Why Are There So Many Vacant Properties Near Rainier Beach Light Rail Station?

Image via city of Seattle interactive map of MHA rezones: http://seattlecitygis.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=6aafeae86b1f4392965531c376489676

This post originally ran at the South Seattle Emerald.

Plans to turn some of the land immediately adjacent to the Rainier Beach light rail station into the centerpiece of a new “food innovation district”—a proposed network of food businesses and food-related activities aimed at creating living-wage jobs and preventing displacement in the Rainier Valley—remain stalled, after a property that advocates hoped would serve as the hub for that district sold last month to a company controlled by a local landlord who owns numerous single-family homes in the area.

As the Emerald reported back in May, the Rainier Beach Action Coalition had hoped to purchase the property on the southeast corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. Way and S. Henderson St., which is currently the site of a Mexican grocery store. Those plans were thwarted when another bidder, former city council member (and onetime food innovation district champion) Richard Conlin, outbid RBAC. (At the time, Conlin said he had no idea RBAC was bidding on the property, which he planned to develop as affordable artist housing). However, Conlin subsequently withdrew his bid, and the property sold to a mystery backup bidder.

The new owner, the Emerald has learned, is Greg Goodwin, a Rainier Beach landlord who owns and leases about a dozen single-family houses in the blocks surrounding the light-rail station. (Goodwin is the son of the late Albert (A.C.) Goodwin, a longtime property owner and manager in the area; the Goodwin family companies now include Greg D. Goodwin Co., Civetta Properties, and Roan Properties, which purchased the light-rail station property through a Las Vegas-based subsidiary called Radner Properties).

Neither Goodwin nor his sister Gael Goodwin, who is listed as the agent for the now-defunct A.C. Goodwin Properties, returned calls seeking comment about their plans for the property. David Sauvion, the co-founder of RBAC and coordinator for the food innovation district, says RBAC has tried to reach out to the family but “they don’t want anything to do with us. They are difficult to engage.” However, Sauvion says he has heard that “they have no short-term plan for the property; as far as we know, the space will stay vacant.”

Although the first leg of Sound Transit’s Link light rail opened nearly a decade ago, the corridor still has no shortage of vacant properties. Many are owned by Sound Transit—recognizable by their chain link fences and gravel lots, which leaf-blower-wielding workers periodically clear of trash and other detritus. So why are there so still many empty lots along the southern leg of the light rail line in the Rainier Valley? And why is it so hard to build new housing at light rail stations in South Seattle, given that “transit-oriented development” is such a critical component of new light-rail stations elsewhere in the city?

To answer those questions, you have to go back to the early 2000s, when light rail was still immensely controversial in the Valley. At the time, a group called Save Our Valley (whose members included Pat Murakami, a current candidate for Seattle City Council) was fighting to force Sound Transit to run its rail line underground instead of at-grade in order to minimize the impact on neighborhood businesses. Although SOV lost that battle, Sound Transit tacitly acknowledged their objections in its approach to buying land-use for light-rail construction staging in the area; they aimed, in the words of Sound Transit land use and planning director Brooke Belman, to “take the smallest amount of property as possible and acquire as minimal a footprint as possible. … The [Sound Transit] board, at the time, was certainly cognizant of not wanting to buy too much property from the existing property owners down there.”

The result was that Sound Transit was left with a large number of oddly shaped “remnant” properties that can’t be easily developed, including parking strips, narrow parcels immediately in front of existing businesses, and those weird fenced-in lots that dot the length of the light rail line.

Today, Belman says, Sound Transit’s approach to property acquisition “has done about a 180” since a decade ago. If light rail was being built in the Valley today, “We probably would have consolidated a lot of the staging that we did instead of just leaving those remnants.”

One issue Sound Transit didn’t anticipate, Belman says, is the failure of the private market to build housing, retail, and services in Rainier Beach on its own. “There was a lot of hope that private development would come right behind us in the Rainier Valley” and start to create residential and retail hubs at the stations, she says. But that hasn’t happened—at least not yet.

Sound Transit isn’t the only agency responsible for the lack of development at the Rainier Beach station; the city—specifically the mayor’s office and the city’s planning department, now known as the Office of Planning and Community Development—bears some of the responsibility as well. Right now, much of the land near the light rail station is still zoned for exclusive single-family use, rendering it off-limits for new apartment, townhouse, row house, duplex, or retail developments. The rest is low-rise or neighborhood commercial—land use designations that allow things like townhouses and four-story apartment buildings, not the kind of intense development seen at other stations (like Columbia City a few miles up the road.)

