FOR DECADES, THERE has been a sharp class division in Seattle's geography: The affluent tended to settle in the white-bread North End, the poor in the racially diverse South End. Exceptions abounded of course, the most glaring being in the tony southern lakefront neighborhoods, but the pattern left an indelible mark on the commercial strips—or lack thereof—in each area. Case in point: While Starbucks coffee shops sprouted like wild mushrooms in the north, there was not a single Starbucks in the south. Jokes Pat Chemnick, economic development manager at SouthEast Effective Development (SEED), a Rainier Valley non-profit, "We always said they'd open up a Starbucks in Poland before we got one."
That Starbucks now has shops in both the Rainier Valley and the Central Area is a sign that the city's economic landscape is changing. As house prices in the north zoom into the stratospheric realm of Microsoft millionaires, middle-class folks are turning southward in numbers large enough to bring a commercial boom in their wake. The Central Area is already largely gentrified. Now, the Rainier Valley is bustling with activity, from the opening of small businesses to plans for an "urban center" with a multiplex movie theater. Plans to run the coming light-rail route through the valley on its way from Northgate to the airport have served to spur growth even further.
"We've turned the corner," says Earl Richardson, executive director of SEED, which for 23 years has been promoting economic development in the valley. While there is grumbling about the downside of gentrification in the Central Area, few are grumbling in Rainier Valley, which still offers "the most affordable real estate in King County," according to Columbia City resident Ray Akers, a realtor with Gerrard, Beattie and Knapp. Enthusiasm is palpable among both old-timers like John Wynn, who has cut hair for 24 years in Columbia City, and newcomers like Kate Gill, who in June opened Lottie Motts, the bohemian coffee shop down the street from Wynn's Big John Barber Shop.
Chuck Depew, deputy director of the city of Seattle's Office of Economic Development, traces the beginning of the boom back to the late '80s, when Eagle Hardware took over the old Sick's Stadium site at Rainier Avenue South and McClellan Street. A few years later, Safeway expanded and moved up Rainier a few blocks from its old site at the intersection of Genessee Street to a new mall called Rainier Square, which it now shares with Starbucks, Hollywood Video, Radio Shack, and other stores. QFC was next into the neighborhood, opening a store on Rainier Avenue.
Now, a Columbia City furniture salesman named Billy Vu is trying to put together a mini-mall at the old Safeway site. More significantly, SEED is trying to build on the success of Rainier Square by developing an "urban center" directly north of the square. The center would sprawl over either 8 or 14 acres—from Rainier to Courtland Place S., and from South Charleston to South Spokane streets—depending on the number of parcels SEED can acquire. (Aside from Magic Johnson Theatres—the highly successful national chain of multiplex cinemas run by the former basketball star—SEED won't disclose which businesses have shown interest in locating there.) Generally, SEED is hoping to attract stores along the lines of Fred Meyer or Target, making the center a kind of utilitarian version of University Village—whose architect SEED has hired.
If it comes off, the center would dramatically improve the mixture of vacant lots, mostly shabby rental housing, and few small businesses that now make the parcel look, in the words of SEED's Chemnick, "like Appalachia. And it's been like this for 40 years."
Meanwhile, further south in Columbia City, businesses are opening by the month, several started by newcomers to the neighborhood. Like many of them, Lottie Motts' Gill was drawn by the cheap housing; four years ago, she bought an old three-story farmhouse there for $120,000, and subsequently opened the coffee shop that has become a popular hang-out, decorated with old sofas and soon to feature live music on Friday nights. Gill even managed, after some looking around, to find a bakery willing to deliver to the valley.
PERHAPS NO DEVELOPMENT brings back the old soul of Columbia City as much as the purchase and restoration of two adjacent buildings—an old movie theater built in 1920 and its neighbor, a 1907 building that has been boarded up for 20 years—by Craig Dieffenbach, owner of a recording company called Peak Records.
"Nobody wanted to touch this building," he says, over the discordant chorus of chisels and hammers. The older building is soon to house a restaurant, Dieffenbach says, while the old theater will contain his offices, a recording studio, and a performance space for plays and music. Dieffenbach plans to connect both with an atrium and skylight. "I think this will be the next little Belltown," he enthuses.
A reality check seems in order. Columbia City now has less than a handful of new establishments, and perhaps a dozen older businesses—among them the Wellington Tea Room, various nail and hair salons, an auto shop, a barbecue joint, and a butcher. Drug dealing and prostitution, while on the decline, are still features of the neighborhood. "Three weeks ago, we had girls walking the road," says Jim Ackerly, an owner of the decades-old Bob's Meats. Columbia City may be on the way up, but it is a long way from even Greenwood, let alone Belltown.
It is also sobering to remember that in the 1970s there was talk of a Columbia City renaissance, when then-Mayor Charlie Royer paved streets and put in lamps and planters. The face-lift wasn't enough to spur lasting change.
Not to worry, say Columbia's boosters. "This is different this time," says Brian Fairchild, a real estate broker in Windermere's Mount Baker office. Like others, he argues that development in Columbia City—and indeed in all of the Rainier Valley—has gone too far to turn back. The more forthright admit, though, that the valley's upward turn is fragile. No matter how far it's come, they say, the South End is still the city's stepchild.