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Originally published | Page modified July 11, 2009 at 12:58 AM

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Beacon Hill's light-rail station filled with colorful art

At Beacon Hill Station, one of four elevators will speed you roughly 16 stories down. When the doors open, riders will see colorful artwork while they wait for their Sound Transit light-rail train.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

About the Beacon Hill station

PLATFORM
Underground. A 20-second elevator ride from the hilltop to the boarding area 165 feet down.

CONNECTIONS
Frequent service from Route 36 bus along Beacon Avenue South, and Route 60 bus to First Hill and Georgetown.

NEIGHBORHOOD ATTRACTIONS
Beacon Hill Library, El Centro de la Raza and many small ethnic shops. Walk or bike one-half mile south to Jefferson Park.

DID YOU KNOW?
Steps from the station entrance, the city is building a decorative, low-speed side street, similar to a European woonerf, for "kiss-and-ride" passenger drop-offs, bicycles, disabled-access vans and pedestrians. Bollards can be raised to block the road for a farmers market.

Video | Light-rail ride along

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By the time your light-rail train arrives at Beacon Hill Station, you've already taken a trip.

From the street, one of four elevators will speed you roughly 16 stories down. When the doors open, look ahead to the screen showing video from the Hubble Space Telescope, and images from an artist's microscope. Stars appear on a midnight-blue porcelain ceiling.

Above the boarding platform, luminous mobiles hang, in an artwork titled "Space Forms." A purple starship, a spotted red dragon, green jellyfish. Are they aliens or bacteria?

Whatever their origins, the station is designed to cure tunnel claustrophobia. "A sense of expansion, and a deep-sky type of experience," is how artist Dan Corson describes the effect.

Quite the show, for a $1.75 transit ticket.

The curiosities don't stop at the one-mile, $308 million tunnel, which took five years to build.

Sound Transit trains oddly enter the tunnel by traveling uphill on trestles, since the portals are higher than the valleys on either side. Just before reaching the deep station, riders will see an art display on the concrete tube wall called "Lightsticks," by Bill Bell. Playing cards, random words or other themes flash for one-thirtieth of a second.

"Part of the fun will be discovering the 'subliminal art' and then figuring out what it is you are seeing," transit spokesman Bruce Gray said. The station art, including steel banners on the street plaza, cost more than $800,000.

The most spectacular feature is the tunnel itself, which opens July 18 with the rest of the $2.3 billion, 14-mile starter line from downtown Seattle to Tukwila.

With its twin tubes, the hill station resembles a huge pair of buried binoculars.

"It's one of the seven wonders of the light-rail world," said Peter Cipolla, vice president of Hatch Mott MacDonald, consulting engineers on the tunnel.

Before groundbreaking, the agency dug a vertical test shaft to map several layers of wet, unstable soil deposited by ancient glaciers.

Despite extensive research, construction took a year longer than planned, exceeded cost estimates and caused eight voids in the hill, filled this spring. One worker died in a supply-train crash.

Soil slides made vertical mining — to create the elevator shafts and station — so difficult that politicians canceled a similar deep station at First Hill.

Who will use it?

Beacon Hill already is a strong transit market, where King County Metro's 36 bus carries 9,720 riders a day north-south atop the hill and down to the Chinatown International District. Metro conjectures that one-fourth would save time taking light rail, or a combined bus-rail trip.

The train takes six minutes from Beacon Hill to the International District/Chinatown Station, compared to 11 minutes by bus.

Bus lines will feed people to Beacon Hill Station, but some riders dislike the idea of transferring.

"I wouldn't see myself getting off to get onto something else, just to get to the same place downtown," said Stasia Irons, a University of Washington senior. But, she said, "I would get on it, just to see what it's like."

Jess Parafina, a barber, said he'll drive most places but take the rail to events near Westlake Center, where parking is a hassle. "The big benefit to me is the airport," said Parafina, who occasionally flies to the Philippines.

Light rail hits the jackpot for Michelle Ye, who is trying to enroll her 4-year-old son, Kenny, at either Kimball Elementary or Beacon Hill International School. If that happens, she would board at Othello Station three stops south, get off at Beacon Hill, walk her son to class, then continue on the train to her job downtown.

Sound Transit predicts an average 3,000 weekday boardings at the station within a decade. That figure assumes population growth that seems unlikely in the short term. Blocks immediately around the station are mainly single-family homes, with some two- to four-story buildings.

The city did make modest zoning changes to encourage mixed-use buildings; more planning is under way. But currently, according to the city, there are only 15 townhouses proposed within one-quarter mile of the station, partly because of the recession.

Beacon Hill's small-town layout is unlike Rainier Valley, where old public-housing and strip-mall tracts were ideal for redevelopment.

"I think Beacon Hill should upzone more slowly than Othello, but you still want to allow for development of higher density. That's why you build it," said state Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz, a former transit-board member from South Seattle.

Neighborhood advocate Craig Thompson said people are looking forward to the new rail service but hope the area won't be overwhelmed by growth, like Ballard. "I think the station itself looks really beautiful, but it does mark the passing of a Beacon Hill that used to be," he said. "People say hello to each other. Is that kind of community going to remain?"

Neighbors still have plenty to chat about, while they wait underground for the train.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

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