That’s the word that comes up again and again when discussing the prospective mixed-use development at South 11th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way on Tacoma’s Hilltop that has many people talking.
It’s not the only word people are using. Hilltop Business Association President Kevin Grossman, who’s hoping to finish a much smaller mixed-use development at the former home of the Browne’s Star Grill this year, calls the potential of the project “amazingly cool.”
City Councilman Ryan Mello, meanwhile, describes the transit-oriented development — which would be located along the new Link light rail line once it reaches the Hilltop in about 2021 — as a “really hopeful” sign for Tacoma.
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Why all the excitement and superlatives?
Chances are you know the location I’m talking about. It’s the big vacant lot where the Martin Luther King Housing Development Association had once hoped to build a multistory, mixed-use development of its own.
For property owners up there, it’s outstandingly good news.
Hilltop Business Association President Kevin Grossman
That didn’t happen, as you probably also know. Something about the economy tanking and the misuse of state grant money. Since 2008, the grassy void — which the state Department of Commerce took over in an attempt to recover some of its grant money — has sat empty, aside from occasionally acting as an unsanctioned parking lot or hosting food trucks during the annual Hilltop Street Fair.
Pat Beard, with the city’s Department of Economic Development, describes the location, in its current state, as “depressing.”
That’s why, when development team led by Kirkland’s Jagpal Basra became interested in the unused land, the folks in Beard’s department jumped into action.
Beard tells me the city had been actively marketing the parcel on behalf of the Department of Commerce since 2013, but until Basra came knockin’, interest had been limited — to put it mildly.
“We did not have early success in getting a good proposal for that site,” Beard says. “But (Basra) came in with a proposal that we were eager to work on.”
With a public hearing scheduled for Feb. 18 on the vacation of a public alley that’s needed to complete Basra’s grand vision, other details of the would-be development are also emerging.
Anchored by the vacant parcel at South 11th and MLK, with a second, smaller phase utilizing the open space at the corner of South 10th and South J Street, Basra describes his desired mixed-use development as “a small kind of village,” featuring roughly 250 market-rate residential units above approximately 15,000 square feet of commercial space.
Basra says existing businesses like 1022 South, the Goodfellas barbershop on the corner of 11th and South J, and the Hilltop Christian Center at MLK and South 10th would be unaffected. He’d build around them.
While designs are still being finalized, Basra has hired Jon Graves Architects and Planners to help bring it to life. The hope is for construction to begin next year, with a target opening of 2019. “The punchline here is, (transit-oriented development) is working. The investment in the rail line is facilitating private investment,” Mello says.
I asked Basra why he was interested in building here. And, confirming Mello’s assessment, looming light rail had a lot to do with it. But he also told me the city has impressed him.
“Seattle and some other cities, they’re already developed,” he explained. “A city like Tacoma … needs some better construction and some better buildings.
I think the whole idea is to serve the community.
Kirkland developer Jagpal Basra
“I think the whole idea is to serve the community.”
As far as details of the deal go, Beard says a purchase and sale agreement was executed between Department of Commerce and Basra in January 2015. That agreement was amended in September, with a price of $725,000 set for the land. The sale will be finalized once permits are issued; the closing date is currently listed as Jan. 16, 2017.
Beard says Tacoma and Basra have also reached an agreement “through which the city will invest up to $300,000 in public infrastructure improvements, if necessary, to support the project.”
Of course, as we know from previous experience, it’s wise not to count your chickens in such situations until your eggs are hatched — or, more accurately, until ribbons on Hilltop get cut. Especially when it comes to new construction.
And then there’s the worthy conversation about how 250 market rate residential units will affect the affordability of the Hilltop and the people already living in the neighborhood. If there’s a question mark here, that may be it.
But given the fact that the Tacoma Housing Authority is currently working on a plan to develop 50 residential mixed-income lofts above retail space across the street, at the corner of MLK Way and Earnest S. Brazil Street, maintaining affordability is at least in play.
Plus, we’re talking about a vacant lot here. It can’t get much worse.
Given the disappointing history of this location, at this point measured excitement seems warranted.