Matt Driscoll

Waiting on the Hilltop’s ‘block of nothing’

Things are happening on the Hilltop.

Of course, if you’ve lived here long enough, you’ve heard plenty of declarations regarding the area’s imminent turnaround. Hilltop has been on the verge of revitalization so long that it’s sometimes hard to take the notion seriously.

But for the first time in ages, the optimism feels warranted and the promised land reachable. Link light-rail service is on the horizon. Community Health Care’s new Hilltop Family Medical Clinic still has that new-building smell.

Two mixed-use housing projects are in the works, and the pool at People’s Community Center is on track to open next year. There are even rumblings of a brighter future for the state-owned vacant lot where the Martin Luther King Housing Development Association once stood.

Assuming the city strives for equitable development and is not simply pushing out vulnerable citizens in favor of new investments and new money, what we’re seeing represents legitimate progress.

Still, one city block – and one painfully empty building — remains dormant, a wasteland of rotting potential. And, ironically, this building was supposed to help pump new life into the Hilltop nearly two decades ago.

The Hilltop Rite Aid, RIP.

If you’re familiar with the area at all, you’re familiar with the sad, shuttered Rite Aid at South 11th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way. It opened in 1999 with much fanfare. After a ribbon-cutting ceremony, then-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. Furthermore, she said, it was purported to be the best Rite Aid in the state.

Current City Councilwoman Lauren Walker, a Hilltop resident for the last 25 years, remembers it well.

“Getting that Rite Aid, historically, it was a huge community effort, in terms of design and what people wanted,” Walker says. “People wanted it to be beautiful, and not the typical Rite Aid building. Rite Aid was going to be the turning point for the rest of the hill to develop.

“For whatever reason, it didn’t work out.”

It certainly didn’t, especially for the drug store. By 2005 it was closed. A Save-A-Lot grocery briefly occupied the space, but by 2012 it was dark as well.

Since then? Nothing. Zip. Nada.

Or, as Morris McCollum, the soon-to-be 88-year-old proprietor of the iconic Hilltop men’s clothing store Mr. Mac Ltd aptly puts it, “It’s a whole block of nothing.”

McCollum is an optimistic man, but he can’t help but look across the street and be filled with disappointment.

It’s a understandably frustrating situation for Hilltop’s business owners. But don’t expect action on the block anytime soon.

Why? Rite Aid is still on the hook for just over six years of a 22-year lease on the location. It’s an agreement that has the drug store chain shelling out $526,860 a year in rent.

For an empty building.

You don’t have to be a business major to do the math here. The building’s owner — represented by a Wichita, Kansas based outfit called Petroleum, Inc. ( no, really!) — has little incentive to do anything but continue collecting rent.

Ricardo Noguera, Tacoma’s director of Community and Economic Development, says there have been serious inquiries about the location — including a potential charter school and what he describes as a Slavic supermarket — but the price of potentially buying out the lease has always been prohibitive. With six years left on the lease, it would be nearly impossible for someone to make a new project pencil out.

The more baffling element of this story is why Rite Aid corporate hasn’t moved to sublease the building, as it did briefly with Save-A-Lot. Certainly, reducing the financial losses would seem to make sense for the company, and finding a tenant would be a major addition for a neighborhood on the rise.

But so far even that has proved unattainable. Rite Aid’s corporate communications department didn’t return my phone calls to discuss the property. Aaron Wiechman, Petroleum Inc.’s vice president, says a sublease is an option, but there’s been no recent movement in that direction.

“It’s just up to the right person to put that deal together, I guess,” Wiechman said with the audible shrug of a man representing a company collecting over $500,000 a year for doing next to nothing.

Meanwhile, Hilltop waits for the next era of activity at 11th and MLK.

The future may look bright for the neighborhood, but for now, at least, the old Rite Aid remains a dark spot.