Former Redmond Mayor Rosemarie Ives and others are suing the city and Group Health in an effort to save the tall Douglas fir trees that tower over an abandoned hospital where a massive mixed-use project is planned in Overlake Village.

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When developers came to Redmond during the 16 years Rosemarie Ives was mayor, she would draw their attention to a property she touted as a model for how to protect trees while building around them.

At Group Health’s Eastside hospital, roads, parking lots and footpaths wound through the shade of tall Douglas firs on a 28-acre campus. It “really set the bar for development in Redmond,” Ives said.

“Group Health knew exactly what they were doing in 1977. They didn’t come in and clear-cut that property when they built the hospital and the clinic. I’ve said to developers in my years, ‘You want to see how it’s done, go see Group Health, we’ll work with you.’ “

But now the health cooperative — which closed the hospital after Ives left office four years ago — has the city’s permission to cut down more than 1,100 trees to make way for a massive mixed-use project.

The former mayor has joined an environmental group and two neighborhood organizations in suing the city and Group Health in an effort to save some of the trees.

The trees must go, city officials say, because they could crash down in a strong wind and they stand in the way of the site becoming a catalyst for high-density redevelopment.

The Group Health property, almost directly across the street from a planned Sound Transit light-rail station, is part of Overlake Village, an area just south of Highway 520 that the city has designated as its second “urban center.” Downtown is the first center.

Tree rules waived

The City Council in December waived tree-retention requirements when it approved Group Health’s plan to build nearly 3 million square feet of offices, shops, 1,400 apartment-style homes and a hotel/conference center. Buildings could range from four to 12 stories.

Under the approved plan, Group Health can sell the site to one or more developers. Construction could be years away.

The tree code requires developers to retain at least 35 percent of trees larger than 6 inches in diameter and all trees larger than 30 inches. The rule can be modified or waived for exceptional conditions including safety issues, unusual topography or creation of an urban center.

The City Council voted 6-1 to allow removal of Group Health’s trees, with Councilmember Kimberly Allen objecting that the site didn’t meet the criteria for an exception.

Group Health or developers who buy the site will be required to offset the loss of more than 1,000 trees by planting 3,300 younger trees and 31,000 shrubs and ferns to create 10 acres of new forest in locations to be chosen by the city.

“We’ll have forests where there should be forests and we’ll have development where there should be development,”City Councilmember John Stilin said before the vote.

“As a kid I went to Group Health, so I’m very familiar with the site,” said the current mayor, John Marchione. “If it was possible, I would have them keep their trees on the borders of the property and have the buildings hidden among the trees. That’s what I wanted, but the data and the engineering shows that preserving those trees is not feasible with the density that we want.”

Hazard of wind

When the city in 2007 rezoned Overlake Village to become a high-density urban center, Group Health envisioned keeping many of the beloved trees.

But as Group Health looked more closely at the details, it concluded that any remaining trees likely would be weakened when pavement is removed, utilities and underground parking are installed and new roads built.

Removing some trees would leave those remaining subject to wind damage, landscape architect Mark Brumbaugh told the City Council. After trees were thinned for construction of a nearby office complex, he said, 90 trees were blown down during the first storm of the winter of 2006.

If he had been working for Group Health earlier on, Brumbaugh said, “I wouldn’t have indicated that it was feasible to do this level of development and preserve trees right in the middle of it.”

Citizens and Neighbors for a Sustainable Redmond, one of the groups suing the city over the planned tree-clearing, hired arborist Tina Cohen, who reached a different conclusion. “Redmond has the opportunity to preserve one of the last portions of mature forest within its urban area,” she wrote.

Most of the trees are healthy and would continue to buffer each other from the wind if protected in large groups, Cohen reported. High-density development is a desirable goal, she said, “but not if the project requires the loss of 1,133 trees.”

A smaller vision

On a sunny afternoon when Ives visited the site with members of Sustainable Redmond and Friends of Overlake Village — another group fighting to save the trees — two people walked their dogs, a mother pushed a baby in a stroller and a hummingbird flitted through the underbrush.

Group Health has done nothing to discourage neighbors from walking or driving through the wooded property.

The group visited the largest tree on the site, with a reported diameter of 50 inches in a consultant’s study and 53 inches as measured by Bob Berg, a Sustainable Redmond member who estimates the tree’s age at about 250 years. Sustainable Redmond suggested to the City Council that one-third of the land remain undeveloped, saving 49 of the 65 heftiest trees.

City officials say most of the trees are much younger than that, noting that a 1936 aerial photograph showed a small number of large trees on the land once owned by Weyerhaeuser.

“Those of us opposing this aren’t saying no development,” Ives said. “We think it can be developed in a way that upholds the long-ago adopted policies and regulations, that honors the environmental ethic of this community, and still can provide benefit to Group Health.”

Ives has asked Group Health executives, as well as city officials, to scale back the planned development.

But Bill Biggs, Group Health vice president — administrative services, said if the region is to provide more homes and jobs in an environmentally responsible way, much of the growth must be in urban centers like Overlake Village. “If you think about this location and light rail coming and 40,000 Microsoft jobs next door, I don’t know how you’d come up, frankly, with a better location,” he said.

And what about those trees?

“I love that site,” said Biggs, whose children were born at the hospital and whose late wife was hospitalized there. “I’ve walked around on that site. I’ve enjoyed the trees. …

“It’s going to be different but it’s going to be a wonderful place. It’s the kind of walkable, dense, mixed-use development that that site actually is ideal for.”

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com