A restaurant worker steps out to clap away some crows. Friends debate in Mandarin which side of University Way they’ll explore first. A barber’s razor hums behind the ears. Rain begins to fall.

Multitudes of people returned this week to the U District, a perfect coincidence to match the grand opening of its light-rail station Saturday.

Autumn quarter 2021 marks the first time in 18 months the University of Washington, under mask and vaccination requirements, is bringing all 80,000 students, faculty and staff together since early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Madrona Venture Group and PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.

“We are thrilled to have all of the Huskies back on campus, living in the U District. The energy level, the vibe they lend to the neighborhood is incredible. We miss that,” said Trevor Peterson, chief operating officer of University Bookstore. “We have two incoming classes at the same time, not just the freshmen but the sophomores.”

U District Station helps fulfill a vision voters approved in 1996 to unite the Puget Sound region’s urban centers by train. Besides a consistent eight-minute ride to Westlake Station, this stop rearranges how people circulate near campus. As many as 24,000 people are expected to enter or exit the station daily.

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“I hope everybody goes out Oct. 2 to see the new station and starts using it, because some of those small businesses in the University District have been really struggling,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said.

An opening day street fair on Saturday will include food and musicians, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.


Two stations, not one

Though it took 25 years, light-rail stops will serve both ends of the 639-acre campus, instead of a single station as first proposed in 1996. The expansion that opens this weekend follows the station built five years ago next to Husky Stadium.

More coverage of Sound Transit’s light rail extension to North Seattle

From the teal-colored south exit, visitors see the campus to their left. Twin sidewalks continue from Northeast 43rd Street up a grassy slope and past the new Burke Museum and the Gates School of Law.

“It’s been fabulous having light-rail over by the stadium, no question,” UW President Ana Mari Cauce said. “But for most of us who work on central campus and for a lot of our students taking classes there, it’s a bit of a hoof to make it over to Husky Stadium, and this is really much closer.”

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Standing on Northeast 45th Street, student Sean Truong and a friend waited Monday for a bus ride to the Intramural Activities fitness center, on the far end of campus from his business classes. Soon the center will be a two-minute ride from U District to UW Station.

Truong was glad to learn trains are ready to also serve Northgate, where his family moved into an apartment.

Ollie Wiesner, a graduate student in transportation engineering, said he was impressed to pay $3.25 train fare Friday from the airport to UW Station, while moving here with his skateboard and light baggage. In his hometown of Pittsburgh trains serve mainly sports stadiums, Wiesner said.

“It’s cool to come to a city like this where they prioritize, to be more inclusive, for people who depend on it,” he said, noting that Northgate Station will add options to visit friends.

Allie Struzik, a newcomer living in Wallingford, said she’ll commute by rail to her Amazon office near the Spheres, when COVID-19 subsides. Struzik said her son’s day-care provider is near U District Station, so she will push a stroller across the I-5 overpass on her way to a train, rather than drive when congestion returns downtown.

“It will be a more pleasant experience, even it takes the same time, or longer,” she said.

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UW boasts of ranking #2 nationally in sustainable commuting among North American colleges and universities, trailing only Columbia in New York City. Only 19% of students, faculty and staff drive alone to campus, while 39% ride transit, and the remainder carpool, walk or bike.

The station near Husky Stadium helped reduce drive commutes, said Anne Eskridge, UW transportation services director. With the second station, and fully paid transit passes extended to 15,000 staffers, she aims to bring solo driving down to 12% of all trips.

Workers and unions had waged a small protest in 2019 to nudge UW into boosting the 41% fare subsidy to 100%, for certain groups.

A grand staircase

Station entrances are color coded as a navigation aid. Teal walls surround the south gate on Northeast 43rd Street, while the north gate glows in orange near 45th and the Neptune Theatre.

Above the trains, aluminum sculptures of windows, awnings and catwalks by Lead Pencil Studios depict apartment life.

A steel staircase winds from the mezzanine to train level. Sound Transit planned to rely on escalators only, then added stairs for $3 million after 2018 escalator failures at UW Station blocked riders. The square form and shiny finish might encourage visitors to pose for pictures. It’s outfitted with grooves known as runnels, for bicyclists to roll their tires.

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Sound Transit rebuffed a suggestion by the late Philip Thiel, emeritus UW architecture professor, to build a plaza above the whole one-third block station for farmers markets, fairs and cafes.

Instead, the space between north and south entrances will be occupied by a 12- to 13-story UW office building in early 2025, reinforced by a giant beam and columns within the station.

Transit executives and UW spent years in a sometimes tense negotiations over the risk that trains would disrupt sensitive laboratory measurements. The tunnel route curves miss certain science and engineering buildings.

Sound Transit designed and built a “floating slab,” in which absorbent rubber fits between train ties and the concrete tunnel tube. The UW tunnel contains the most sophisticated floating slab in the world, and so-called ultra straight rail similar to fast European railways, said Shankar Rajaram, Sound Transit vehicle engineering manager.

Speeds are limited to 35 mph for vibration control, compared to 55 mph under Capitol Hill. That adds only 10 seconds to the ride under campus, Rajaram said.

Neighborhood changes

In his kitchen at Cedar’s of Lebanon Restaurant, owner John Khalil expects more customers, but fears growth and high property values will someday shove him out of his monthly lease.

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“It’s like we’re digging in a mine and finding the gold, and don’t know what to do with it. Do we mine it, or split it, or fight over it?” Khalil said.

Hundreds of arriving train riders at the teal gate will cross Northeast 43rd Street, and maybe stop for lunch at his 47-year-old business. On the other hand, he wound up paying $800 for four teal picnic tables the business association installed on the new sidewalk.

Kirk Strong, owner of University Barbershop, criticized the barricades that limit his block of University Way to one southbound lane, creating space for outdoor dining. The restrictions are in addition to years of street barricades for station and building construction that discourage drive-up customers, he said. Still, young men steadily dropped by for a trim on Monday.

“The students, they figure things out,” Strong said.

He hopes the train will draw people who avoided the U District before, especially on Husky football days. He said he’s not concerned about losing the shop to redevelopment, because of a stable landlord-tenant relationship.

City zoning reflects the push from small business to “Save the Ave.” All blocks surrounding U District Station are upzoned to allow buildings 240 or 320 feet tall — except University Way itself, which remains capped at 65 feet.

Current construction projects include eight tower cranes. A tiny-house village will move into a Sound Transit surplus construction lot along 45th, until bigger plans hatch. The U District added 2,173 new housing units since 2015, with 2,480 more permitted or under construction.

Don Blakeney, executive director of the business group U District Partnership, compared the station’s impact to the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909, which shaped the modern UW campus to face Mount Rainier.

“I would say this is on par with the World’s Fair, the A-Y-P.,” he said. “We’re moving earth and we’re building new structures that are going to soar to heights the neighborhood’s never seen before.”