Exit133 is about Tacoma

ULI Recommendations for The Hilltop

Earlier this month a group of officials from the Urban Land Institute and cities around the country visited Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood to explore development potential in the area. The officials toured the MLK neighborhood with representatives from Tacoma including council members Boe, Campbell, Thoms, and Mayor Strickland, met with key stakeholders, City and transit staff, and presented an initial report based on what they saw and heard.

The challenge under consideration was to find ways for Tacoma to attract the right kind of investment to the Hilltop neighborhood. We heard some themes in the discussion – some not too surprising, some more so.

Be open for business.

No surprises here; get the neighborhood and the properties “shovel ready” for development – both from the City end and neighborhood and property end. The City has already started down this path with the MLK EIS and subarea planning process. Other things noted by the panel fall more into the community category, like identifying a person in the community to be “Mr. Hilltop,” a person to whom people in the community could come with new ideas or challenges.

Take control of history and perceptions.

This one might be easier said than done, but the panel does have a point. There is a definite need to take control of the narrative of both the Hilltop neighborhood’s place in Tacoma, and Tacoma’s place in the region. For development to be successful, the neighborhood will need to take control of its story, address negative perceptions, and find a way to move past negative portions of its history, without giving up the good.

Aside from telling a story that reinforces the positive, other suggestions from the panel that could help to control perceptions include filling empty storefronts, and bringing active and consistent programming into the neighborhood to get a positive “buzz” going.

Understand the limitations of the “Medical Mile.”

This one might have come as a surprise to some. While the panel acknowledges the value of the medical institutions, it did not emphasize them as the only engines of development. The hospitals at either end of the north-south corridor act as firm anchors, and bring investment and employees into the area. They have not, however generated a whole lot of secondary development of goods and services for hospital employees, who don’t tend to stray too far from their facilities. That said, the panel did see a lot of potential in the new Community Healthcare clinic.

Location, location, location: centrality as an asset.

Location comes up as a major theme in talking about the assets of the Hilltop. The neighborhood’s proximity to downtown Tacoma, UWT, 6th Avenue and the Stadium District, and schools, a grocery store, medical facilities, and other amenities and services all made the list of assets. And, although walkable neighborhoods are desirable, the panel emphasizes that it’s a good thing to appeal to commuters – whether they’re commuting just down the hill, or further.

Focus on east-west connectors.

This was a major theme of the panel presentation, and one which may have been somewhat unexpected. The report suggests that the north-south MLK corridor is already fairly well defined, between the two anchors of the hospitals. What the corridor needs to encourage growth, they say, is an emphasis on developing connections to the east and west.

Transit will be important here, as will multi-modal corridors, but there’s no reason to get hung up on the light rail – development can happen with or without it. The panel identified 19th, 11th, and 6th as important connectors for MLK. Strengthening transit and improving walkability and bikeability for these connectors will improve the flow between MLK and other destinations. Building out nodes around these intersections with MLK will support organic growth between and radiating out from their hubs.

Get the mix of development right.

Rather than focusing on attracting specific types of development (artists, medical, etc), the panel put the emphasis on getting the mix right for the neighborhood. Mixed-use is good, but a development that’s all retail at the street level has empty storefronts, that’s not good. Empty spaces mean room for development, but they need to be ready to be developed. Development in the neighborhood should focus on attracting millennials, young families, students, and commuters.

Addressing the problem of the now vacant Rite Aid building ranks near the top of the priorities list for the panel. They encouraged the City to do everything in its power to get the store reopened or repurposed – hopefully with an orientation that doesn’t shut out MLK as the current blank wall does.

The existing housing stock is good, and continues to be improved. Mixed-income housing is good, with the emphasis on mixed. The report recommends a mix that is primarily market rate, with some affordable housing included – more like 80-20 market-affordable, than primarily affordable. This kind of mix brings in dollars, and the kind of stability for the neighborhood and schools that attracts development.

The panel repeatedly stressed that quality is crucial. Whatever new development comes, the neighborhood, and Tacoma, will be living with it for some time.

Focus on community building.

The success of the project will ultimately depend on the people involved. It will be important for strong partnerships to develop between the various stakeholder groups. Residents, anchor institutions, government institutions, businesses, and social service institutions will all need to be invested in the process. To do this, the base of stakeholders that owns the planning and development process will need to be broadened, and all groups will need to be shown what’s in it for them to win their support. As the process moves forward, all these groups will need to be consulted and included in decisions and actions. It will be crucial to define what success looks like, to manage expectations, and define roles.

Based on these themes, the report identifies five “conclusions” to help define the path forward for development in the Hilltop.

  1. Reinforce the corridor and its connections
  2. Continue to set the table for meaningful development
  3. Improve communication between city agencies and community stakeholders
  4. Define a short term development project at the 11th & MLK intersection and organize around it
  5. Explore potential for a development fund

As a concrete next step for development in the area, the report suggests beginning with an achievable short-term project at the intersection of 11th and MLK. Making the property shovel-ready, and providing other support for a successful, quality project will provide a win, and a sense of momentum for development in the neighborhood that will lead to increased organic growth.

With all that said, the panel gave City officials some homework.

  1. Establish a Mayor’s Leadership Team
  2. Identify a City point person for the Hilltop Neighborhood Initiative
  3. Generate a list of key tasks to make the development node shovel-ready for development
  4. Evaluate east-west connections to Hilltop
  5. Conduct a focus group with millenials, students, hospital employees, and residents regarding perceptions and interests
  6. Establish group to investigate Hilltop neighborhood event opportunities

This report is just step one of a year-long process (and beyond); the ULI fellows and officials have taken a stab at understanding the community, and sharing their expertise. Now to test those ideas, and see how they hold up with the community…

So, that’s what we heard. Are we missing anything? Are they?

