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Columbia City crash reveals dangers of density

Columbia City Credit: Credit: Rob Ketcherside/Flickr

Columbia City has been one of the great success stories of urban renaissance in Seattle over the last two decades.

Once known for gangs, drugs and violence, things began to change with the Friday Night Columbia City Beat Walks (art and music in various venues) in the early 1990’s and the Farmer’s Market later that decade. Both brought a positive new atmosphere and renewed civic pride.

A Landmark District status provided a important mandate to save historic buildings. This contributed to Columbia City’s character and appeal as new businesses moved into the area along Rainier Ave. south of Alaska Avenue. The nearby light rail station has provided further impetus for additional housing and renovation of existing housing. The historic Carnegie library at the corner of Alaska and Rainier anchors the neighborhood, surrounded by a modest but inviting park and greenspace. The library was one of twelve Seattle branch libraries remodeled in the last decade.

Signs of Columbia City's success are everywhere today; its sidewalks are crowded with pedestrians and city life. People sit at sidewalk tables in front of Tutta Bella, the Columbia City Bakery, Lottie’s and other restaurants, pubs and coffee houses. There are several new live music venues.

But all of this comes with risk: the risk of being on a busy thoroughfare where cars often move too fast and where police patrols are often few and far between.

The risk was evident last week when a grey SUV travelling south-bound on Rainier suddenly seemed to accelerate to 60 mph. The car careened off Rainier, crossing Ferdinand and slamming into the Carol Cobb Salon on the southwest corner of that intersection. The car took out the brick pillar at the corner of the building, shattered the salon's plate glass windows and broke through the wall into the Greek restaurant next door before grinding to a halt.

As it happened, I was riding my bike north on Rainer that Thursday afternoon. I had just left Bikeworks on Ferdinand and turned north as the grey SUV passed in the opposite direction. I made note of the idiot driving way too fast. Then I heard a crash that a server at nearby Geraldine’s Counter described as “an earthquake.” Soon smoke was billowing from the restaurant and people were racing to the scene.

I abandoned my bike and joined the crowd running toward the accident site. Someone shouted, “There’s a child in there.” On the sidewalk some screamed or sobbed. We began pulling debris from the Greek restaurant, piling it on the street as acrid smoke engulfed the scene and flames licked along the floor. Would the car, or gas lines, explode? We didn’t know.

After a few minutes, someone shouted, “We got them.” People applauded. The car had jammed a family of three up against the restaurant’s back wall. By the time they were freed, fire trucks and other emergency vehicles were arriving on the scene. Soon traffic on Rainier was completely shut down.

It was amazing that no one was killed in this accident. But seven people, including children, were injured, some critically. The driver of the SUV was reportedly a woman in her 40’s? Was she intoxicated? Did her accelerator stick? Does it matter?

The point is there are too many cars moving too fast within just a few feet of sidewalks crowded with the people and families who either live in the neighborhood or have come to enjoy the children’s toy store, or the bakery, movie theater or historic Columbia City Library.

Columbia City will only get busier when Puget Consumer Coop completes its new store on Rainier just north of the accident site. Atop the new PCC are 167 units of housing.

Seattle is achieving its goal of density. But are we making the adjustments necessary to make that density safe, or at least less dangerous?

How can we safeguard Columbia City's success from accidents such as the one that happened last week?

Three steps would help. First, lower the speed limit to 20 mph for the stretch of Rainier Ave. from Alaska to 39th. That is the busiest section of Columbia City and the area in which all the restaurants with outside seating are located.

Second, have police cars patrol the Rainier Ave. corridor and possibly be stationed, at least occasionally, at crucial intersections like Ferdinand and Edmunds streets. Installing traffic cameras at crucial intersections would also help to catch drivers who run red lights or speed.

Third, add to the small number of low (3-foot-high), cast iron, concrete-filled pillars in front of Rainier Avenue storefronts. A couple of businesses along Rainer already have these safety measures, but most do not. Make these posts or some other non-visually intrusive protective barrier the norm along this stretch of Rainier Avenue.

Columbia City is a success story for Seattle and its residents. But without some serious safety response to the new density and street life, the proximity of cars and trucks to pedestrians puts that success — and lives — at risk.

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