Vacant lots near Group Health Overlake Center

Once upon a time there were two parcels of land.

In the beginning, they were entirely unaware that they were in fact parcels. While the land remained nameless and whole, they would never even have dreamed of separation. While glaciers sculpted the mountains and lakes, then melted into forgetfulness, the forest was born. Nestled on a high hill, host to towering fir trees and joyously twisting madrones, the parcels were indistinguishable from their surroundings. The years passed quickly.

Strip mall

When the land was named for a gay slave owner from Alabama, the parcels began to suspect.  When the waterline was lowered on the surrounding lakes, they grew nervous. When the clear-cutting began, it was a fait accompli. When property lines were hastily scrawled on a map, they knew the meaning of division. They would have to make it on their own.

Out of business

The first parcel was named 262505-9162. When the trees were removed, it was quickly covered with sticky black tar, which dried into a smooth impermeable cover. When it rained, water flowed downhill in all directions instead of sinking into the land as before. From that time onwards, the parcel would always be just a little bit thirsty.

Asphalt ocean

Eventually a few buildings arose on the first parcel, anthills rising out of desert. Words began to echo through the first parcel, gradually leaching through the asphalt into the ground. Trade. Commerce. Retail. Shopping. Money. Tax. Surplus. The words smelled like coffee grounds, potent and bitter and new. The parcel learned that it was real estate, and had value. This it found encouraging, and something of a remedy to the earlier millennia of useless unreality.

Taken to the cleaners

The first parcel gradually found itself enjoying the notion of commerce. It knew that what is created must be sustained, and what grows too quickly dies too quickly. But it allowed itself to smile briefly.

Before, it had been witness to the mere interplay of red squirrels and fir cones, now the hustle and bustle was on a different scale altogether. Furniture brought order to organic asymmetry. Burning wood shaped grain from far-away fields into something called a pizza. Laundry arrived dirty, and spun itself clean again. Liquidity facilitated exchange. The parcel felt like something important. A hub for the world.

Above all, it loved the endless flow of exotic goods from sun-kissed lands to the east. Or was it the west? The parcel wasn’t sure, but it didn’t mind not knowing. The energy of a thousand suns had marshaled itself into one marvelous hour of entertainment. Time slowed to watch.

Abandoned shopping cart

While the wheels of commerce spun frantically next door, a slower rhythm was unfolding in the second parcel. It was smaller than the first, and its name was 262505-9038. With a lesser number than its neighbor, it always felt a little inferior. When its tree cover was removed, it became not an asphalt ocean but a patch of grass. Shortened regularly, this was not a pasture for animals but for another kind of industry entirely.

Vacant lot

Over time strange plants from foreign places began to arrive. They were kept separate from the parcel in pots containing exotic soils. Translucent sheets were raised to trap the sun and shelter them from the wind. When thirsty, they drank from an elaborate system of pipes instead of drinking from the rain. Most spoke in peculiar dialects that the second parcel had to strain to understand. Some were utterly incomprehensible at first, although over time they made themselves heard.

For the most part, their thoughts were simple. They wanted to multiply.

Abandoned nursery building

The second parcel was naturally attuned to assist with this desire, but it did not have a lot of strength to spare. Old plants disappeared and new plants arrived at a rapid rate, making any such efforts somewhat wasteful. Over time, the same kinds of plants began to establish on the neighboring parcels, growing voraciously and looking down on the second parcel with a mixture of nostalgia and disdain. Mission accomplished.

The parcel found this bewildering, until slowly an understanding and a name came to it. It was a nursery, a place of nurture for colonists who had come to invade and change the land. And it could do nothing but watch.

Chain linkInexorability

In both parcels, rubber wheels traced paths along the first parcel, tickling to a halt along painted lines, angled in perfect alignment one after another; perhaps to face the sun, perhaps to avoid each other. Large trucks arrived in the mornings, bringing new things. Vehicles piled up on the roads, making their morning and evening pilgrimages.

Inside carbon skeletons, oxygen replaced hydrogen as usual, only faster. And gradually, the strangeness became normal.

Store closing

But then, suddenly, the activity died down. The asphalt aged and cracked, under the pressure of the ferocious rain and the timid sun. Wheels ceased to turn. Trading ebbed and ceased. Complexity diminished.

