In 1996, while Joel Wood and Doug Sowers were still selling coffee from a cart on Broadway, voters approved a $3.9 billion ballot measure to put Link light rail in motion. Twenty years later, the Cafe Solstice cart has grown into Capitol Hill and U-District cafes — two locations that will be connected this week by the U-Link light rail line envisioned in the mid-1990s.
Many neighborhood businesses have come and gone in the years leading up to March 19th, the day when the first regular service trains will start serving the U-District and Capitol Hill on their way to SeaTac. The light at the end of the tunnel is now shining on the doorsteps of businesses who stuck it out through construction and played the long game to benefit from the rapid transit line.
“I am very happy and proud to say yes, we are still here, but it was not easy. I saw a lot of casualties with this construction,” said Asif Rehan Alvi, who has owned Perfect Copy & Print on Broadway for 26 years.
“I have suffered through the construction, so shouldn’t I be here to reap the benefits?”
Alvi was one of the 31 business owners around Broadway and Denny forced to relocate in 2008 when demolition began to make way for the Capitol Hill Station. At the time, things were not looking good for Alvi’s copy business. As demand for Broadway storefronts skyrocketed, Alvi signed what he called the worst lease of his life.
Fortunately, Alvi was able to break the lease and stick it out in another location for eight years on half the staff and half the sales. Dick’s, Queen of Sheba, and Broadway Locksmith similarly hung on through construction.
On Saturday, Alvi will be one of the first passengers to board a train at the Capitol Hill Station, but said he has mixed feelings about the occasion. While happy to see transit expanding in the city, Alvi said he knows landowners on the blocks surrounding the station are also looking to cash in.
“This building now becomes a prime redevelopment opportunity. Those who survived, their leases are coming up,” he said. “I have suffered through the construction, so shouldn’t I be here to reap the benefits?”
So far, no plans have been announced to have any of the remaining displaced businesses return to the new mixed-use developments that will one day surround the Capitol Hill Station. Alvi told CHS his current lease has not yet been renewed.
Through the years of demolition and construction, officials mostly left it to “market forces” as to whether small businesses would make it — or not. The Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce was selected to administrate programs including the approximately $75,000 per year business mitigation funding from Sound Transit to help Broadway and area businesses weather the years of construction required to create the new light rail tunnels and station. The money was enough to create a website and fund a few seminars and a few community events.
Annapurna Cafe’s building lives in the shadow of future plans for one of those 50-unit apartment buildings. But after surviving the brunt of Broadway’s light rail construction, owners Roshita Shrestha and Sujan Sharma decided to reinvest in their longtime Broadway home by opening Yeti Bar in the space formerly home to King’s Teriyaki. The Peet’s Coffee in same building as King’s would also not survive to see the opening of the Capitol Hill Station. Annapurna, by the way, is a CHS advertiser.
For newer merchants, light rail was what drew them to Broadway in the first place. That was the case for Rachel Marshall when she decided to open Nacho Barracho on Broadway in 2014. “I experienced more disruption as a Capitol Hill resident than a Capitol Hill business owner,” said Marshall, whose other Capitol Hill businesses include Rachel’s Ginger Beer and Montana.
Now that that service is about to start, Marshall said she is excited to make Nacho Borracho a destination for U-District and downtown residents. “I don’t expect an enormous windfall right away. I think we’ll see a gradual increase,” she said. “We’ll play it by ear. We have plenty of seats and staff that can handle it.”
Phoenix Comics & Games, Tea Republic, and the re-born Charlie’s are no doubt also hoping for a payoff for purposefully opening a business amid Broadway’s light rail construction. But those new arrivals won’t just be limiting themselves to exploring a few blocks on Broadway. Marshall is also looking forward to the increased foot traffic light rail will bring to 12th Ave and E Olive Way’s already thriving food and drink scene.
Saturday’s celebration of the grand opening of the Capitol Hill Station will include a day of parties at both of the stations on the new route. It will also include free rides and Broadway merchants giving away cool gifts to commemorate the more than six years of demolition, tunnel boring, and construction in the neighborhood to build the new subway.