The newly completed Capitol Hill light rail station doesn't look like much from the street, but it's huge, extending eight stories underground.
The north entrance of the station, at the corner of Broadway and John, leads to a 68-foot-long escalator, which takes you down to a landing, which leads to another 70-foot-long escalator down to the platform. Unlike the light rail stations under downtown, in the repurposed bus tunnel, where platforms are narrow strips along opposing walls, the platform in the Capitol Hill station is in the middle of everything, with trains on each side.
"Space constraints," Sound Transit spokesperson Bruce Gray said when I asked why. He was referring to the size of the pit that had to be dug into the ground to build the station. "You don't need as wide of a station box with a center-platform station. It also makes it easier to access the platform from above. Everybody goes to the same place."
The platform alone is 7,683 square feet, plenty of room for people traveling in either direction to mingle while they wait for trains. The walls of the station are held apart by steel-coated struts overhead, and in between those struts, the artist Mike Ross has installed two decommissioned US Navy A4 Skyhawks, chopped up, painted pink and yellow, and reassembled so they look almost weightless, like gigantic birds, kissing.
Passengers mingling on the platform waiting for trains in either direction won't have to wait for long. The trip from Capitol Hill to the University of Washington will take slightly less than four minutes. During rush hour, trains will leave the station every six minutes. All of which means a 10-minute commute from Cal Anderson Park to Husky Stadium reliably.
This commute has never been reliable before, what with all the skinny, sometimes squiggly streets between Capitol Hill and the U-District, and bridges no matter which way you go, bridges often unexpectedly raised for passing boats, which only makes already-bad traffic that much worse. During non-rush-hour times of day, trains will leave every 10 minutes, and before 6 a.m. and after 9 p.m., trains will leave every 15 minutes. That's still a 19-minute trip at most.
In a car, in the best of circumstances—no traffic, no accidents, no bridges up—it takes 20 minutes to get from Capitol Hill to the U-District, easily. On a bus, you have to add all the unexpectedness that goes along with being on a bus. Three months ago, on a cold night in December, I decided to take a 49 bus from Capitol Hill to the University District to see The Big Short at Sundance Cinemas. The 49 makes a stop right at Broadway and John. At 8:04 p.m., when the bus was supposed to arrive, I checked the app One Bus Away to see where it was. The bus was 10 minutes late. There is no shelter at this particular bus stop, and the moment I learned I would need to wait another 10 minutes, it started to rain. It was a light rain, but it was cold out and my lips were chapped, so I crossed Broadway and walked into the warmth of Rite Aid to buy ChapStick. When I emerged, it was raining heavily. One Bus Away had revised its estimate to 12 minutes late.
While waiting, I walked over to the mouth of the north entrance of the light rail station. Even with the gate down across the station's entrance, I could feel the air from deep in the station streaming out into my face and past me onto the street. They do not have air conditioning or heating in the light rail stations, but it was warm air, warmer than the nighttime December weather. Stepping into the warm breath coming out of the mouth of the station felt like I was like stepping into a warm, stinky stream. My ears had been freezing; suddenly they weren't. The vaguely eggy smell was strange. When I asked someone else if it smelled like eggs to him, he said it smelled more like gas.
I stood there for a while just to warm up. Ellen Forney's 40-foot-long mural of two hands linked at their pinkies had just been installed, and the yellow scaffolding that had been used to install it still stood in front of the art. There was other construction detritus scattered throughout the vestibule, including sheets of plywood, a fire extinguisher mounted on a plastic cone, an orange ladder fully extended. A security guard saw me staring into the station and walked over. Being a security guard at a not-yet-open transit station has to be the loneliest job in the world. He said he'd been guarding the station for two months. The company he works for moves guards every couple hours, he said; he only ever spends two hours at a time at the light rail station. He started talking about future light rail stations. He was excited about what further investments in light rail are going to do for the city.
I told him how much better it felt to stand here in the warm air coming out of the station than anywhere else. I told him I had just been making small talk with a shopkeeper about needing earmuffs, but standing right here at the mouth of the station, my ears were warm. I asked about the sulfurous smell. Did he smell it? He did. Did he know what caused it? I expected him to say something about the smell of the inside of the earth, a nauseating mineral whiff of nature itself, or maybe something about the electrical heat produced by the trains running exercises down in those tunnels, tunnels running not just underground but also underwater in places—they dive 21 feet under the Montlake Cut, for example—but he just smiled and said, simply: "Concrete."
Maybe it was just the smell of the station's concrete drying. Recently as I've passed the station, I haven't smelled it.
Construction of the Capitol Hill light rail station required the excavation of 97,280 cubic yards of soil and the demolition of more than a dozen recognizable buildings, including several apartment complexes and houses, a frame store in a freestanding house, a barbershop, a nail salon, a Russian piroshki place, an African imports store, a used bookstore, and the Jack in the Box that was notorious in the early 1990s for being the epicenter of an E. coli outbreak.