The feelings of decay crept firmly into the soil, first in bursts of morning energy, and then in sagging gusts of rotting wood and decrepit masonry. The parcels felt themselves growing weary, but they didn’t know why.

Time passed, and then they knew. Birth takes forever, death just an instant. End of story. Another would begin.

Falling apart

Of nature’s cycles this was surely the most complex and irrational, the dance of investment and decay, boom and bust, the so-called urban policy. What is built wrong cannot last. What is built right lasts as long as it is needed.

Across the street another story was in motion, one that for the moment the parcels would not join. A story that might evolve in many different directions, from destruction to revitalization. A story that you still might influence.

Derelict sunsetForgotten broom

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Group Health Overlake Center

In 1871, Warren Wentworth Perrigo and Captain Luke McRedmond became the first white men to stake a claim and settle the land that would become the city of Redmond.

Group Health Overlake siteGroup Health Overlake site

Like much of the Northwest Territory back then, the area was covered by a primeval Douglas fir forest. The trees were so large that attempts to fell them using the state-of-the-art logging equipment failed; the trunks first had to be burned. The thriving Sammamish River was thick with salmon like a grizzly bear’s dream, and so the settlement was initially called Salmonberg.

Park trailGroup Health Overlake site

Then came the loggers, the steamboats, the train tracks, the lumber mills, the cattle ranchers, the blackberry patches, and the river straighteners. Business as usual arrived, wearing a greatcoat and wielding a bible, an axe and a plow. Repeated ad nauseum, Salmonberg became Redmond.

It was the same story as everywhere else, the singular karma of the Euro-American psyche manifested yet again. And so an idyllic setting quickly became ordinary.

Tall Douglas firGroup Health Overlake site

A century later, Redmond was still a small town in a largely pastoral landscape. As late as the 1940s, the population was well under a thousand. The salmon had largely disappeared, thanks to flood control measures and lowered water levels from the Lake Washington Ship Canal project. But a lot of forest remained.

This was before the 520 bridge; before Microsoft sank its roots into the area; before Nintendo, Honeywell, General Dynamics and a thousand other employers followed.

At the time, Redmond called itself the Bicycle Capital of the Northwest, blissfully unaware that a second great land grab would soon begin: the future would not be bicycles, but American dream of SOV suburbia. Just like everywhere else.

Mature madroneMadrone silhouette

In 1977, a new hospital was carved from the forest above Lake Sammamish. Twenty eight gently sloping acres on a hill became the site of Group Health Cooperative’s Overlake site. The development created a set of buildings and parking lots while preserving the woodland setting. The site was used as a model for other commercial development in Redmond, including Microsoft’s own conversion from wooded lot to corporate campus.

Madrone, Douglas fir and cherry treesOregon grape about to flower

Thirty years and many patients later, the Cooperative moved to shinier new facilities near Bellevue’s downtown, leaving the Overlake site largely abandoned. As the needles accumulated in the parking lots and moss grew on the roofs, a development plan gradually took form, largely outside public view.

Moss with Douglas firs

Abandoned path

The City of Redmond has a plan for the area. It wants to raise a new urban village in the Overlake area; a high density urbanization and shopping center next to the city’s largest employer, adjacent to a major highway and a future light rail station. New streets, a new 12-story hotel and conference center, ten to twelve high-rise apartment buildings containing 1,400 residences, 1.4 million square feet of new commercial space. This is a developer’s dream and an environmentalist’s happy medium, using prime real estate to its fullest potential.

What could go wrong?

A building in a forest

Redmond’s zoning code requires that developers preserve a minimum of 35 percent of trees larger than 6 inches in diameter, and 100 percent of trees larger than 30 inches in diameter. The Group Health site contains 1100 trees. The large majority are over 6 inches, and there are 65 massive landmark trees estimated to be between 150 and 250 years old.

In December of 2011, the Redmond city council granted an exception to this code and approved a plan from Group Health that would cut down every single tree on the lot.

Douglas fir treesMarked for destruction

Mitigating factors in the plan included a few hundred street trees, a three-for-one promise to plant young trees in various existing Redmond parks, and plans to build a 2.67 acre park on-site that would potentially preserve some existing trees.

