATTRACTIONS

Boys & Girls Club of Rainier Valley; Columbia City Historic District along Rainier Avenue; train-station art includes a giant blue shovel.

DID YOU KNOW?

Basketball star Magic Johnson was one catalyst in Columbia City's economic revival, when he partnered with Starbucks to open a cafe here in 1999, part of his national initiative to boost inner-city business districts.

Video | Light-rail ride along

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Electric trains clacked through Rainier Valley from 1891 to 1936, bringing development to a swampy hinterland that real-estate boosters named Columbia City.

The new Sound Transit Link light-rail trains won't quite take people to the old brick storefronts and theaters, but they'll come close.

The line is six blocks from the historic business district fronting Rainier Avenue South, which was too narrow to take a new light-rail corridor. Undaunted, politicians named the stop "Columbia City Station."

Sound Transit's next challenge, after the line opens July 18, is to forge a transportation and psychological bond between the stop on Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Way South and the bustle on Rainier. Otherwise, ridership will sag.

"It is a six-minute walk," said Shelley Morrison of the Columbia City Business Association. "I don't think anybody knows what people's patterns are going to be."

She suggests walking east on South Edmunds Street — a quiet side road past an elementary school, a park and the Wednesday farmers' market — instead of busy South Alaska Street. "Edmunds is absolutely the gateway." But some residents who are already on Rainier Avenue, taking the busy 7 Metro bus, say they'll keep the direct ride to their destinations, rather than detour over to the train stops on MLK Way.

A similar dilemma exists two stops south, where the Rainier Beach light-rail station sits almost a mile inland from the lakeshore and eight blocks from the busiest street corner.

On the other hand, the buses are often crowded and slow, and there is little hope that traffic on Rainier will improve.

"People are pretty excited from what I've heard, not having to wait for a bus," said Muuqi Maxwell, a mechanic at Bike Works in Columbia City. Bikes could shorten the gap between Rainier and MLK.

Maxwell suggests visitors from North Seattle could bike to the Westlake light-rail station, bypass hectic Downtown and Sodo via train, then get on their bikes again to travel around Rainier Valley. Seward Park is within cycling distance, or a long walk through a series of parks starting in the historic district.

Columbia City merchants plan pedicab shuttles for $1 on opening weekend, and the first Fridays of August and September during live-music "Beat Walk" events.

Vacant storefronts were common in Columbia City during the 1970s and 1980s, but the area now has 17 restaurants and bars in the brick-lined core — and a risk of runaway housing prices or gentrification.

Housing construction has lulled during the recession, but three big complexes are eventually coming to Rainier, adding urgency to the east-west connections.

Closer to the station, the old Rainier Vista public-housing project has been demolished, to be replaced by 879 homes, for both low-income and market-rate buyers. So far, 435 have been finished west of MLK, but a large plain to the east remains empty.

Work starts this summer on the Seattle Housing Authority's next piece, a group of 86 low-income apartments, funded partly with federal-stimulus aid. The entire 444-home east half of Rainier Vista should be done by 2012.

City zoning prescribes four-story construction, but there could be political pressure to build taller, to squeeze even more people next to the rail corridor.

Meanwhile, businesses in the historic district will offer train-rider specials, from opening day to Labor Day. Bob's Quality Meats is giving 10 percent discounts on sausage "Links," in the same storefront that's been a butcher shop since 1909, the heyday of streetcars.

This article contains information from "The Street Railway Era in Seattle" by Leslie Blanchard, and from the Rainier Valley Historical Society. Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

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