When Heather Joy, executive director of Spaceworks in Tacoma, first tried to convince Willie Coombs to look at a commercial property in the Hilltop neighborhood, he said, “No.”
“I had just moved to town and I heard stories about how it used to be,” he says, “but she was very insistent.”
Joy must have made a compelling argument. Coombs and his brother David opened their screen printing business The Tshirt Men on Martin Luther King Jr. Way in 2013, and business has been brisk ever since.
The Tshirt Men is just one of many new businesses to open in the district in recent years. Currently, multiple mixed use and affordable housing projects are under way, and construction on light rail service for the region is scheduled to begin in 2018.
Suzie Lavoie is the manager of Johnson Candy Company, a Tacoma stalwart that was founded in 1912. Her ancestors have been in the Hilltop region since the late 1800s and she remembers the era in which it became the most notorious district in the city.
“We had a bad time when the Crips and the Bloods came up from Portland,” she says. “Now, I find it to be an absolutely fantastic community. We have so many unbelievable programs to enable people to take back the streets. It’s going to get better and better as more infrastructure comes into the area.”
“Hilltop is about to blossom,” agrees Michael Mirra, executive director of Tacoma Housing Authority, which ensures that enough affordable housing is available in the city.
“Rents are rising, property values are going up, and we think it’s on the verge of the kind of development we’ve been waiting to see for a long time.”
Rebecca Solverson is a longtime Hilltop resident and manager of the Tacoma Tool Library, another Spaceworks project which opened in March. As its name suggests, the Library offers a shared bank of tools that members can borrow and provides workshops and resources for the community.
“We’ve exceeded our membership goal for the year,” says Solverson. “We’re in a great, centrally located neighborhood. It’s affordable and we have a really active community that’s working to support businesses like ours. We’re getting busy enough that we need to start thinking about how to expand.”
Commercial and residential properties throughout the Hilltop are in various stages of construction. Developer Kevin Grossman and his business partners purchased the historic Kellogg-Sicker and Pochert buildings in the district in 2014 and have since renovated and restored them.
“In the Kellogg-Sicker building, we were able retain 80 percent of the original building,” says Grossman, whose fondness for historic edifices is palpable. “We’ll have residential upstairs and retail on the ground floor. Our first commercial tenant, Red Elm Cafe, will open in September.”
Grossman points out that no one is being displaced by his project or others like it.
“So many of the opportunities that are being pursued are on empty or vacant lots. The City bought them and then the economy tanked. Our buildings were sitting empty for nine years until we bought them. Those are the kinds of projects that are happening on Hilltop.”
Developer Fred Roberson is another lover of old buildings who recently purchased three properties in Hilltop. He first came to Tacoma in 1953 and lived in a hotel.
“I was selling real estate and I got my first house on 15th St. and Tacoma Ave for no down payment,” he says. “I fixed up the house. That’s what gave me my start.”
He also believes the area is on the brink of major changes.
“Many things are on the verge of happening,” he says. “Everybody’s fixing things up and everyone is excited. I think there’s going to be growth in this area that makes it a good investment.”
The demand for housing is clear. One four-unit project located at 13th Avenue and J Street was fully leased before the developer had even completed it.
“We’ve had people stopping by our construction site asking when units will be available,” says Grossman.
That corresponds with the results of a 140-page report that THA commissioned through Kidder Mathews. The report indicated that of the approximately 10,000 employees who work in Hilltop, only 460 also live there.
“They told us that the goal is to get more of the people who work there to also live there, shop there, and eat there,” says Mirra.
With the coming of light rail, there is also likely to be a notable market for high quality affordable housing, he adds.
Tacoma Housing Authority currently has multiple projects in the works throughout the region, including Bay Terrace Phase I, Bay Terrace Phase II, and Hillside Terrace. Additionally it owns a vacant parcel between South G St., the EB Wilson building, and a former Key Bank building on 11th Ave.
Meanwhile City of Tacoma will begin demolition of the historic Valhalla building in September. In its place will go a mixed-use facility with 24 apartments, nine of them designated for low-income residents.
Mirra is excited about the growth, but worried about the potential for rising property values that could drive out diversity and pre-empt affordable housing.
“If we’re not careful, in 15 years Hilltop is going to look like Ballard. The only affordable housing we’ll have is what we now succeed in buying, building, and locking in. THA’s role is to steer development into more affordable channels. We want there to be room in the Hilltop for everyone.”
From a commercial standpoint, Solverson shares that concern.
“With any change, you don’t want to lose what makes a neighborhood great,” she says. “Right now, Hilltop is centrally located with a good residential base and it’s really affordable.”