The Roosevelt area, known as a mecca for hi-fi stores and wellness services, might have become an afterthought in Sound Transit’s light-rail scheme linking the vast northern suburbs with the University of Washington.

Instead, the neighbors embraced rapid growth and newcomers who will ride the trains, which arrive Saturday when the new line between Northgate and Husky Stadium opens.

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The Roosevelt urban village absorbed 1,626 new housing units since early 2016, a 95% increase, city records say. That’s a total of 3,346 homes an easy walk to light rail. Another 624 are permitted, including 253 affordable units under construction at the Roosevelt Station’s north entrance.

Perhaps more than any other Seattle community, Roosevelt gave itself a running start, to guarantee regional taxpayers’ nearly $500 million-per-mile investment bears fruit the first year.


“We don’t have light rail because we’ve got a great smile,” said Jim O’Halloran, former president of the Roosevelt Neighborhood Association. “We took advantage of the construction to organize and influence this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. All in all, we did a pretty good job.”

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Going underground

In the mid-2000s, transit-board members considered elevated tracks along Interstate 5, thinking that would be the cheapest option. The agency barely won a crucial $500 million federal grant to build through south Seattle and Tukwila, following Sound Transit’s near-collapse politically and financially. Money seemed tight.

Roosevelt residents preferred a more accessible station site, underground in the neighborhood’s center. Some displayed yard signs saying, “Yes in My Backyard.”

Sound Transit eventually decided a freeway route wasn’t such a bargain.

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

The design team discovered high costs to thread concrete guideways around I-5 overpasses, recalled Ron Lewis, executive director for design, engineering and construction. The path would require buyouts and demolition of private homes.

But if engineers placed the tunnel entrance farther north, they could launch a 3.8-mile tunnel boring operation next to Northgate Station, Lewis said, and miss the thicket of freeway ramps at North 85th Street.

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A tunneled Roosevelt Station needed just $40 million more than an aerial I-5 station closer to Green Lake. The whole line remained unaffordable, however, until voters passed the Sound Transit 2 sales-tax increase in 2008.

Moving the line underground created new challenges.

To drill Seattle’s soft glacial soils, contractors chose an “earth-pressure balance” boring machine, which pushes forward at a pace that’s calibrated to match dirt flowing out the rear end. Nonetheless, a 40-foot-wide sinkhole formed in front of two Roosevelt-area houses. Besides filling the hole, workers injected grout to solidify the ground.

Contractors froze other soil to prevent groundwater floods where cross-passages are dug between the twin train tubes — preventing a repeat of a problem that forced six months of pumping under the Montlake neighborhood years before while tunneling from Capitol Hill to Husky Stadium.

“That’s the highest-level of pretreatment we can apply for our cross-passage work, and we did that in 11 locations,” said Rick Capka, Sound Transit’s project construction manager.

One of two tunnel machines sprung a crack in its bull gear, the internal ring that spins the cutter head. After a six-week stall and minor repairs, it limped the last 600 feet to the new U District Station, where the other machine took over the dig to Husky Stadium. Unlike the huge Highway 99 tunnel machine Bertha’s two-year breakdown and repair operation, light-rail benefited from a standard 21½-foot tube size.

Workers on the Northgate extension crews immediately adopted new safety rules during the COVID-19 outbreak to prevent the construction slowdown on jobs seen across Washington state, Lewis said.

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The 4.3-mile project finished $52 million below its $1.9 billion budget.

Catching a train

Bus lines will shift to bring people to the new station. Sound Transit’s Route 522, from Bothell, Kenmore and Lake City, will terminate at Roosevelt Station rather than enter I-5 nearby to go downtown.

Three passenger load spaces were created curbside on Northeast 66th Street, where taxis, ride-hailing cars or friends can drop off light-rail users. That probably won’t be enough room to handle all the drop-off trips, City Councilmember Alex Pedersen said. But he’s satisfied overall, and said any street-level access flaws can be changed later.

There are 74 bike-parking spaces including racks inside a shared cage, and a bike lane is now being built along 12th Avenue Northeast.

Neighbors convinced the agency to install a red neon STANDARD RADIO sign and glass facade at the south entrance, salvaged from a former Roosevelt business, along with black lettering from JnS Phonograph Needles. The famous Seattle-based Magnolia hi-fi chain was purchased by Best Buy in 2000 and since moved off Roosevelt Way Northeast, but Guitar Center, Definitive Audio and Hawthorne Stereo rock on.

Passengers exiting the station can see skyscrapers and tower cranes to the south. It’s not downtown; it’s the University District growing taller.

Green Lake-area resident Erik Nielsen said he’ll probably buy an electric bike to go under I-5 to Roosevelt Station, then ride the train to the airport, Capitol Hill and his girlfriend’s place in Columbia City. He figures on driving 150 fewer miles a month.

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“Because people don’t go to work downtown as much, you’re going to see some unusual situations. People are going to be filling the train on Friday nights,” Nielsen expects.

Change, but not too much

To be sure, not everyone loves unbridled growth.

Neighbors resisted high-rises that would block views from historic Roosevelt High School. Developers talked about 21 stories, 14, then 12, until parties agreed on six- to seven-story limits, said O’Halloran.

Apartment buildings rose on lots formerly managed by landlord Hugh Sisley, known for letting old houses decline and for piling up $658,000 in court judgments, before about three blocks were leased by a local developer in 2013.

Sisley properties in Roosevelt became a resource to aid transit-friendly development — comparable to the strip-mall parking lots in downtown Lynnwood, which is striving to grow before its station opens in 2024.

“The fact the properties were in such disrepair gave us all an incentive to move forward,” O’Halloran said.

Residential zones between the train stop and Cowen Park remain as well-kempt homes on tree-lined streets.

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Ron Davis, a housing advocate living near Roosevelt, wrote on The Urbanist website that “limiting 86 acres to low-density housing when they are next to a shiny new subway station in a high-opportunity neighborhood is a reckless waste of resources.” He suggests Roosevelt “lead the way” to a walkable, lower-carbon city by taking on additional midrise zoning.

O’Halloran says denser housing will likely spread farther someday, but compromise was worthwhile. “It would harm the traditional interests. You would lose some of what we honestly felt was Seattle craftsman architecture,” he said. The Ravenna-Cowen North residential area was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2018.

Norm Huletz, owner of Red Line Auto Electric, can hear construction equipment building the new Cedar Crossing affordable apartments near his shop. The land he leases has been sold, and Huletz expects to move in two years when developers finish their permitting and construction plans.

Transit promoters talk about a car-free Seattle, but people go more places than rail can reach, Huletz said. “This is America, people drive cars.”

All his life, the region has debated transit proposals, from crosstown subways to monorail lines to light-rail campaigns. He’s glad to finally see his taxes pay for a station nearby.

“I’ve heard guys complain about the cost of all that, but it beats 40 years of conversation,” Huletz said. “It’s obvious we needed some form of mass transit. At least they put it in a place where people will use it.”