December 11, 2003

Columbia City — the next hot spot?

  • Homes are being fixed up, retailers are moving in and there's room to grow
    Special to the Journal

     Columbia City Ale House
    Photo by Pete Lamb
    More restaurants are being sought for the business district to complement Columbia City Ale House.

    A few years ago, when someone said they lived or worked in Columbia City, the most common response was, “Where?”

    Now, it's, “Our friends just bought a house there,” or “I just went to an art opening there.”

    This comfortable and eclectic neighborhood in the heart of Rainier Valley has experienced tremendous growth over the last two years, thanks in part to a booming housing market and the addition of some strong, community-oriented businesses.

    The landmark district and retail core of Columbia City is on Rainier Avenue South, south of South Alaska Street and north of South Hudson Street.

    A destination

     Revival Lighting and Barefoot
    Photo by Pete Lamb
    Columbia City’s business district is home to neighborhood retailers such as Revival Lighting and Barefoot.

    Columbia City has become a destination neighborhood for many Seattleites because of its unique events, restaurants and specialty stores. The Columbia City Ale House, La Medusa and Deux Tamales do brisk business from both locals and new customers eager to discover the undiscovered. In addition, retail stores such as Revival Lighting, Barefoot and Burdick's Security provide the area's new homeowners with home improvement and shopping opportunities.

    New businesses continue to move into the area, and more than 10,000 square feet of commercial space is under renovation. The Columbia City Cinema, housed in the former Masonic Lodge, is actively recruiting funds for a full remodel and launch of the neighborhood's first movie theater in more than 20 years. In December, Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria will become the community's first family pizza parlor, and a new recording studio and performance space is set to open in 2004.

    Housing base is expanding

    But business is not the only element putting Columbia City on the map. Ethnic and economic diversity, affordable home prices and historically low interest rates have given rise to a flurry of home sales that has brought a renewed vitality to the community.

    New residents are refurbishing their 1920s craftsmans and 1950s ramblers. They are also active citizens participating in local schools, protecting the area's green spaces and volunteering for community organizations.

     Columbia City
    Photo by Susan Hirasawa
    Historical buildings and tree-lined streets characterize Columbia City’s retail core.

    Columbia City's neighborhood plan calls for new market-rate housing to further build the business district. As a designated residential urban village, extensive neighborhood commercial/residential and multi-family zones provide opportunities for increasing the population within a few blocks of the commercial core. There are six sites totaling nearly 140,000 square feet potentially available for future mixed-use or residential development.

    Developers have been eying the area for residential sites. In the business district alone, there are 12-, nine- and six-unit townhouse and mixed-use developments scheduled to begin construction in 2004. A quarter-mile away, the Seattle Housing Authority has started work on redevelopment of Rainier Vista, expanding it from a property of just over 400 units to a 1,010-unit mixed-income community.

    Light rail station at South Edmunds Street

    Improvements in Seattle's infrastructure and transportation have a positive impact on Columbia City. Recently, the stretch of Rainier Avenue South that goes through the business district was repaved and pedestrian crossings repainted. It is accessible by several Metro routes and, on an average weekday, 23,560 vehicles pass through the business district.

    Columbia City Cinema
    Photo by Susan Hirasawa
    Columbia City Cinema, located in an old Masonic Lodge, will be the neighborhood’s first movie theater in more than 20 years.

    Columbia City will also benefit from Sound Transit's light rail plan. The proposed route includes a station at South Edmunds Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way South, just a few blocks from the Columbia City business district.

    The station plan includes a four-block-long pedestrian corridor along South Edmunds, complete with historic lighting and art, which will lead to increased foot traffic and business opportunities. Some of the businesses facing displacement due to construction have expressed interest in relocating to Columbia City.

    As with any major construction project, there are still hurdles to overcome. Altered traffic patterns affecting access to Columbia City from MLK Way South, signage and increased traffic along Rainier Avenue South during construction are key concerns. Another possible result of the light rail line is commercial development at MLK Way South and South Alaska Street. Such projects could improve the area as a whole by attracting new tenants and customers to the area.

    While some view development as a threat, many see it as a window of opportunity to recruit businesses into the neighborhood.

    Room to grow

    Rainier Avenue South and South Ferdinand Street
    Image by Curt McGuire
    Architect Curt McGuire’s concept for property at Rainier Avenue South and South Ferdinand Street includes a brick alley, more shop frontage, green space and a garden store in the center of the complex.

    There is still room to grow. Columbia City is a destination neighborhood, yet it lacks some essential businesses and services available in other business districts like Renton, West Seattle, downtown and Capitol Hill.

    The vision is to attract new businesses to the neighborhood both to enhance Columbia City and to allow area residents to get their shopping, entertainment and dining needs met here, in their own district.

    A bakery, music and video stores, an office support center and a garden store are all services for which Columbia City residents and business owners have expressed a need, as are additional restaurants, galleries and studios.

    Columbia City is a pedestrian-designated overlay district, which ensures a collection of retail stores, customer service offices and eating, drinking and entertainment uses at street level. The designation reduces parking requirements for new businesses, but there is ample parking available on the street and in several free or economically priced parking lots. Conversion from parallel to angle parking is under way on several side streets to increase capacity.

    There are several key properties available for new businesses. There is about 10,000 square feet of retail space and 3,000 square feet of office space available near term, some recently renovated and updated.

    For a neighborhood with century-old roots, Columbia City is welcoming the changes that have come its way. New businesses and an active community have all raised the bar of community standards.

    By recruiting target businesses, encouraging residential development and embracing Seattle's transportation goals, Columbia City is striving for a new level of commerce and community.

    Pete Lamb and Rob Mohn are Columbia City Business Association members and serve on the Rainier Chamber of Commerce board. Lamb owns LR Isabella and Mohn owns RAM Columbia, both property development firms in Columbia City.

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