Philanthropists led by Angela Connelly still are in negotiations to sublease the Hilltop Rite Aid building, but after meeting with community leaders and elected officials, they are reconsidering including a shelter and drop-in center for homeless youth at that location.
"There have been a lot of dreams for that building for many years," Connelly said Thursday. "The shelter does not need to be there, that's clear if that's a concern. There are definite solutions around that."
Connelly penned an op-ed in The News Tribune last month laying out a preliminary outline of a plan to use the vacant, 16,000-square-foot building for homeless youth services, including 12 shelter beds for teens. In an interview shortly after the op-ed ran, she told The News Tribune she envisioned a warm, inviting place where young people experiencing homelessness could get a hot meal, take a shower, do laundry, get job training and get connected to social services.
Hilltop community leaders had doubts. Councilman Keith Blocker and others worried that the Hilltop too often bears the brunt of social services in Tacoma, and many were concerned that they hadn't been consulted about the plan.
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More dialogue between Connelly's group and civic leaders has taken place in the last several weeks. Blocker, who was skeptical of the proposal and said he hadn't been consulted prior to the op-ed being published, said he's since met with Connelly three times.
"She was really open to hearing the feedback I've been getting from many of my constituents. I think everybody agrees that we need more youth services," Blocker said Thursday. "People's issue was the use of that Rite Aid building."
With a Tacoma Link light-rail extension expected to start serving Hilltop by 2022 — including a stop planned on the southwest corner of the Rite Aid parcel — that building will soon be a prime piece of real estate. Many in the business district have long envisioned retail in that building. Blocker said he'd like to see a mix of retail, a library (perhaps developed through a public-private partnership) and affordable housing there.
He said Connelly has been receptive to that and wants to help.
"We want to continue to listen and participate in a conversation about what this space can and should be," Connelly wrote in an email to Blocker and several others involved in the proposal earlier this week. "In the midst of all these thriving retail and businesses, there could also be job-training opportunities for our teens experiencing homelessness and wrap-around resources.
"The overnight accommodations or day center for up to 12 teens, under the age of 18, would not have to be located" at the Rite Aid.
Blocker and Connelly both said they want the conversations about the future of that building to happen collaboratively. Blocker said he wants to avoid individual groups with the same goals and ideas competing with each other.
"I think that's been avoided, but we're just in the early stages of those conversations," Blocker said. "I plan on staying in touch with Ms. Connelly, particularly about that particular space, but also to support her in helping young people experiencing homelessness."