Matt Driscoll

Hilltop Rite Aid site purchased by nonprofit. Plans fluid, but affordable housing in mix

To call it an eyesore doesn’t do it justice.

The abandoned Rite Aid building at South 11th and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Tacoma — long sealed up, fenced in and left to fester in the heart of Hilltop — has been more like a pall over the neighborhood.

It’s been a blight. It’s been a curse. It’s been a reminder that, too many times, decisions have been made without concern for Hilltop’s historically marginalized community.

It’s been that way since 2012, but now — finally — things are about to change.

On Sept. 10, after more than two years of trying, Forterra — a nonprofit best known for its environmental conservation work — pulled off what many previously thought impossible.

At Forterra’s South Sound luncheon Thursday afternoon, the agency plans to announce the purchase of the old Rite Aid. Together, the deal includes two parcels and 1.7 acres of property for a price of $4 million, according to Michelle Connor, Forterra’s president and CEO.

Speaking to The News Tribune this week, Connor described the purchase, and more importantly what comes next, as Forterra’s “big project.”

Much like preserving salmon habitat, farmland, estuaries and open spaces, Connor said she sees Forterra’s latest endeavor as a chance to preserve Hilltop for the community that has long called it home.

“Ultimately, we’re accountable to the neighborhoods we work in,” Connor said. “We take that accountability very seriously.”

Connor stressed that what Forterra ultimately does with the old Rite Aid building and surrounding property will depend on what the community wants.

The agency plans to do a lot of listening, she promised.

At the same time, Connor — like all of us — knows that Tacoma is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis, and with things like significant property value increases and the arrival of light rail also comes the potential for displacement.

Purchasing the Rite Aid property, she said, presents an opportunity for the construction of affordable housing, or local business ownership, or a community gathering space.

Or, perhaps, all of the above — and then some.

“What that mix looks like, and what is going to be most impactful for the neighborhood, the neighbors are going to know,” Connor said. “Our mission is to be of service to the community’s well-being.”

Since the sale closed earlier this month, Connor said Forterra has been working in the background to reach out to Hilltop community members to solicit ideas, suggestions and, ultimately, buy in.

With the public announcement of the purchase, Connor now expects that process to ramp up, envisioning open houses, public forums and a lengthy listening tour over the coming months.

It won’t be rushed, she said, with construction of whatever the property is to become tentatively slated to begin in 2022.

Connor described Forterra’s tentative time line as “pretty ambitious,” while also noting that, “If we need to spend more time, we will.”

With an ever-growing affordable housing crisis and displacement on Hilltop happening every day, Connor also stressed that “we don’t have time to waste.”

While the prospect of a nonprofit known for environmental conservation arriving on Hilltop with grand plans seems certain to be met with some level of understandable skepticism, the time Foterra already has invested in a difficult and complicated land deal suggests the agency is more than talk.

“Were hoping that the community will guide us, and give us the opportunity to learn,” Connor said, adding that Forterra will be “humble” in its work.

“This property in particular has had its own set of heartbreaks around it,” Connor added. “We’re really mindful and respectful of that.”

Heartbreak might be putting it mildly.

The Hilltop Rite Aid opened in 1999 with plenty of fanfare and promises.

Then-City Councilwoman Dolores Silas remarked at a July 13, 1999 City Council meeting that the new drug store was expected to be the Hilltop’s anchor to retail revitalization, envisioning the neighborhood as home to best Rite Aid in the state.

That, of course, never materialized. By 2005, the Rite Aid had been shuttered. It was briefly occupied by a Save A Lot, but for much of the last decade, it’s been a deserted wasteland, sucking the life and promise out of the neighborhood.

“For years it was just an empty space. With the lack of affordable housing, and with the lack of businesses on the MLK corridor, people just saw it as a missed opportunity and a waste of space and resources,” said Tacoma Councilman Keith Blocker, whose district includes Hilltop.

“People have been frustrated for a long time,” Blocker said.

Prior to Forterra’s Sept. 10 purchase of the property, it was owned by the cartoonishly named Petroleum, Inc., out of Wichita, Kansas. Since Rite Aid originally signed a 22-year lease, and as of 2015 Petroleum Inc. was still collecting roughly $500,000 a year in rent, there was little incentive for the far-away corporation to sell.

Utilizing philanthropic investment money from Forterra’s Strong Communities Fund as well as a loan from the local Russell Family Foundation, it’s a needle the nonprofit was finally able to thread.

While Connor acknowledged that financial realities and the need to provide a small return on the investments that made the purchase possible will provide certain constraints, she urged the community to think big.

“We view this project as one of the most important landmark projects in our organization’s history,” Connor said.

“This is the kind or project we’re here for.”

For Forterra, this isn’t necessarily a first. The nonprofit has increasingly taken on urban development projects as part of its mission, including in Seattle’s Rainier Beach neighborhood and the recent investment of $3 million for a former motel in Tukwila.

For the latter, Forterra’s goal is to create what the nonprofit describes as a “community-owned affordable housing and mixed-use commercial space,” with a specific eye toward serving Tukwila’s large immigrant and refugee community.

Comparing Forterra’s work in Tukwilla for what it now envisions on Hilltop, Connor said that such projects are part of her agency’s “DNA.”

On Hilltop, across the street from the long-abandoned Rite Aid building, Richard Tucker, an assistant manager at the iconic Mr. Mac men’s clothing store, was more than willing to welcome Foterra to the neighborhood.

Developing affordable housing on the property, Tucker said, would likely be good for business. More importantly, Tucker said, it would help stem the tide of gentrification on Hilltop.

“There are good people here who are just being ousted, which is just not fair,” Tucker added of the displacement he’s already witnessed in the neighborhood since arriving from California.

“Rents are skyrocketing,” Tucker said.

Down the block, at Hilltop Loans — the pawn shop on the corner of South 11th and MLK — manager Charles Smith agreed.

“It’s definitely a benefit. I’m just glad that it’s finally going to be used for something,” Smith said of the vacant Rite Aid and the prospect of change.

“And I’m glad it’s finally going to someone who’s going to do something that’s going to help people who need it,” Smith added.

“We don’t really have a lot going on for affordable housing.”

Blocker, meanwhile, described himself as confident in Forterra’s ability to follow through on its new promises to Hilltop, while also noting that “the proof will be in the pudding.”

“I’m excited. I think a lot of people in the community are excited,” Blocker said. “I think it’s going to be good. I think we’ll get affordable housing out of it. I think we’ll get a good addition to Hilltop’s economic viability out of it. It just feels like there are a lot of opportunities.”