There are plenty of reasons to question the city’s plan to upzone the area around the Mount Baker Link rail station into a sort of way-south South Lake Union, at least on paper. (See Bill Lucia's report from last week.) But I can see two reasons to cheer it, though neither has occurred to the proponents. One is arguably trivial, the other admittedly speculative. But together they say a lot about what redevelopment has already wreaked in the Rainier Valley, and why we should look warily at more grand schemes there.
First, the questions: Do we really want 125-foot-high buildings across the street from single-family homes on one side and a block away on the other? That’s the height sought by the Department of Planning and Development and some city councilmembers for the 13 acres occupied currently by Lowe’s Hardware and formerly by Sick’s Stadium (till the Kingdome supplanted it and the city encouraged Eagle Hardware, Lowe’s predecessor, to open there in 1992).
And, do we want to drive yet more light industry out of the city, especially from distressed neighborhoods? The Pepsi bottling plant just north of Lowe’s, is currently zoned for six stories. The plant isn’t included in the upzone proposal, but it is part of the swath targeted for redevelopment. If 12-story apartments go up next door, it will put heavy pressure on Pepsi to yield to a similar project. How many living-wage jobs would then be sent to the boonies or terminated altogether?
Pepsi representatives wouldn’t say how many workers the plant employs. One business data site reports that the Seattle-based Pepsi operation has more than 250 workers and revenues of $100 to $500 million. That job tally sounds improbable; I’ve heard it’s more like 50. But even 50 jobs is a lot in a distressed area of the city. Add 100-plus (not so living-wage) jobs at Lowe’s and other auto-oriented chain retailers that would be displaced by dense transit-oriented development.
At least mega-buildings here come with a silver lining: A few looming mega-blocks of apartments here would at least cut the absurdly overbuilt Mount Baker rail station down to size. This 30,000-square-foot monument — just a single stop on a “light” rail line — looms like a grandiose airport glorifying some bygone dictator in a tin-pot tropical backwater. The barren covered plaza beneath it is big enough to play soccer, but grim and empty.
The Mt. Baker Lofts — affordable artists’ units being built by the national nonprofit Artspace in front of the station — will provide some welcome visual cover, as well as core of residents for an “urban village” that is still planner’s dream rather than reality. Well, 57 residents anyway.
More redevelopment will provide more of both. Of course, it won’t fix the fundamental dysfunctionality and disconnectedness of the station’s design. The bus stops lie blocks away or across fiercely busy Rainier Ave and MLK Way. The skybridge that bypasses the station platform is such an inefficient route across those arterials that many pedestrians still risk their lives (and occasionally provoke the police) by jaywalking.
But what seems to worry many neighbors most is the prospect of losing Lowe’s. Without that chain big box, Southeast Seattle would be bereft of any hardware/lumber/home improvement retail, save for smaller Stewart Lumber up north by I-90, which the pros favor.
Artist's concept of proposed zoning changes around Mount Baker light-rail station. City of Seattle
Lowe’s naturally isn’t talking about moving; all a corporate spokesperson would tell me is that “at this time, Lowe's plans to continue to operate at the Rainier location.” But there’s nothing TOD about big-box stores with big parking lots. They don’t fit in dense mid/high-rise development.
If you’re feeling really suspicious (easy to do if you spend much time down here), that displacement might seem deliberate, another City Hall gambit to smooth the path of eminent domain and replace “blighted” properties with denser nonprofit housing. If people can’t get nails and paint to fix up their homes, all the easier to declare them blighted.
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