If you’re familiar with South Hill in Pierce County, you know the hustle and bustle of this commercial hub; the string of retail businesses along the South Meridian corridor; and, of course, the traffic.

What you might not be as familiar with is what helped fuel South Hill’s growth over the years and transform it into an area where more people can live, work, learn, shop, and play.

Nestled atop the “South Hill” bluff above the Puyallup River valley, South Hill is undoubtedly a rapidly growing area, officially a census-designated area, south of Puyallup. But that wasn’t always the case.

According to a Puyallup Historic Survey Report, South Hill remained largely a rural area up through World War II. “It is estimated that fewer than 50 people lived in the South Hill area circa 1870. By contrast, the population of Puyallup was 750 in 1878. South Hill and other upland areas surrounding the city were populated by farmers with relatively small properties, raising dairy cows, chickens, vegetables, and holly trees in addition to timber operations,” the report stated.

Change and modernization, however, were on the horizon. According to the report, Willows Corner (112th and Meridian), formerly the Kupfer Homestead, was developed as a gas station and grocery store in the 1920s. A popular dance hall was added in the 1930s. And throughout the 1930s, Meridian Street (known today as State Route 161) was partially paved.

Development continued, and in the early 1970s, the Willows Shopping Center was built at the Willows Corner site. This marked the beginning of the migration of many retailers and chain stores out of Puyallup’s downtown, according to the report.

Helping further spur commercial development and draw a regional customer base was the opening in 1988 of South Hill Mall, which is located at SR 512 and South Meridian Street.

By 1990, the population of the South Hill area had increased to an estimated 20,000, the report noted.

In the late 1980s, the area also became home to a Pierce College campus, which covers more than 80 acres along the eastern edge of the area. According to Pierce College, the campus’s first permanent building, the Gaspard Education Center, was dedicated in 1990.

Today, the mall remains a main commercial attraction, with more than 100 stores. One of the more recent developments is that Round 1 — which operates amusement stores with bowling, arcade games, karaoke, billiards, darts, and table tennis — has selected South Hill Mall (the former Sears wing) as a future location and currently is working on permits.

Courtesy of Cafaro Co.

And, of course, consumers also can shop several big-box retailers located near the mall, like Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Best Buy. According to Puyallup’s South Hill Neighborhood Plan, “Together with the mall, big box, discount, and other retailers make up over 80 percent of all commercial uses in the area.”

“It’s definitely a commercial hub where people come and do a lot of different shopping, come and eat at restaurants. Certainly, we hear a lot about traffic impacts because of that. You’ve got the Meridian corridor, and that’s kind of the central sign of the area, for better and worse. … And we are starting to see more residential growth to support that commercial use,” said Katie Baker, planning manager for the City of Puyallup.

About 30 years ago, the area was originally envisioned to become a tech hub. In 1991, a microchip plant was built in South Hill but was never fully productive and shuttered its doors in 1998, according to the South Hill Neighborhood Plan.

“While (the tech plant) didn’t really pan out in the way it was envisioned, it certainly facilitated a lot of the growth (in South Hill),” Baker said.

In 2007, the Benaroya Co. purchased the sprawling 80-plus-acre property, now known as The Benaroya South Hill Business + Technology Center, and since that time has been filling it with tenants.

Recreational activities also are an important draw for South Hill. For instance, there’s the Korum Family Branch YMCA, built in 2000. Residents and visitors also can enjoy the nearly 60-acre Bradley Lake Park, which features a 13-acre lake created from a peat bog excavation and the creation of a dam, as outlined in the South Hill Neighborhood Plan.

The area also is seeing residential growth, especially among seniors, given growth in the area’s medical facilities, the nearby Good Samaritan Hospital, and the conveniently located retail businesses.

“Most of the residential growth that we’ve seen so far is mostly senior housing. There’s existing single-family neighborhoods on the perimeter … but in terms of the new growth, it is really targeted to senior housing,” Baker said.

“When you talk about the section of South Hill that’s in the unincorporated section of Pierce County, or the census-designated area, that’s where you are seeing a lot more of the single-family home growth,” added Meredith Neal, economic development manager for Puyallup.

So what does the future hold? “What our Neighborhood Plan speaks to is just an increasingly more diverse mix of uses, and we are definitely starting to see that. (For example), additional housing beyond just senior housing (and) a greater mix of retail uses,” Baker said. “Rather than it being kind of solely a place were people from the surrounding community come in to shop, to more of a self-sustaining neighborhood where you can live, work, and shop.”