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.”

Stop

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.

Landscaping

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 governance@ghc.org. 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

The complete Flickr set.