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Traffic is shown on Aurora Avenue North on Monday, Feb. 26, 2018, in Seattle. State Route 99 is an iconic roadway — a relic from Seattle’s early days when the city dreamed that free and easy travel by car would attract people to its center, and later, help them bypass congestion downtown.But what sped by was time. The road is better known today for its seedier side — prostitution, homelessness, discount stores and car dealerships.Seattle’s growth is bringing changes and tensions to the throughway some call Seattle’s “Mother Road.” We look at what it tells us about where we came from and where we’re going.

Hundreds of senior citizens will soon be walking highway 99 in Tukwila

These three women are among hundreds of seniors moving to Tukwila International Boulevard, a stretch of the former highway 99 once known for crime and prostitution.
KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols
These three women are among hundreds of seniors moving to Tukwila International Boulevard, a stretch of the former highway 99 once known for crime and prostitution.

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.

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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.

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[asset-images[{"caption": "Tukwila planner Moira Bradshaw in front of a new senior housing building on Tukwila International Boulevard", "fid": "144811", "style": "placed_left", "uri": "public://201805/bradshaw_small.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]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.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Some of the seniors who plan to live in new senior housing apartments on the old highway 99. Tukwila planners hope the buildings are a catalyst for the pedestrian-oriented neighborhood they've been trying to develop. SHAG buildings have fewer parking spaces than normal apartment buildings (0.4-0.6 per unit). Many seniors have to give up their cars for financial reasons.", "fid": "144810", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201805/seniors_at_shag.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]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. 

[asset-images[{"caption": "Subsidized senior housing built by SHAG on Tukwila International Boulevard.", "fid": "144807", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201805/MF_Tukwila204.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer"}]]

[asset-images[{"caption": "From a nearby mobile home park, a neighbor watches the progress of the senior housing, which towers over the neighborhood.", "fid": "144809", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201805/binoculars.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]Read: The giant motel bust that changed Tukwila's future

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.”