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Yup, I was nerd enough to watch the whole thing a few days ago.  Mostly obvious observations. 

They did say that serving the <span class=“caps”>MLK</span> business district by connecting it with downtown down 11th was ideal and to think outside of the box as far as how to do it… hmm… how to have transit on a steep hill… let me think…

March 28, 2013 at 4:01 pm / Reply / Quote and reply


Thanks for the great summary of the main points.

I brought up the concept of a direct east-west transit connection during the 06/07 streetcar feasibility study.  I made a strong point about the importance of the cable car loop as an integrator of the various vertical levels of downtown.  It made it into the final report we released in May of 2007 on page 15.

I haven’t seen much of the <span class=“caps”>ULI</span> presentation, but I intend to go through it tonight.

March 28, 2013 at 7:38 pm / Reply / Quote and reply


Transit conversation aside, one of the things that struck me most about the recommendations was the advisement that market-rate housing needs to make up 70-80% of total housing.  They didn’t talk too much about what tools the city has to incentivize investment in market-rate multi-family housing in Hilltop.  <span class=“caps”>MPTE</span>’s (multi-family property tax exemptions) aren’t enough.  Ideas?

March 29, 2013 at 9:52 am / Reply / Quote and reply


I though the tax exemption was supposed to ensure that some “affordable” housing was available, not that the other way around.  I don’t see any reason why the market would simply not build housing that’s market rate.

March 29, 2013 at 12:51 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

Kevin Grossman

Great article – really captures the <span class=“caps”>ULI</span> Rose Center process and product, and the out-of-town-experts’ optimism for what the Hilltop can become.

The Hilltop is on a great path forward – Check out the 1022 J, 1111 11th, Hilltop Kitchen (coming soon),  Fish House, LeLe’s, People’s Park, Johnson’s Candy, Pho King, Fulcrum Gallery, Quickie Too (vegan)… you get the picture :-).  All great reasons to explore and eat along ML King Way.

March 29, 2013 at 4:17 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

fred davie

The city is long on powerpoint style meetings but short on any real ideas.

The first thing the neighborhood needs to do is change the name of it’s main street. With all due respect to the memory of our great leader Dr. Martin Luther King, it’s not a good idea to name commercial streets after him. Why is this? Because King is associated with social struggles and hardships. That’s not a good starting point for attracting development capital. Any geographical area associated with the name king carries with it too much baggage. It’s like reverse red-lining.

Fix this problem and the rest of the puzzle pieces might fall into place.

March 30, 2013 at 8:47 am / Reply / Quote and reply

Mary Fox

A group of grassroots arts-based non-profits, the <span class=“caps”>DASH</span> Center, Fab-5, Post Defiance, the Warehouse and write@253, has been working together for about a year to bring together and showcase arts and educational resources for youth in the Hilltop neighborhood. Our collective is called Campus <span class=“caps”>MLK</span>, and we’re looking forward to more good, hard work with our Hilltop neighbors.

March 30, 2013 at 12:00 pm / Reply / Quote and reply


@6: I disagree, and would like to see <span class=“caps”>MLK</span> honored in wealthier/north end neighborhoods as well.  For instance, It seems wrong for <span class=“caps”>MLK</span> Way to stop at Division Street — N K St. needs an “ML.”

March 31, 2013 at 7:44 am / Reply / Quote and reply


Look at <span class=“caps”>MLK</span> in Portland, OR.  It is doing pretty well and it seems the issue is the residents that have lived along these corridors for years.  I think the people around the avenues need to clean up and live to the standard of what the avenue represents, not the other way around.  Tacoma needs to care for other areas other than the ones immediate to Downtown also.  S.38th, S.72nd and <span class=“caps”>MLK</span> need improvement.  People don’t arrive here on a vacuum and once they travel along these corridors and see the blight, there goes the perception of Tacoma.  Did it really take all those experts to tell us 11th and <span class=“caps”>MLK</span> is the center of Hilltop, or that <span class=“caps”>UWT</span> needs to develop their land?  Any local architect could have told you that.  Tacoma needs to start innovative programs at the lowest level.  Strat a campaign that will pay residents to remove their chain link fences, which are an eyesore for Tacoma, maybe a small loan attached to the property that will replace it with a wooden fence, or simply to remove it as some people don’t want them anymore.  Start a program that motivates residents to plant on every roundabout in the city.  The city has a tremendous assets like these roundabouts.  The Lincoln District has so many of them and we just let them sit there full of dirt, some dollars could go a long way in these beautiful urban planters.  The best roundabout gets a street improvement.  Most of all, our leaders need to walk, walk, walk the whole city and then keep walking.  Pick a neighborhood per week and walk the hell out of it, it will open their eyes.  Start a city leaders walk day, where our city planners, Mayor and council people walk with residents in their neighborhood to all the places that are good and bad.  This should be taking place all the time where one resident from a neighborhood program gets to walk the neighborhood with a city planner.  City people need to get out of the office and do what they are supposed to do, be with the people to identify problems, after all, it’s the neighbors that are experts in our city, not outsiders that come here for three days.  We all need to remember that not everyone arrives to the city center by way of exit 133.

March 31, 2013 at 8:55 am / Reply / Quote and reply


@4 Chris,

There aren’t developers presently investing in market-rate housing in Hilltop.  There are property tax incentives for new multi-family housing (4 or more units) to both spurn development and to provide incentives for infill, inner-city, multi-family development.  The issue that was brought up by the panel is that if too much low-income housing is built in a neighborhood, it stymies development of market-rate housing.  The challenge is to achieve a balance.  Therefore, more needs to be done to make building of new, market-rate, multi-family buildings in Hilltop a reality.

April 1, 2013 at 10:19 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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