Thursday, December 21, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Transit doubt runs deep on Capitol Hill

Seattle Times research editor

From the window of her hair salon, Michelle Hamilton looked out on Broadway and imagined what it would be like if Sound Transit began construction. Neon signs gone. Shop fronts covered in 16 feet of plywood. A giant trench, 100 feet deep, down the middle of the street. Parking lots gone. Two years of this.

"Who's going to come to Broadway under those circumstances?" she asked. "I saw my business going. I saw me losing my home, my people leaving."

Seattle's biggest construction project ever, Sound Transit's proposed 21-mile light-rail line, was intended to be a boon to the historic, diverse--and traffic-clogged--neighborhoods of Capitol Hill and First Hill. The two districts voted overwhelmingly for the 1996 transit plan, and they account for nearly a third of the projected ridership between downtown and the University District.

But now light rail is in trouble on Capitol Hill. A coalition of business and civic groups this week withdrew support for the project, saying that after months of negotiations, they were unable to secure plans from Sound Transit to alleviate the construction impact.

The agency says planning is not finished, and it is still trying to work out the construction problems. A spokesman for Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, a key Sound Transit board member, said he will fight any plan that ruins a business community, even if it means moving light rail out of Capitol Hill entirely to a different alignment.

Schell "is not wedded to any particular alignment up there, but he's wedded to a solution that keeps the businesses whole," said Dick Lilly, the mayor's spokesman.

In the meantime, one of the Seattle area's most diverse and independent retail districts is holding its collective breath. Burger King and Dairy Queen didn't survive here, but independents like Salah Serrhini, owner of Dar Salaam, a Moroccan gift store, have thrived.

Located in a century-old former bowling alley on Broadway, Dar Salaam is neighbor to an Internet cafe, a tattoo and body-piercing parlor, Blood and Bone Studios, Seattle Candle Works and a tobacco pipe shop.

"I was very excited at the beginning" when plans were announced for a subway through Capitol Hill, said Serrhini, who has built his business slowly from scratch over three years. "I thought it would be a big change, it was going to bring a lot of people from Seattle, and the tourists."

But he doesn't think he would survive two years of construction. Two-thirds of his customers come from outside Capitol Hill and would have to deal with traffic jams, worse parking problems, and detoured bus lines. "It would be a total nightmare for them, a total disaster for business."

One of the few merchants still hopeful that Sound Transit can overcome its problems is Michael Kelly, vice president of Games and Gizmos--an East Coast transplant who was in Washington, D.C., during the construction of that city's Metro light-rail system.

"It was a mess in the beginning," Kelly recalled. "But in my opinion, the areas that fought it, the areas where the stations were changed because of neighborhood opposition, looking back 20 years, some of those neighborhood suffered."

Kelly is worried about the construction as well, but he hopes Sound Transit doesn't give up. In the long run, he said, it will be "fantastic for business."

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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