The city of Tukwila has spent years trying to turn a section of old highway 99 into a dense, walkable neighborhood. But it’s not easy to redefine a road. Now, Tukwila is getting some help from an unlikely population: seniors.
Tukwila’s city planners want people to feel comfortable walking to local shops, the library, and the light rail station. The city has found an ally in the senior citizens moving into the new senior housing developments along Tukwila International Boulevard. Many of them are already giving up their cars.
“I’m thinking, eventually, once we’re here, we may not need a car,” said Sally Romero to her new friend, Kathleen Bryant. The two sat together at a luncheon put on by SHAG, the developer of three huge new senior apartment buildings.
The development is the anchor project in Tukwila’s grand plan to renovate this part of the former highway 99. The first building is almost done, and soon hundreds of seniors will crowd onto a street once known primarily for prostitution and crime.
There’s a new library nearby, and residents can access other parts of the region by hopping on the light rail just down the street. Romero and her future neighbor Bryant can’t wait to ride the train.
Romero loves how comfortable it is to travel by light rail. “You sit there and look out the window, and you’re totally relaxed," said Romero. "I mean, I could do a commercial for the light rail!”
“I could, too!” said Bryant.
According to Jay Woolford, the executive director of SHAG, many residents in the new buildings live on fixed incomes. (SHAG buildings offer subsidized rents).
Woolford says moving into a pedestrian-oriented neighborhood with transit gives seniors the option of ditching their cars. “And the savings of doing that is immeasurable. I mean, cars are always the last thing anybody wants to give up. But it’s a huge cost.”
The buildings taking shape are unlike anything else in this part of Tukwila. At five and six stories tall, they’re practically skyscrapers on this stretch of old highway.
So they’re bold. But they’re risky, too.
Seniors will have to walk or bus three-quarters of a mile to reach the light rail. That’s a little further than the recommended distance of half a mile. And along the way, they may witness prostitution, homelessness, and evidence of drug use or crime.
T.J. O’Brien, the manager of an appliance store down the street, has noticed more signs of drug use near his shop. “All of a sudden, for the first time ever, I’m picking up needles off the ground all the time," said O'Brien. O'Brien said the police do their best, but he's getting tired of finding broken windows on his delivery trucks.
The city of Tukwila hopes that their new urban design will encourage more people to walk rather than drive, but they also acknowledge how difficult it is to change people’s expectations. Moira Bradshaw, a city planner, pointed out all of the things that the city has done to to improve the area around Tukwila International Boulevard. "The city put in 12-foot-wide sidewalks, beautified it, put in street trees," she said.
"I think the hope," she continued, "was that this investment the city was making in the streetscape would send a message to the development community and property owners that we really want a neighborhood commercial main street for the community.”
But developers did not build the pedestrian-oriented neighborhood planners wanted. Behind all of the expensive new 12-foot-wide sidewalks, developers just built more fast-food restaurants and drive-throughs. “And unfortunately," said Bradshaw, "people are still thinking, historically this is where people pass through. They just drive through in their cars.”
Will developers be able to look past what Tukwila was — and in some ways, still is — and see what it could be?
Standing in front of the SHAG building, Bradshaw is optimistic. “I have heard developers say that they have to see it in order to envision it. And I think this is what this does. This catalyst project, this Tukwila village, shows what the vision is for the rest of this neighborhood.”