Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: New hope for the old Hilltop Rite Aid? Not so fast ...

phaley@thenewstribune.com

A fence comes down.

A fence goes up.

In the fits-and-starts world of Tacoma development, sometimes the progress — or lack thereof — can be judged by chain link.

Within the last few weeks, the fence that had previously protected pedestrians and passers-by from the potential of falling chunks of Old City Hall became a memory, a now-obsolete barrier previously surrounding a building that — hopefully — has better days ahead of it. (At the very least, it’s been deemed safe to walk under.)

Just up the hill, however, on the Hilltop, a new fence recently emerged.

The new fence in question – yes, apparently I’m now on the fence beat — surrounds the old Rite Aid location at South 11th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way. If you frequent Hilltop, you know the block of emptiness I’m talking about.

Opened in 1999, the Rite Aid was hailed as the future core of Hilltop’s revitalization. At the time, then-Tacoma Councilwoman Dolores Silas welcomed what she described as a retail location that would be the finest Rite Aid in the state.

This vision of chain pharmacy grandeur, of course, never materialized. By 2005, the Rite Aid was shuttered. A subsequent dalliance with Save-A-Lot ended similarly. Since 2012, the retail location — and the entire block it consumes, including its parking lot and lonely drive-thru — has been like a festering crater in the middle of a business district that’s otherwise working to reinvent itself.

But, since a fence can often be a sign of progress — an indication of work soon to commence — it’s understandable that the sudden appearance of this fence, in this historically frustrating location spurred excitement in the community.

Colleagues and I began receiving inquiries over the past few weeks, each one from a reader hoping that the fence marked a new beginning for the old Rite Aid.

Perhaps this is the part where I should acknowledge that it gives me absolutely no pleasure to be the bearer of bad news.

After reaching out to city officials, the building’s Kansas-based owners, and representatives from Rite Aid — the company that still has roughly five years left on the 22-year lease it originally signed for the property, at an annual cost of $526,860 — I can say with certainty that the new fence is little more than a continuation of the depressing story of this neglected piece of Hilltop.

According to Tacoma Police spokeswoman Shelbie Boyd, local law enforcement asked Rite Aid to better secure the property after spending years responding to alarms, reports of unwanted loitering and other various disturbances.

All of it culminated in July when 59-year-old Emmitt Taylor Jr. was tragically beaten to death after a confrontation that erupted at a homeless encampment on the property, according to Boyd.

Requesting the fence, Boyd said, was a result of an “accumulation of things.”

“(The homicide) just happened to be the worst thing that happened in that area,” Boyd explained.

In corporate-speak, Rite Aid confirmed the fence origin story.

“To improve the safety and security of the property, we have worked with local law enforcement to install the fence, while we actively work with a broker to market the property,” said Kristin Kellum, a PR specialist for Rite-Aid. “The fence was installed approximately two weeks ago and will remain up provided the property is leased by Rite Aid.”

That last line — of course — is the reoccurring kicker here. With Rite Aid still paying over $500,000 annually to lease the vacant space, the property’s owner, Petroleum Inc., has little incentive to do anything but continue collecting rent. And though Rite Aid can try to market the property, the financial math involved makes finding a suitor a difficult task.

While I’m crushing people’s dreams here, let me take it one step further. Recently, there have been rumors that the location would be used as a construction staging site once Sound Transit begins to lay light rail tracks along MLK Way.

Apparently, that’s not going to happen either.

“We don’t intend to utilize this property off MLK for staging or other purposes,” said Sound Transit spokeswoman Kimberly Reason, after discussing the situation with the project’s manager.

Bummer.

And so the sad saga continues.

“I’ve always liked the building, it’s just gotten run down,” Aaron Wiechman, Petroleum Inc.’s vice president, told The News Tribune’s Kate Martin.

“Every now and then someone will call about it,” he continued. “There’s nothing we can do since Rite Aid has it under lease.”

Yes, we know.

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