During demolition of all those buildings, which took place between March and May of 2009, 2,890 tons of bricks, wood, metal, and other building materials were recycled instead of going into a landfill, according to Sound Transit. "Proceeds from the sale of scrap metal were used to provide hot meals for people experiencing homelessness," Gray, the Sound Transit spokesperson, pointed out, and "several large tree stumps removed during construction were donated to support local salmon habitat restoration efforts."
The project required seven years of 24/7 construction noise. I live in an apartment building across the street from the site, and I don't know what was more maddening, the early-morning jackhammering when construction workers were ripping up the Eileen Court apartments foundation, or the bright distraction of the all-night-long floodlights, or the beep-beep-beeping of backing-up trucks full of dirt hauled out of the newly created tunnels.
I asked Madeline Jagger, a community manager for The Heights, an apartment complex on Broadway built in 2006 that directly faces the station, whether any residents had complained about the construction, and she said, "There was a question—not a complaint: What the emergency noises were." She was referring to the recent drills that have been conducted underground with the Seattle Police Department and the Seattle Fire Department. "I kept thinking there was a fire alarm going off in another building," she added.
For the record, there were some very cool things about living so close to the construction, like the fire-engine-red crane that was a fixture of the Broadway skyline for 3.5 years, could lift 33,000 pounds (equal to 11 railroad cars) up to 112 feet aboveground, and sometimes had workers in hard hats crawling around gymnastically on it. Or being able to see into the pit when they were hauling dirt out of the tunnels on long conveyor belts and then using an excavator to lift the dirt out of the pit and onto trucks.
When I stopped into Trendy Wendy, the exuberantly stocked apparel store that you can see from the station, proprietor Lisa Chang vented some frustration over how long the area has been obstructed by construction. "We've gone 10 years of construction with light rail, and it doesn't matter [that the station is about to open] because they're going to start construction" on the streetcar. "They're extending the streetcar to Kinko's. What good is that?" (As someone morally opposed to any transit that takes up space on the already-congested road and ding-dings, I'm with Chang on this one.)
I asked Chang if she was at least happy about the prospect of increased foot traffic. She said, "There's a lack of police response. All I think of is people grabbing clothes and running onto light rail." But she added, "I would certainly hope that it brings people to the street."
Ace Barbershop, which used to be on the block that was razed to make the station and is now across the street, "can't wait until it's open because the traffic [congestion during construction] made business slow down," said manager Helen Ha. "We work hard. And thank god for all the loyal customers who supported us. But we still need customers." She mentioned that "the rent is getting higher and higher, and everything costs more."
Andrej Noel, the bar manager at the newly reopened Charlie's, said, "We're looking forward to it as far as business goes because it brings in more foot traffic and also people from all over. And also it's nice for Seattle to finally join the ranks of having a transit system."
Flossie Pennington, a regular who happened to be sitting at Charlie's as Noel and I spoke, said that "it's been pretty slow, in my estimation" at Charlie's ever since it reopened under new owners back in November, and "I'm here once or twice a week." She said she thinks the light rail station might help. Pennington was born in 1962 on Capitol Hill and thinks that the station is "going to do wonders for transportation." But she added: "I don't think their parking lot is big enough. And I think it's ugly." I mentioned that the asphalt outside the station is not a parking lot; it's the site of a lot of future construction. I said the reason the building looks so strange, as if it's meant to be under and between other buildings above it, is because it will soon be under and between other buildings above it—some 400 new apartment units, 38 percent of them affordable housing, will be built in new construction above the station.
Pennington added, "I hate the bus, but I have ridden the light rail to the airport and I very much like it. I don't see any reason I ever have to take anyone to the airport ever again."
Monica Dimas, proprietor of Neon Taco, which operates in the back of Nacho Borracho, said there were no plans to immediately staff up to be ready for increased foot traffic. "We're already really busy," she said, adding that they may add another half-time position depending on what the numbers look like. She also mentioned how excited she was that light rail was finally coming to the hill. "I drive and I hate it here. I grew up in Eastern Washington and I'm used to having to drive everywhere, but I don't like it."
Nick Nazar, owner of Phoenix Comics & Games, Capitol Hill's only comic book store, which is right next to Dick's, said, "The general expectation is that business goes up. The areas reached by light rail aren't ones where comic shops exist. Optimistically, our customer base goes from Capitol Hill to Capitol Hill, Rainier Valley, Beacon Hill, First Hill, the airport, the International District..." I was taking notes by hand, and unable to keep up with all the parts of town he named.
Another Phoenix employee, Simon Vasta, said, "I'm a New York kid, so the fact that there's anything resembling real infrastructure in public transit is a huge plus for me." Vasta said he moved here three years ago from New York City. "The first year was rough. I've never owned a car. It was pretty rough. But this is going to be great."