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As she runs, she imagines Aurora as it could be

City officials have designated some parts of the aging Aurora Avenue as “urban villages” (dense, walkable neighborhoods near transit). But Aurora has a ways to go before it resembles a village.

Cyanna DiRaimo lives a block off Aurora, and she’s a runner and she trains almost every day. To get a long run in, she jogs on Aurora for a stretch.

It's not pleasant. There are needles everywhere, and it's really loud. The sidewalks, she said, aren't really sidewalks in some places. They just go right into the road. "I feel like there’s so much lost opportunity,” she said.

KUOW's Region of Boom team will follow State Route 99 this spring. Find our stories at Along the Mother Road.

Somewhere along the way, she'll put an earbud in (keeping one ear open to hear traffic) and pulls up one of her favorite songs (Big Sean's "Fire"). As she runs, she imagines a different Aurora.

“I see desirable shops. I see less garbage. I see no condoms or needles. I just see a lot more green," she told me one day, as I tried to keep up with her on a jog. "I have high hopes for 99. I just think it’s going to become a really beautiful place. At least in my mind’s eye.”

DiRaimo is part of a group that’s trying to make this strung out neighborhood feel like a community. She wants it to live up to its name – the Aurora Licton Springs Urban Village.

Daniel Stoner wants to help. He’s a developer with a project under construction there.

“When we bought this lot, it was a vacant lot with a huge dirt pile on it, with no activity on it except for drug deals and prostitution,” he said. Here’s what Stoner’s building instead: a new sidewalk, a coffee shop, and a beehive of an apartment building filled with over a hundred “micro-apartments” that’ll rent for around a thousand bucks apiece.

With his property's location a straight shot up the road from South Lake Union, Stoner expects his building to attract Amazon employees. And by Amazon employees, he means people who work in Amazon’s cafeterias and as security guards.

He says there are three big reasons he can keep his rent so low.

  1. The apartments are small. Most are 230 square feet. That’s about the size of the walk-in coolers at The Cheesecake Factory (which has 336 feet of walk-in cooler space. I checked).
  2. Because the building is in a designated urban village, Stoner’s not required to build parking spaces, which are really expensive.
  3. This is Aurora, an area Stoner calls neglected. “We’re not paying the land costs of a Capitol Hill, or South Lake Union or Green Lake," he said. "We can make this work here. And we believe it’s the leading edge of the spear to transition this neighborhood.”

But not everyone’s ready to embrace this kind of change. Sharon Holt lives in the neighborhood (and she’s very into the urban village thing, just to be clear), but she’s not wild about Stoner’s micro-housing project.

Here’s one big reason: “There’s no parking. There's not enough parking. And we were told by the micro-housing developer that the residents wouldn’t have cars. Well, they do have cars," she said. She knows this because she’s seen it at other micro-housing projects.

Seattle’s not alone in trying to bring down the cost of housing by relying more on transit than cars. It’s a recognized strategy around the world. Just look at where non-profit organizations like to build subsidized affordable housing projects.

On Tuesday, Sen. Maria Cantwell showed up in Seattle to promote a funding increase she won for housing like that. The location she chose for her press conference? An apartment building in an urban village on Aurora Avenue North.

Here's how she explained the significance of the location: “Instead of building a housing project way out in a rural community, where people would have to travel a long way to get to the workplace," build the affordable housing along corridors like Aurora, where there’s already transit (which helps residents access other services, too).

Making it work might mean putting up with competition for parking. Neighbors will have to decide whether that’s okay, in order to turn Aurora into a place where people want to live – or go for a run.

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