An international suburb with a vision for tomorrow Tukwila, Washington


Street view of Tukwila International Boulevard, with Seattle in the distance.

Drawing of a Tukwila International Boulevard with space for bicyclists ad pedestrians. Credit: The Crabtree Group

Tukwila light rail station.

Concept drawing for transit-oriented mixed-use development around Tukwila light rail station. Credit: The Crabtree Group

Aerial drawing of the proposed Tukwila International Market, in what is currently underused parking lots. Credit: The Crabtree Group


Tukwila, Washington is a small community with an impressive distinction—the most diverse school district in the nation, according to the New York Times. Its students speak 80 different languages at home; 70 percent are learning English in school. Students speak Somalian, Burmese, Bosnian, and Vietnamese, to name a few.

Tukwila International Boulevard (TIB) is considered the heart of this diverse city of 19,000. Yet it’s an ailing heart, struggling to provide services, amenities, and character. Once a state highway, TIB remains a high-speed thoroughfare rather than a destination. Like many suburban corridors, Tukwila’s scale is designed for cars, with block lengths many times that of its neighbor Seattle, and frequent curb cuts and surface parking lots disrupting pedestrians’ paths. In short, it’s a place built for cars instead of people, driving instead of walking. The result is many missed opportunities for personal interaction and exchange, which threatens the cohesion of this diverse place. But Tukwila’s elected officials and community members have a vision, nonetheless, of a Tukwila International Boulevard that is a Main Street where the community gathers.

To achieve that goal, the City of Tukwila partnered with Congress for the New Urbanism for “TIB Neighborhood Rising” Legacy Project. CNU’s Legacy program, in its third year, applies CNU’s placemaking expertise to make a difference each year in the region where its annual Congress is held. From February 23 to February 25, 2017, CNU brought a team of designers, led by Susan Henderson of Placemakers, to work with community members on implementing their vision for Tukwila International Boulevard. Community members wanted a walkable place where the city’s multicultural nature could turn it into a regional destination.

The Legacy Project focused on recommending three specific improvement projects:

restriping the road to put it on a “road diet,” converting the existing five lanes into three, and creating lanes for parked cars, a two-way bike lane, and additional crosswalks;

transformation of the Park and Ride parking lot at the TIB light rail station into a transit-oriented development with restaurants, shops, apartments, and a parking garage; and

redevelopment of a strip mall parking lot into a bazaar-style marketplace for local ethnic businesses, creating the Tukwila International Market, a vibrant pedestrian market street showcasing Tukwila’s international flair.

Together, these projects can create a safer, more walkable Tukwila, by relying on the city’s greatest strengths: its connection to public transit and its diversity, welcoming residents and non-residents alike to TIB.

Suburb as Destination

Another of Tukwila’s distinctions is the sheer size of its daytime, commuter population. Every day, 42,000 people work in Tukwila, tripling its residential population until sundown. At the end of the work day, most hop in their cars or take the light rail to spend their wages elsewhere. The Light Rail development could remedy that situation, enticing workers to eat dinner or frequent shops in Tukwila before heading home. Apartments proposed for the station area could attract workers looking to ease their commute and live in a transit-oriented development. And because the station is only a 3-minute light rail trip from the Seattle-Tacoma Airport, the development could be a prime location for a hotel bringing tourists and business travelers. Thus, the TIB light rail station–currently a means for coming and going—can become a reason for staying in Tukwila.

As Tukwila builds toward being a destination, the International Market will be a fantastic place for its visitors. Combining the design style of Seattle’s Pike Place Market with Tukwila’s unparalleled diversity, the walkable market could be a regional destination for the Pacific Northwest. Yet it also holds promise for Tukwila community members as well. With shops of many of Tukwila’s ethnic groups, the market can be a shared destination and a gathering place for Tukwila residents, regardless of ethnicity.

Realizing these projects will also make Tukwila safer to live and work in, from both a traffic and personal safety standpoint. Currently, the Park-and-Ride lot is deserted for many hours of the day and night, making it a potential haven for thefts and other crime. Building a mixed-use development would introduce a 24-hour presence, safeguarding the area.  At the same time, the International Market proposes taking a strip mall parking lot and consolidating spread-out businesses into a single walkable area, increasing “eyes on the street” while creating a destination.

The cornerstone of this proposed redevelopment is the restriping plan, which slows vehicle traffic, improving safety for cars, cyclists, and especially for pedestrians. Currently, the boulevard crosswalks are up to 2,500 feet apart, and many people dangerously cross mid-block. With three lanes rather than five, the road’s character would shift from that of a high-speed thoroughfare to that of a neighborhood street. The inclusion of a bike lane and more crosswalks creates a safe space in the roadway for cyclists and pedestrians. Additional plans call for a street extension to improve cyclist and pedestrian access to the light rail station. Then, the station can become the gateway to walkable Tukwila.

Today, Tukwila is largely known for its shopping mall, Westfield Southcenter. As the largest shopping mall in the Pacific Northwest, it attracts over a million people. As development on the new projects proceeds, Tukwila International Boulevard can become a destination in its own right—a walkable, safe place that displays Tukwila’s unique, diverse character.

For more information on the Tukwila CNU Legacy Project, see Rob Steuteville’s article “Transforming a strip corridor,” in Public Square.