Columbia City is the exception to the rule when it comes to most neighborhoods near downtown Seattle.
The personality of the area, with its community pride and original historic buildings, has remained intact even through a period of growth and rising popularity.
One reason may be that Columbia City has been designated a historic landmark district in Seattle.
This requires oversight by a board of citizens who make sure the buildings and public spaces retain their historic appearance, and that the character of the buildings in the area is preserved.
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This is evident when you take a look around the neighborhood, which is located in the Rainier Valley area of southeast Seattle between Interstate 5 and Lake Washington.
From the Andrew Carnegie-funded Columbia City branch of the Seattle Public Library, built in 1914, to the colorful storefronts, it’s rare to find a neighborhood that has more turn-of-the-century houses and shops than sky-high town homes and condos.
More and more, people are choosing to live in the area as an alternative to downtown, says Rob Mohn, owner of the Shirley Marvin, an extended-stay hotel. He is a neighborhood advocate who has worked for years to help improve the area.
“There is a small-town friendliness here, and a great sense of place,” he says.
Another reason Mohn says he likes living in the neighborhood: There is very little reason to get behind the wheel of a car.
When the Sound Transit Link Light Rail station opened in 2009, just blocks from Columbia City’s main core, the neighborhood became easily accessible and more walkable. On a day when the freeways might have hourlong backups, residents can get to the Columbia City station via a 20-minute train trip from Seattle’s Westlake Center.
Many residents attend classes and special events at Rainier Community Center, the second-largest community center in the state. Other popular spots include Ark Lodge Cinemas, the Columbia City Theater, Genesee Park and Rainier Playfield. The area is also home to a growing number of consignment shops and smaller specialty stores.
Strolling past brick buildings, a jazz club, organic cafes and iconic diner Geraldine’s Counter, Columbia City can feel like a quiet street in a New York borough. The difference is that people move at a slower pace and everybody seems to know each other, says Christo de Klerk, who returned to the area two months ago after living in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“It’s a real neighborhood and a very engaged community,” says de Klerk, who originally purchased a home with his wife, Erica, in Columbia City in 2008. Since returning to the area, the couple has noticed a more energized sense of what’s going on in the neighborhood.
Columbia City has benefited from diversity, says Sarah Rudinoff, a John L. Scott Real Estate broker. She has been selling homes in the neighborhood for the past seven years and has lived in the area since the 1990s.
“It’s diverse in race, income, age, even religion, and yet everybody seems to get along,” she says.
New residents are often impressed with how quickly they can get downtown, she says, but there are many things to do without ever leaving the neighborhood. That will be especially true when a new PCC Natural Markets store opens in the heart of Columbia City next year.
“You can walk everywhere,” Rudinoff says. “[You can go to] Lake Washington, to the off-leash dog park, to check out an amazing Caribbean or Italian restaurant, to the historic library or to one of the longest-running farmers markets in Seattle.
“Columbia City really has a little bit of everything. It’s fabulous.”
But the allure of Columbia City is no longer a secret. Rudinoff says she is often approached by buyers who think they’ve found a new neighborhood that has yet to be discovered. Many hope to get a starter home priced around $200,000 —$300,000.
“I have to break the news to them that for a three-bedroom-plus home on the (Lake Washington) side of Rainier Avenue South, you’ll have to spend somewhere in the $450,000 range,” she says.
Some houses in Columbia City are priced higher because they have 2,500-square-foot Craftsman-style designs, rather than the smaller bungalows found in nearby neighborhoods.
In the last six months, Rudinoff says, there were more than 50 residences sold in Columbia City for less than $500,000. In addition, multifamily housing is under construction in several locations near the Rainier Avenue South corridor.