Unfortunately, mitigations along these lines have proven inadequate again and again. Once you cut down a stand of 250-year old trees, they’re gone.

Salal with railing

Needless to say, these new developments raised a furor. After citizens protested at a contentious council meeting in which they were largely ignored, an appeal was filed in King County’s Superior Court. Plaintiffs include Citizens and Neighbors for a Sustainable Redmond, Mayor Emerita Rosemarie Ives (16 years mayor of the city), Friends of Overlake Village, Villa Marina Condominium Association. The appeal was also supported by local organization including Eastside Audubon Society, Sherwood Forest Community Club and Techies for Trees.

Group Health Overlake siteYoung madrone with Douglas fir

Their concerns include the opaque process that led to the plan’s approval, the sea of asphalt that would result from essentially clear-cutting the last semi-forested area in Overlake, and of course precedents for future development. Their strongest legal argument, aside from the city completely ignoring its own tree retention code, appears to be a laughably incomplete Environmental Impact Statement filed by the developers. The EIS essentially ignores the fact that 1100 trees are being cut down, and makes no mention of vegetation removal nor impact on wildlife.

Oral arguments in the case begin June 25 of this year.

Group Health Overlake siteThe path is blocked

So why are the trees being removed? The official explanation is that the trees’ root systems will be weakened by development: removing existing pavement, removing some of the trees, digging utility lines, constructing underground parking lots, installing new roads. Large trees with weakened root systems might be toppled by wind storms, causing damage to the development.

A simpler explanation is that the trees are just in the way. Tap roots or no tap roots.

As one Redmond City councilmember put it, “we’ll have forests where there should be forests and we’ll have development where there should be development.”


The sad thing is that a high-density, walk-to-work urban setting is a fantastic idea for this neighborhood. With the area’s blighted strip malls and declining retail stores, there is actually plenty of space for such a revitalization. The property just across Bel-Red road is a vacant mall, containing no trees whatsoever. The next one over is an abandoned nursery that has been sitting undeveloped for years. Together they represent about 25% of the developable space on the Group Health site, and would a perfect complement to an actual sustainable development plan across the area. And down the hill are even more strip malls, just waiting to be redeveloped.

Unfortunately, most of this land falls within the boundaries of the city of Bellevue, Kemper Freeman-ville, which would never allow such development to compete with its crown jewel, the utterly unbreathable Bellevue Square.

And so we have this plan.

Overgrown buildingCherry tree

Even despite all this, given the location, it would actually be pretty simple to just let it go – that is, if the city of Redmond hadn’t already developed the living daylights out of its old forests and farmlands.

Urbanization by urbanization, what was once a beautiful landscape became acres upon acres of poorly built McMansions, laid askew on blighted developments plots designed by people who were just in it for the quick money. You don’t even have to drive around to see it; just look at the satellite map while remembering what the place was once like. Much of the new development is recent.

So business as usual has been here all along. It probably never left.

Which leads to an obvious conclusion: re-developing Overlake is a great idea, but it should not be done the usual way – i.e. clearcutting the place with zero accountability. Perhaps we can avoid business as usual, just this once.


If you live in Redmond, you might consider dropping by the site one day. It’s a lovely walk, as you can see by the photos in this blog entry. While you trespass on the abandoned hospital grounds, decide for yourself whether it all needs to be destroyed in order to be saved.

So what can you do?

  1. Contact your city council. Decide whether they’re correct, misguided, or corrupt.
  2. Contact the Group Health Cooperative Board of Trustees, e.g. by sending email to It would be a shame if their hitherto sterling reputation were tarnished with the perception of an abysmal environmental record.
  3. Donate to Citizens and Neighbors for a Sustainable Redmond, in order to help them finance the appeals process. Our legal system makes it challenging to see a case like this through without sufficient funding, and that’s likely what Group Health is counting on in this case.

To donate, you can send checks payable to Citizens and Neighbors for a Sustainable Redmond to the following address: Sustainable Redmond, PO Box 2194, Redmond, WA 98073. (Note that they’re not yet a 501(c)(3).)

Group Health Overlake site

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