That is slated to change under HALA—the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, which would upzone much of the station area, allowing four-to-seven-story buildings—but the fact remains that the zoning throughout much of the Rainier Beach station area is more fitting for a sleepy area with limited transit access—say, Blue Ridge—than a growing, but still relatively affordable, community within a few blocks of a major light rail hub.

Robert Scully, OCPD’s point person on Rainier Beach station development, says former mayor Mike McGinn directed the department to begin work on rezoning the area, but that work stalled under new Mayor Ed Murray, who wanted to take a more comprehensive approach to updating land use throughout the whole city. “We had a rezone proposal kind of ready to go up to the mayor’s office; we just got held up,” Scully says. That proposal would have provided incentives for food production facilities—in other words, a food innovation hub. Now, Murray is focused on affordable housing, not food production.

The land also presents other challenges—it’s shoehorned into a valley, with rising hills on each side, which makes large developments challenging and expensive. The single-family lots around the light-rail station are owned by dozens of different property owners, so any developer who wanted to build, say, a large affordable-housing complex would have to convince many different people to sell. And there’s really no way, Scully says, for the city to force land owners to include food production in private developments.

“We live in a political system and an economy that’s heavily based on property rights and the real estate market,” he says. “In doing this for the past five years, I’ve kind of arrived at the conclusion that the best tool is for the community, maybe in partnership with a developer or a nonprofit, to actually [purchase] some land down there—enough so that they could actually develop this facility, and that could help influence other development in the area.” Of course, that’s what RBAC had hoped to do. For now, the land will remain vacant.

“We tried,” Sauvion says.

4 thoughts on “Why Are There So Many Vacant Properties Near Rainier Beach Light Rail Station?”

  1. Great article @ericacbarnett
    I’d definitely be interested to read a follow-up. I’ve always wondered why the area around the RB light rail stop has not improved in almost a decade after the introduction of light rail. This article helps clarify but I am still surprised at how nothing has changed. I would have thought that RB would have improved at the same rate as the property surrounding the Othello station.

  2. Thank you for the informative article. Mr Scully is somewhat incorrect when he says, “The single-family lots around the light-rail station are owned by dozens of different property owners, so any developer who wanted to build, say, a large affordable-housing complex would have to convince many different people to sell…” because as he and others in the planning department know there is a cluster of property owners directly across from the Rainier Beach light rail station, nestled between S Henderson and S Fairbanks Street, who are intensely interested and anxiously awaiting the zoning change. We are ready and willing to sell to developers. If bundled, these 6 properties would provide a generous footprint for high density housing. Even if sold singly, each property would be attractive to builders. We are growing weary and impatient with the drag by the city on moving forward with the proposed zoning changes. interview us if you want to, as we feel like lighting a fire under the city.

  3. “The land presents other challenges as it is shoehorned in between two hills…” It seems to me that ‘development’ needs only a few blocks. Witness Ballard central between Fifteenth NW and Twenty-Fourth NW. Or Alki Beach along the water.

    What is true is that people at Sound Transit do not want to do any more work than they absolutely have to. First, they cite the federal government, who insist on ‘getting their money back’ from any property sales. (OK, so do that; the mission of Sound Transit is not to make money off of real estate deals.) They say that all of their land is small, uneconomical assests. Nonsense. Just to the south of the east tunnel entrance near Othello Station is an entire block of land surrounded by fencing marked “Sound Transit property”. They say that it is not theirs. It is almost certainly ‘theirs’.

    I agree with one friend who resides on the edge of the Rainier Valley: “The Valley has more than it’s share of low-income housing.

    But the folks down at Sound Transit will not do anything that they don’t have to do. You can include The City, The County and most any government you care to name. If you doubt this, why doesn’t the Veterans’ Administration allow someone to take millions of veteran housing money and build over the parking lot at their hospital? Instead, they built parking over their parking lot.

    As I once told a housing advocate group, “Stop telling them you want to build housing for people; they will give you nothing. But tell them you are building a place to put cars, and they will give you all you need.” (Doubt this? ST paid $170,000 per parking space for their lot on Mercer Island.)

  4. “One issue Sound Transit didn’t anticipate, Belman says, is the failure of the private market to build housing, retail, and services in Rainier Beach on its own.”

    Is anyone surprised at this? We’ve been leaving the construction of affordable housing to the private market and see where it has gotten us. It’s time to stop hoping that an industry focused on profit is going to get done what we need to have done, i.e. build low income/affordable housing. We, collectively, are going to have to do this ourselves instead of waiting for someone else to magically do it for us. That said, we could do this more economically if Seattle had a municipal bank that could make loans for these kinds of projects at much lower interest rate and which would channel any interest earned after paying admin costs back into the general fund for other projects.

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