A photo of an underground light rail station platform. A man walks away from the camera. The train tracks are empty.
A view of the Link light rail station platform at the U District station. (Photo by author)

After opening to the public on October 2nd, the U District Link light rail station is expected to receive the lion’s share of the 50,000 daily riders that the three new stations on the Northgate Link extension are projected to add. However, it was pretty quiet as a group of Sound Transit boardmembers, agency and King County employees, and journalists assembled to get a first glance inside the station. A few passersby questioned when the station was opening, visibly excited about the arrival of light rail to one of Seattle’s densest neighborhoods. The design by LMN Architects for the station architecture, Swift Company for the landscape architecture is definitely attracting attention. (To learn more about the U District station design, check out this article written for The Urbanist by Stephen Fesler.)

A photo of a metal sign outside of the U District station advertising the station entrance.
A large sign advertises the Link light rail station entrance on Brooklyn Avenue NE just across from the University of Washington Tower. (Photo by author)

Before entering the station, a series of speakers from Sound Transit and King County spoke about the success of the Link light rail expansion. Peter Rogoff, Sound Transit’s Chief Executive Officer, kicked off the event by providing an overview of agency’s regional expansion plans. He also shared an anecdote from Alex Hudson, Executive Director of the Transportation Choices Coalition (TCC), who as an experiment recently took the bus from U District Station to Westlake Station in Downtown Seattle. According to Hudson, the trip took about 40 minutes; once light rail opens the same journey will be shortened to a mere eight minutes.

Rogoff was followed by King County Executive Dow Constantine, who reminisced about the difficulty of finding parking back in the day when he was a working college student living in a U District apartment building a stone’s throw from the light rail station. Constantine used his personal story to emphasize how light rail expansion means more King County residents will be able to get to work affordably and conveniently. Kent Keel, University Place Councilmember and Sound Transit Board Chair, spoke with excitement about the planned opening for Sound Transit’s Hilltop Tacoma Link extension, which is slated to open six new stations in Tacoma in 2022.

A photo of a White man standing at a podium wearing a blue Sound transit vest. A group of men stand behind him at the U District station entrance.
Peter Rogoff, Chief Executive Officer of Sound Transit, addresses the crowd. (Photo by author)

The presentation also highlighted the extensive engineering that went into making sure that physical and electromagnetic vibrations and from Link light rail do not interfere with sensitive research going on at the University of Washington campus. Shankar Rajaram, the Sound Transit Rail Vehicle Engineering Manager, shared how a series of floating slabs made out of a highly absorbent concrete blend prevent vibrations from passing light rail trains from impacting their surroundings. Over 40 monitors set at 300-foot intervals across the 3,800 feet where light rail trains pass under the university campus will work continuously to verify systems are working properly. Sound Transit also installed ultra-straight rail, which is used in European high-speed rail systems, to make the ride even smoother. “Frat parties will make more noise and vibrations than light rail will,” Peter Rogoff joked.

A brown skinned man wearing glasses and a face mask stands at a podium holding a piece of concrete slab.
Shankar Rajaram, the Sound Transit Rail Vehicle Engineering Manager, holds a piece of a concrete slab that will absorb vibrations from Link light rail trains so sensitive university research is not disrupted. (Photo by author)

Once inside, it was clear that aesthetically the station shares a lot in common with the existing Capitol Hill and University of Washington Stations. After entering, riders will need to descend to the station platform using either the elevators, stairs, or escalators. The first escalators and stairs are long and steep, leaving the rider at a raised platform looking down at the tracks.

A photo shows the view of the stairs and light rail tracks looking down from an elevated platform.
A view looking down at the staircase that leads to the station platform and the light rail tracks beneath it. (Photo by author)
A photo looks up at a long, steep set of escalators that lead into the station. People wearing orange safety vests and a woman in a red coat ride the escalator.
A view of the escalators and stairs leading down from the station entrance. (Photo by author)

The second set of stairs and escalators are shorter and leave the rider directly on the platform where they can select to travel north toward Northgate or south toward Angle Lake.

A photo looks down at the station platform from a shorter escalator.
A view of the second escalator leading down to the Link light rail platform at the U District station. (Photo by author)

During our time meandering around the platform, empty Link light rail test trains came and went. Sound Transit has been running test trains on the line for 20 hours each day since August 16th. This simulated service is being conducted for safety and troubleshooting purposes.

A woman stands in front of an empty Link light rail train. A yellow danger sign warns people that testing is in progress.
Vacant test Link light rail test trains have been running 20 hours per day since August 16th. (Photo by author)

Similar to many subway systems, there was a continuous breeze on the platform provided by the tunnel’s ventilation system. The station designers chose to incorporate an art installation amid the vents and fans installed on the metal station wall. Completed by Lead Pencil Studio, the sculptures are intended to represent “architectural fragments” of window frames, rooflines, and fire escapes.

A group of men wearing colorful Sound Transit vests and suits stand at the station platform and look at the metal wall with architectural fragment inspired sculptures.
Sound Transit and King County employees stand on the platform. The art installation is visible on the metal wall behind the light rail tracks. (Photo by author)

For the most part, signage has been installed, with wayfinding tips and information about the station area, connecting King County Metro bus routes, and bike routes all posted, along with reminders for rules for riding Link. (No riding your hoverboard in the station!)

A wayfinding sign shows riders to follow the orange arrows and lights to the north exit at Brooklyn Street and the teal arrows and lights to the South exit at 43rd St.
To help direct riders to the correct exit, Sound Transit uses a color coding system. (Photo by author)

A few small details remain to be completed, however. During our visit, some tiles had been recently set on the platform and overhead wiring was being installed. Sound Transit staff also mentioned that additional signs and wayfinding elements remained to be installed.

A photo shows a danger overhead wire  energized signs and caution tape installed on the station platform.
A few finishing touches remain to be completed before the U District station will be ready for riders on October 2nd. (Photo by author)

Outside of U District Station, it’s clear that the surrounding neighborhood has already been impacted by the arrival of light rail as construction cranes hover overhead. An empty lot, owned by the University of Washington, sits between the two station structures. In the future, the lot will be the site of a transit-oriented development, which will be occupied by the University of Washington. A 13-story office building is currently in the permitting process.

A photo of the two station buildings separated by an empty lot. A welcome sign with colorful photos is posted on the closer building.
The empty lot between the two station buildings is owned by the University of Washington and will be the site of a transit-oriented development in the future. (Photo by author)

NE 43rd Street, located on the south end the U District station, has already undergone a design transformation in response to the arrival of light rail. Intended to make it safer for people to walk, bike, and roll to Link light rail, the street redesign features curbless streets, a protected bike lane, extra wide sidewalks, and a transit-only lane.

A photo of NE 43rd Street shows a protected bike lane leading to the U District station entrance.

The street will be the site of a U District station opening festival on October 2nd from 10am to 8pm, featuring a $3 food walk, beer garden, live music, and activities for kids.

This article has been updated to include the names of the station architects (LMN Architects) and landscape architects (Swift Company).

Article Author

Natalie Bicknell Argerious (she/her) is a reporter and podcast host at The Urbanist. She previously served as managing editor. A passionate urban explorer since childhood, she loves learning how to make cities more inclusive, vibrant, and environmentally resilient. You can often find her wandering around Seattle's Central District and Capitol Hill with her dogs and cat. Email her at natalie [at] theurbanist [dot] org.