Lagging Promise Of Transit-Oriented Development Frames Debate In South Seattle’s District 2

Oct 20, 2015

Seattle voters are getting ready to choose who will represent their district. Seven district seats will be decided, as well at two at large positions. KPLU’s election series, Back On The Block, revisits issues affecting each district and introduces us to the candidates.

Sound Transit’s Link Light Rail line runs through the heart of Southeast Seattle. Along with the promise of swift and easy transit, stations along the line often come with hopes for more density and added economic development. That has not panned out yet for many residents of Seattle’s District 2.

It is the district with the city’s most ethnically diverse population and its lowest median income. So the promise of transit-oriented development to attract more commerce is powerful.

The Promise Of Light Rail

Among her specialties is a Tamarind margarita, says Huarachitos owner Ana Martinez
Credit Bellamy Pailthorp / KPLU

Restaurant owner Ana Martinez opened Huarachitos Cocina Mexicana on the ground floor of a new building right next to Othello Station, at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Othello Street.

With five stories of market-rate apartments above her and similar development projects underway on either side, Martinez bought in to the promise of light rail.

But after more than two years, she is still struggling to make ends meet. And she sees empty storefronts and businesses failing all around her.

“The coffee shop closed, the one that was here. Now we don’t have any coffee,”  a weary Martinez said before the primary elections this summer.

She would like to expand her hours to fill that niche and open for brunch on the weekends and lunch on weekdays, but with negative cash flow, she can not afford it.

’If She Can Just Hang On’

The dozen or so customers she serves per night is not enough to cover her costs, says restaurant owner Ana Martinez
Credit Bellamy Pailthorp / KPLU

We asked the candidates, Bruce Harrell and Tammy Morales, to respond to her situation. Both say they have met Ana Martinez, and perhaps not surprisingly, incumbent Bruce Harrell took it as an opportunity to defend what is there.

Harrell says it will not be long before the development across the street from Huarachitos starts bringing in new customers. Construction workers broke ground on it this summer.

“This Woodbridge development is going to be a thriving project,” Harrell said as he stood before the empty storefront that was once the neighborhood’s coffee shop.

“Market-rate homes, retail, commercial,” he said, adding that the potential for more restaurant traffic is huge, if Anna Martinez can just hang on a little longer.

“We have to get her through these tough times, so when we get these consumers and residents here, she can then thrive,” he said.

Harrell says there’s a $50 million community fund to mitigate the impacts of light rail that could loan Martinez money to help her ride out the transition. Harrell, who is a lawyer, says he served as the fund’s chief legal advisor when it was founded.

“She has an outstanding product in this Mexican restaurant. She knows her business; and what I take away from that is we have to as a community - we have to get her through these tough times,” he said.

’Nobody’s Done The Homework’ 

The light rail stop at Othello and Martin Luther King Jr Way S., in Southeast Seattle.
Credit Bellamy Pailthorp / KPLU

Harrell’s challenger, Tammy Morales, says there may be some technical assistance to help Martinez with her business strategy. But she is less optimistic about Huarachitos’ prospects -- and is quick to use the story to critique the status quo. Morales says it is an example of bad city planning near this light rail stop.

“I think a lot of times what happens is we get these cookie-cutter developments of, you know, kind of empty commercial space on the ground floor and housing on top, with no understanding of who might want to move into that space,” she says. “Because nobody’s done the homework to attract a tenant; and that’s the case at the Othello Station complex … Ana’s the only business in that.”  

Morales, who works as a consultant on urban food policy, says she’s been doing grassroots community development for 15 years. She thinks the city needs to involve the community more in a new economic development strategy.

“You have to be intentional about what kind of businesses you want to attract to make sure that there’s a good mix of goods and services available to the community,” Morales said. “And that means doing deeper work and asking the community what kind of businesses they want and then going out and recruiting them; and you know, it might mean building for a specific tenant instead of having a blank slate of a space.”

On Hold And Waiting

The developer of this empty lot on the other side of the light rail line from Huarachitos is under investigation for securities fraud.
Credit Bellamy Pailthorp / KPLU

Incumbent Harrell says there has been plenty of intentional planning. But a cornerstone of the plan for the Othello district is on hold because of circumstances he says are outside the city’s control.

The developer of the empty lot on the other side of the light rail line from Huarachitos is under investigation for securities fraud.

Even with all of her struggles to hold on, restaurant owner Ana Martinez says she still believes in the potential of her neighborhood.

“We have a beautiful main street, now with the light rail going through. This could be the next Pioneer Square. This could be the place to be,” she said.

Both candidates say it is a future worth fighting for and what District 2 needs more than anything right now is a strong advocate to attract the right kind of investors.