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Originally published | Page modified July 11, 2009 at 12:52 AM

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It's a blank slate now but will the Othello station fulfill plans for high-density shopping area?

The premier proving ground for Seattle's light-rail venture is Othello Station. This stop sits midway between downtown and the airport, far enough from both that commuters should actually save time by taking the train instead of a bus.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

About Othello

PLATFORMS

At surface level, in the median of Martin Luther King Jr. Way South, at South Othello Street.

CONNECTIONS

Metro bus 106 from Renton and Rainier Beach, and short-hop routes along MLK Way; Chief Sealth Trail one-quarter mile west.

NEIGHBORHOOD ATTRACTIONS

Othello Playground; library branch and ballfields at NewHolly; Union Gospel Mission women's housing and youth center; King Plaza shopping center.

DID YOU KNOW?

Roger Shimomura's sculpture "Rainier Valley Haiku" at Othello Station displays objects representing Asian-American stereotypes. A Creamsicle conveys the notion of yellow on the outside, white on the inside.

Video | Light-rail ride along

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The premier proving ground for Seattle's light-rail venture is Othello Station.

This stop sits midway between downtown and the airport, far enough from both that commuters should actually save time by taking the train instead of a bus.

Along the slope to the west, 1,100 mostly cream-colored homes have replaced an old housing project in the NewHolly area, mostly within walking distance of the line.

But the area remains largely a blank slate, where developers hope to exploit the blacktop and dirt-covered lots at the corners of South Othello Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way South and use Link as a marketing hook. An old Safeway store, bank and a weary row of shops also look due to be replaced.

In their place, the city is hoping to squeeze more people into future buildings up to six stories tall. The public will see in a few years whether such "transit-oriented development" lives up to the hype by filling the trains.

Everyone will be affected differently in this crossroads of old and new, rich and poor, by the rail line that opens here July 18.

Just off the MLK Way strip, roofer Juan Sanchez lives in an old wooden apartment house. At night, when he is trying to sleep, the clanging of the automated train bell "is terrible," he says, coming through the open second-floor window on warm summer nights.

Nonetheless, he's glad the line will open soon: "My mother-in-law lives near Pacific Highway," he said, as his white pickup was getting fixed in the parking lot. He won't ride Link for work, but he and his family will visit Tukwila at least twice a week by train.

Jenna Walden, president of the Othello Neighborhood Association, describes the prevailing mood as cautiously optimistic that people will benefit from rail. People are glad the construction, which tore up the streets for three years, is finally over.

"I am very positive about its long-term prospects for us and am excited to see how it can lift Rainier Valley's boat," she said. The $2.3 billion, 14-mile Link starter line, from Westlake Center to Tukwila, will be followed by airport service in late December, and a tunnel to Husky Stadium in 2016.

A train ride from Othello to the Chinatown International District will take 16 minutes, to Tukwila 12 minutes.

Government predictions raise more questions than they answer. Sound Transit predicts a relatively low 1,400 daily boardings at Othello based on the downtown-airport service, but a healthy 5,000 boardings by 2030, after lines to the U District and suburbs are done.

City-housing planners say only 1,000 more dwelling units will be built within a half-mile, even though city zoning rules allow capacity for many thousands more.

City Councilmember Bruce Harrell hopes the trains are well used but questions how people will reach them from other parts of Rainier Valley. One problem is the lack of park-and-ride lots, he said. Neighbors are suggesting "jitney" vehicles, using green technology, that deliver people to the stations, he said.

Already, one sensible feeder-bus connection exists, where riders can switch from the 106 bus from Renton and Rainier Avenue South and continue downtown by train.

Sound Transit is counting on population growth.

An estimated 8,400 people live within a half-mile, and rapid growth is expected to continue, says Claritas, a marketing-research firm.

"It is the station that has the most potential for immediate development and change," said David Essig of the Rainier Valley Community Development Fund, which contributes to housing and small business. (The fund gave $15.2 million to keep valley merchants afloat during street construction.)

The Othello Partners group announced last week that despite the recession, it will break ground this month on The Station at Othello Park, a six-story, 352-unit apartment building across from the train platform. Wide landscaped areas will encourage walking to retail shops and the park. The group is designing a similar complex nearby.

Walden likes the Othello Partners designs, but in the big picture, it seems to her the city is sprinting to add population without a wider strategy that includes more police patrols and more jobs. Even retail is insufficient, she said, and needs to grow beyond just the busy Asian shops at King Plaza. "I think what's scary for the people who live there is they don't want to be an experiment ... I don't think they're against density. They're not seeing the bigger priorities addressed. Why don't we solve public safety, and then, I think people will come."

Sound Transit also faces the balancing act between serving a neighborhood and serving the region.

Othello Station is 1.5 miles from Columbia City Station, a distance that will deter locals from using Link for errands in between — for instance, to the Viet-Wah Superfoods. Walden thinks stations ought to be only a half-mile apart, as in north Portland.

On the other hand, more stations would mean longer travel times for people entering Seattle from the airport-area suburbs, eroding any time savings compared to a bus.

The station will also test whether motorists, pedestrians and trains can coexist in busy afternoon traffic, as Sound Transit promised. Traffic signals allow about 30 seconds to walk across four road lanes, a left-turn lane and train tracks. "For elderly people, it's not easy to cross," said Kamy Moksivong, longtime owner of Empire Speed Wash laundromat nearby.

On Monday, a car ran a red light and turned into the path of a train next to Othello Station, causing minor injuries to the car's driver, the second time that's happened.

Drivers wait longer at traffic lights because trains take priority. (Some 22,000 cars a day approach the Othello/MLK intersection from west and east.) On a recent Friday morning, a driver screamed as he gave the middle-finger salute to a passing Link train.

People who wind up living next to the station might burn less gas and avoid downtown parking fees. Some newcomers to Rainier Valley and Beacon Hill have said light rail was one reason to move here.

The group says its new apartments will have slightly less than one parking space per unit, instead of a typical 1 ½ spaces. Not quite the zero parking of city-government dreams, but a small nudge in the green direction.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

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