BARRING FUTURE ENGINEERING DISASTERS, SEVEN years from now you'll be able to step onto an escalator at the corner of Broadway and John, descend into an underground train station, pay your fare, and be in the U-District in five minutes. No screwing around with traffic, no pedaling your bicycle uphill, no waiting half an hour in the rain for a big, clumsy bus. Finally, Seattle will have the beginnings of the public transit system it needs.

While that sounds great, there could be a high cost. From the independent bookstores of Broadway, to the old-time warehouses speckled across the industrial corridor, to the mom-and-pop grocery stores in the south end, there is a pervasive fear that light rail, and the development that goes with it, will take out small businesses across the city, leaving only Starbucks and McDonald's in its wake.

Sound Transit, the public agency charged with designing and building the $5 billion transportation system that will span three counties, is pushing for a track that connects the University of Washington with the Sea-Tac Airport, by way of Capitol Hill, downtown, the Duwamish Corridor, Beacon Hill, and the Rainier Valley. They plan to build 16 separate stations within Seattle, and a large maintenance facility south of downtown. Since the stations will significantly transform the corners where they are located, we can expect 16 separate battles in the larger war over Seattle's future. Speculators are already hovering, ready to pounce, as local businesses and neighbors dig in to protect their turf.

In planning for the Capitol Hill station--which will land somewhere around Broadway and John--Sound Transit had originally considered digging deep under Broadway, leaving nearby stores undisturbed. Now the plan is to dig shallower, either tearing up Broadway for 10 months or doing the same a block over, on Nagle Place. Either way, some businesses will lose (if the station is built on Nagle, the four-block construction zone will take out operations like Twice Sold Tales, Cellophane Square, an African restaurant, and a locksmith).

Doing the work at Nagle could save Sound Transit $25 to $30 million, and would coincide nicely with a project to cap the nearby reservoir for water quality. But the plan is already being protested. Jamie Lutton, owner of Twice Sold Tales, has drawn up a petition to save her store (she gathered 1,600 signatures in five days). She says the city is purposely targeting independent businesses. "Who's gonna be in charge of this spot when I go?" she asks. "Starbucks. McDonald's." She vows to fight Sound Transit all the way.

Down in the Duwamish Corridor, the landscape is entirely different. Concrete boxes, freight trains, and 18-wheelers populate the area, but resistance to Sound Transit's plan is just as fierce. Not only does the agency plan to build a stop in Seattle's shrinking industrial zone, it wants to construct a 25-acre maintenance facility, potentially displacing a pipe-making firm (and its workers) that relies on the nearby freight tracks, along with a Fed Ex building and a number of manufacturing plants.

And on the south end, at Martin Luther King Way South and Othello Street, a block that's home to 12 separate businesses is slated to be wiped out to make room for a surface-level rail station. The businesses, including a family dentist, a barber shop, a Mexican taqueria, and the Holly Park Medical and Dental Clinic, have been struggling for survival. They've hired an architect and started talking with investors. If they're lucky, they'll find the money to join together and build a plaza behind the station, where they could relocate. That would mean staying in the neighborhood and benefiting from added foot traffic.

"What's happening at Othello is a great example of what needs to happen at each and every station that's being planned," says City Councilmember Richard Conlin. "The city and Sound Transit need to get together with the community and come up with creative ways to prepare for [the light rail line]. That's the only way we'll avoid being at the mercy of real estate speculators."

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While it's not true that only indies will be targeted when the bulldozers show up--the First Hill station near Swedish Hospital is slated to take out as many as three banks and a McDonald's, while the Beacon Hill station spares a Filipino video store and a Chinese hair salon--they do have the most to lose. It's tough to find a viable place to relocate in real-estate-deprived Seattle. It's expensive to move... and will your clientele follow you?

Sound Transit does have to pay fair market value for properties it buys in order to build the rail line. And there are some relocation benefits available, but business owners say the package isn't adequate.

Small businesses also face a disadvantage when it comes to standing off against Sound Transit, since they have less to spend on lawyers, and less clout with the city than big chain stores.

The "before and after" photos on Sound Transit's website (www.soundtransit.org) show magically transformed intersections. Mangy shrubbery and grungy businesses are replaced by neat train stations, stately edifices, and happy people bustling about. Yet planners deny there's a social engineering scheme behind the city's light rail plans. "The decisions we make are based on transit," says Ron Endlich, Sound Transit's north district manager.

Basically, Endlich says, his agency just wants to get the system built. Between the geotechnical challenges of tunneling from the U District to the downtown bus tunnel and the impossible task of keeping everyone happy in the process, Endlich and the other engineers have their hands full. Already Sound Transit has been hammered as racist for wanting to tunnel under a hill (and bulldoze 42 businesses in the Rainier Valley along the way). The organization has since agreed to contribute $50 million toward a Community Investment Fund to help soften the blow to the Valley.

The city's Strategic Planning Office is doing its part by conducting extensive research about the intersections where the 16 stations will go (available at www.pan.ci.seattle.wa.us/planning/home.htm). They're looking at factors including housing markets, existing businesses, and potentials for investment and/or redevelopment.

"We certainly anticipate new opportunities once the system is in place," says Strategic Planning's Laura Paskin. "But we'll need to develop partnerships to make it happen." The question is whether they will team up with their old developer pals, or with the people who live and work in the affected neighborhoods.

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