Setting a higher bar for Hilltop housing

When Michael Mirra says, “Both ugly and lovely can be contagious,” he’s not talking about people. He’s talking about urban architecture, and multifamily housing in particular.

Cheesy developments attract other cheesy developments, he said. Quality attracts quality.

“If you set a high design bar, you make it likely the people coming in after you will do the same thing,” Mirra said.

Mirra, who’s the director of the Tacoma Housing Authority, believes that’s what his agency is doing with its Hillside Terrace project, a vast public housing makeover now underway on the south end of the Hilltop.

In April, contractors demolished 86 deteriorated public housing units on two long blocks bounded by South Yakima Avenue and South G Street and South 25th and South 27th streets.

They’re now in the process of replacing them with a planned complex of apartments and town house-style buildings set off with landscaped open space, a playground and a 70,000-square-foot glass-walled community education center.

The complex was designed by the Seattle architecture firm GGLO, the same firm that’s designing the replacement of Seattle’s 30-acre Yesler Terrace, a publicly subsidized housing development that dates back to World War II.

“We can have a catalytic effect,” Mirra said. “We can build ahead of the market and in that way embolden other people to invest.”

In spite of the economic downturn, there’s evidence Mirra is right.

THA’s 2002 renovation of other Hillside Terrace Apartments farther north on Yakima was quickly followed by construction of Mercy Housing’s award-winning Eliza McCabe Townhomes and Hillside Gardens Apartments.

“When we redid those blocks, it was the first new money put into the Hilltop in quite awhile,” Mirra said. “Within a year or so, that whole stretch of South Yakima became ablaze with high-end condos.”

The five-year recession cooled things down, but construction has recently picked up again. A 163-unit development called the Jackson Building at the corner of South 25th and Yakima stalled out in 2010 but was reborn last year as Vue 25.

The recession stalled THA’s plans for Hillside Terrace as well, said Steve Clair, the agency’s project manager. The overall project, which also includes property in the 1800 block of Yakima, was divided into three separate phases, each financed separately.

The $24 million in financing for Phase 1, which includes 70 new living units and the community education center, required an artful amalgamation of funding sources. Clair said the complicated package includes nine different funding sources.

Most of the money is coming from the private sector, primarily Chase Bank and tax credit investors, but the total package also includes city, state and federal funds.

Bids on Phase 1 came in higher than expected, Clair said, which required some cost-cutting. The buildings were originally designed with more green features, he said, but they were eliminated to save money.

Also, the small mountain of excavated earth visible to motorists at the corner of Yakima and 25th will still be there when Phase 1 is completed. “We’ll take care of that in Phase 2,” Clair said.

Justin Leighton, chairman of Tacoma’s Central Neighborhood Council, is a wholehearted supporter of the project.

“I think it’s a great redevelopment site,” he said. “Those buildings were very dilapidated, and they didn’t fit into the urban feel that’s developing around there.

“THA was really the first to build in that area, and they kind of set the tone,” Leighton said. “This continues to set the tone. It’s adding to the excitement and the feel that things are moving forward.”

Financing arrangements for Phases 2 and 3 have not yet been completed. Phase 2 will include another 70 housing units at an estimated cost of $19 million.

Phase 1 is on time and within budget, Clair said. The community center, which will house a Head Start program, is scheduled to be completed in February 2014. The housing is to be completed by July 2014.

Phase 3, on the 1800 block of Yakima, may turn out to be the most interesting part of the new Hillside Terrace.

THA is talking with the University of Washington-Tacoma about cooperating on an usual housing project for single, low-income working parents who are pursuing a UWT degree.

Mirra cautioned that the partnership talks are so far preliminary, but he said the shared vision is for a sort of communal living arrangement for student parents that includes on site day-care facilities and perhaps shared cooking arrangements.

“I’m not sure where this will lead us,” he said, “but we are very interested and excited about the partnering it contemplates.”

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693