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Tuesday, December 3, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Corrected version

Rainier Vista to get makeover

Seattle Times staff reporter

With no celebration, no protest and little rumble beyond the sound of bulldozers, Rainier Valley's identity undergoes a makeover this week as demolition begins on a sprawling public-housing project that helped define the neighborhood for a half-century.

The Seattle Housing Authority elected not to publicly commemorate the beginning of Rainier Vista's redevelopment, conscious of the sensitivity and emotion involved in clearing a chunk of the land that has housed Seattle's poor for generations.

The mowing down of 130 duplexes and fourplexes marks the beginning of a two-phase, $35 million project that will transform Rainier Vista from a community exclusively for very poor people into a more densely populated, mixed-income neighborhood of new row houses, town houses and apartments — much in the way Southeast Seattle's other vast public-housing project, Holly Park, morphed into NewHolly in 1999.

While Rainier Vista redevelopment could be an economic blessing for Rainier Valley, it also could contribute toward changing what Southeast Seattle residents say they value most about their area — its socioeconomic and racial diversity.

Opponents fear that redevelopment could make Southeast Seattle's overall housing less affordable, pushing lower-income people and recent immigrants out of the city.

But Virginia Felton, housing authority communications director, said Rainier Vista has been a historical example of economic homogeny — 481 rental homes occupied exclusively by the very poor. The new Rainier Vista will integrate 1,010 homes: 410 subsidized rentals for poor people, 100 market-rate rentals for people earning less than median income, and 500 marketed for sale.

"Our goal is to redevelop Rainier Vista into an interesting neighborhood of people from all different ethnic backgrounds and income groups," Felton said.

By the end of the week, a fenced-off section of the 65-acre project will look like a junk pile of downed trees, scrap wood, wallboard and siding. Bisected by Martin Luther King Jr. Way South, Rainier Vista's west side will undergo construction while low-income families continue to occupy homes on the east side of the street.

Loc Nguyen and his wife, Hoa, are raising their four children and running a day-care center out of their Rainier Vista home. He said a mixed-income development could benefit residents.

"By living with other people, not only low-income people, maybe we'll learn something from one another and we'll understand each other better," said Nguyen, who emigrated from Vietnam in 1992. "We're all Americans."

Carolee Colter will be able to witness Rainier Vista's redevelopment from her back yard. Clumps of ivy and a cluster of black locust trees serve as a buffer between the house she has owned for

10 years and the Rainier Vista property line. An environmental activist before turning her political activism against Rainier Vista redevelopment, Colter is philosophically opposed to gentrification.

"The value of my house likely will go up over time and I may make a windfall profit because of it," she said. "That may be good for me personally, but I don't think that it is good for the Rainier Valley. One of the last areas affordable in Seattle isn't going to be anymore."

Brett Baker, who with his girlfriend has rented a house two blocks from Rainier Vista for

2-½ years, said redevelopment cuts both ways.

"We'd like to see the neighborhood do better economically but maintain the diversity that the valley now has," he said. "I hope the redevelopment does not turn this area into just any other Seattle neighborhood."

Earlie Spruell also lives in a rental house two blocks from Rainier Vista. He has called Seattle home since 1962 and has owned a couple of different houses in Rainier Valley during that time. He views Rainier Vista redevelopment as a positive.

"They have needed to clean up the South End for a long time to make it more livable," he said.

State Rep. Kip Tokuda, D-Seattle, who has represented Southeast Seattle for eight years, said Rainier Vista has been a wonderful haven for low-income people and a magnet for social services that help needy residents who live both inside and outside the housing project.

"That being said, the downside of Rainier Vista has been that in some ways it has perpetuated negative and unfair stereotypes about the Rainier Valley," said Tokuda, who is retiring from the Legislature at the end of this year.

Pat Chemnick, economic-development manager for SouthEast Effective Development, a Rainier Valley community-development organization, said she expects the redevelopment to result in attractive, better-quality housing for people of all incomes. More density, she said, also should help local businesses.

"Housing projects haven't exactly been healthy for the community or for the people living there," Chemnick said. "Large concentrations of low-income people heightened the image that Southeast Seattle was not part of the overall city but something different."

Rainier Vista opened in 1942 to house Seattle workers contributing to the World War II effort. After the war, veterans lived at Rainier Vista until it again became defense-worker housing during the Korean War. Rainier Vista was conveyed to the Seattle Housing Authority in 1953.

Rainier Vista's one-story structures spread out along a serpentine of curved streets, a configuration that Seattle Housing Authority officials say has detached Rainier Vista from adjacent neighborhoods. The redevelopment calls for a lattice-like pattern of new roads that will connect to existing streets outside the development.

Colter said Rainier Vista's style of public housing is hardly like the dilapidated high-rise tenements considered pocks upon other large cities.

"I have never thought of Rainier Vista as an eyesore," she said. "I've always found it aesthetically pleasing to have small, one-story duplexes on a flowing space surrounded by big trees."

Colter also likes watching the birds that fly between the trees in her back yard and those within Rainier Vista. While only 165 of Rainier Vista's approximately 500 trees are being saved, Felton said more than 800 new trees will be planted within the redeveloped community, including some big ones.

"When Rainier Vista was built, it was on the edge of the urban area," she said. "To keep Rainier Vista's open space as it is now would be a luxury that the city cannot afford."

Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or seskenazi@seattletimes.com.

Information in this article, originally published December 3, was corrected December 4. A headline incorrectly stated that the city of Seattle is razing Rainier Vista, a public-housing project. The redevelopment is under the direction of the Seattle Housing Authority, a public corporation governed by a seven-member citizen commission and independent of Seattle city government.

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