LAST WEEK, ON THE STEPS of the federal courthouse in downtown Seattle, members of Save Our Valley announced they were suing Sound Transit for racial

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I have a nightmare

Along ML King Way, small-time merchants brace for the boom, or bust, light rail could deliver.

LAST WEEK, ON THE STEPS of the federal courthouse in downtown Seattle, members of Save Our Valley announced they were suing Sound Transit for racial discrimination.

The group claims that Sound Transit's plan to run light-rail trains at street level through the poor and racially mixed Rainier Valley, while building a tunnel for light rail through mostly white and wealthy North Seattle, is a violation of the Civil Rights Act. Trains chugging down the middle of Martin Luther King Jr. Way South will take out businesses and homes and interfere with traffic circulation, as well as create a safety hazard, the group argues.

Out on MLK Way itself last week, the picture was troubling but not quite as clear. The potentially destructive impacts of light rail are undeniable. Set down in the middle of one of South Seattle's two major arteries, the train tracks and stations will knock out hundreds of structures—shops, homes, churches, and community centers—and limit the ability of pedestrians, cars, and emergency vehicles to traverse the street. But MLK, a stretch of public housing and low-rent retail, where Buddhist temples sit next to auto body shops, is also in an uneasy state of rejuvenation that might, in some cases, derive extra momentum from the proposed train system.

Some of the shops and businesses that are due to be mowed down by light rail are part of a fading generation of old-fashioned trades that are on their last legs in any case. The new minority-driven entrepreneurial culture, seen in the Vietnamese mini-malls and hallal meat shops, could get a boost, or a boot, from the transit plan. Some of these business owners are clearly looking to Sound Transit for a financial windfall, not a penalty.

Standing at the corner of Henderson Street and MLK, not far from I-5 and Boeing Field, you don't exactly have to be a QFC real estate scout to see an intersection primed—even fated—for redevelopment.

"I'm an anachronism, I should have been gone 20 years ago," says Bob Harwood, seated bemusedly behind the counter of the hardware store he and his wife have owned on this corner since 1947. Harwood's place is a world away from the Eagle superstore that squats amid a giant parking lot a few miles up the Valley. Here, no-nonsense, no-yuppie plumbers of all races wander in like it's their neighbor's garage and are greeted with small-town familiarity. Discounts are a matter of the proprietor's mood. Some of the merchandise, such as corny light switch plates of the kind you see in grandma's house, looks like it hasn't moved since the '70s.

To Harwood, who gives his age as "over 80," Sound Transit can't come soon enough. He and his wife are eager to retire, and they'll fund it by selling off their property to the transit agency. Sound Transit plans to build one of five MLK light-rail stations at the Henderson corner.

Harwood says he's got plenty of attorneys soliciting him, offering to help get him top dollar from the Sound Transit buyers. "It's a favorite pastime—ripping off the public utilities for everything you can get," he wryly observes. He has not enlisted any aid.

Next door to Harwood is H.E. Goldberg & Co., an import-export furrier that's been in business for 88 years, and at this location since 1981. Seventy-four-year-old owner Irwin Goldberg says he has been unable to get a final answer from Sound Transit as to whether his property is going to be taken or not. "They keep one totally confused and frustrated," he says.

Just south of Goldberg is a heavy industrial district that is home to some of Save Our Valley's biggest financial backers, such as Frank Coluccio Construction. These businesses see their truck access severely threatened by train tracks running down the middle of the street, making left turns impossible. And Goldberg, too, worries that light rail will make it increasingly difficult to get in and out of the property. Even if his building does not end up condemned, he says, "its value to us would diminish."

A couple miles up MLK to the north sits one more of the dozens of buildings slated for likely demolition by light rail: the humble one-story home of Rainier Signs. It looks abandoned, and it is. Eighty-seven-year-old owner Ed Swanson ran his business there for over 50 years, but, he says, several months ago, after his wife passed away, he "just locked it up" and is now spending his days at home in Renton. (He agreed to post a Save Our Valley sign in the window—the only sign of life—though he says he's not a supporter.) He says a dozen attorneys have contacted him, wanting to know what he wants for the property, "but I don't know what it's worth."

Irwin Goldberg believes that in some cases Sound Transit is probably creating a market for properties on MLK that would not otherwise have buyers, though he thinks that in most cases property values "would be stronger" if it weren't for the threat of light rail.

ON A BUSY COMMERCIAL stretch of MLK near Graham Street, 72-year-old Bill Mizuki has run his nursery and garden store since 1955. "I'll live and die here," says Mizuki. He sees no benefit to his business from Sound Transit. "What I sell, people need to come in a car or a truck. I don't have walk-in trade. Nobody's going to carry 50 pounds of fertilizer onto a train."

Mizuki will lose 15 feet of precious parking due to Sound Transit's plan to widen MLK, which will slice off property all along the boulevard. "It's hard enough to turn in here as it is," says Mizuki. "They'll kill us."

Closer to the planned light-rail stations, some property owners are more optimistic. Henry Hung owns a strip of one-story buildings along MLK that will be right alongside the planned Othello Street station. Hung's tenants—all Vietnamese businesses, including a billiard hall, a market, and a new restaurant—may suffer during construction and will lose their on-street parking, but he hopes the transit stop "will bring more people to the area."

His sentiments aren't shared across the street, however. John Lee, the owner of a dry cleaner and laundromat, says "the small guys are going to have to get the hell out." He says the city's redevelopment plans around the station call for five-story buildings with condos. "I won't be able to afford that." Besides, he says, "small people can't wait 10 or 15 years" while the projects take shape. "How do I pay my mortgage?" Only the big-time developers with deep pockets and long timetables are going to be able to take advantage of the development around the stations, Lee says.

IRONICALLY, THE PROSPECT of light rail may, for the moment, be hindering just the kind of economic advancement that Sound Transit is eventually supposed to aid.

"Right now it's a disaster," says Jean Veldwyk, a realtor who has worked in the Valley for decades. "Everybody's locked, they're frozen in place. People can't do anything, they don't know if they'll have to move, how wide the street will be. Who would want to buy something that might be obliterated?"

David Garcia of Rainier Pacific Realty says, "The problem is everybody's gotten greedy. They're thinking, my property's going to be worth a lot of money [to Sound Transit]. They're asking higher prices than the market can bear at the present time."

Earl Richardson of Southeast Effective Development (or SEED) believes "no one's packing, but there's not a lot of [new] business either. You wouldn't expect it at this stage of the game. Developers tend not to be too far in front of the risk."

Insofar as the Save Our Valley lawsuit serves to further delay the Sound Transit project, as it almost certainly will, limbo will continue to mark MLK. To some, that's better than the alternative.

 
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