A private developer and Tacoma’s public housing authority are in the early stages of plans to revitalize two 100-year-old buildings and bring more apartments to the Hilltop neighborhood.
Developer Kevin Grossman wants to renovate the Pochert and Kellogg-Sicker buildings, the latter of which once housed the notorious Browne’s Star Grill at 1114 Martin Luther King Blvd. At the same time, the Tacoma Housing Authority proposes new construction on the two parcels next door, which now are a parking lot and a men’s clothing store.
“Finding a way to cost-effectively save those buildings is an acknowledgment of a good era,” said Grossman, who owns other properties in the neighborhood and is the president of the Hilltop Business Association. “I see it as reclaiming the vital neighborhood that it used to be.”
The City of Tacoma owns all four parcels, starting with the Pochert building and extending south to the end of the block. It bought them in the early 2000s in an attempt to stop criminal activity in the area, and now it considers them a prime development site for the business district. The buildings themselves, both built in the early 1900s, are being considered for historic landmark status. The new Community Health Care cinic is rising just across South 12th Street, and the properties are along the probable future route of an expanded light rail system.
Grossman and the Tacoma Housing Authority plan to formally ask the city next week to begin negotiations on a development agreement, THA executive director Michael Mirra said Thursday evening at a meeting about future development on the Hilltop. Such an agreement would give his agency and Grossman several years to conduct due diligence before any project would begin, he said. That includes a close look at environmental and structural issues as well as time to find financing.
“You’re right to call this preliminary,” Mirra said in an interview. “But I’m excited. That’s an important corner. It’s been dormant a long time. (This project) could have a catalytic effect.”
Mirra and Grossman described the broad strokes of their proposal this way: After a period of due diligence, and when the THA and Grossman can be sure the project is financially feasible, the city would sell the buildings to Grossman for fair market value and transfer the two southernmost parcels to the housing authority.
The pair would collaborate on design, so the THA’s new construction would complement the historic look of the older buildings. Grossman, who rehabilitated the St. James apartments on South 9th and Yakima, would return the MLK Boulevard buildings to their intended uses: retail on the ground floor with apartments above. The THA would build a structure similarly configured: apartments above retail. The number of units would be determined by what the agency could finance, but Mirra estimated several dozen.
Neither project has a price tag yet. It’s too early, though Grossman has had a local architect put together some conceptual drawings.
THA’s units would target the approximately 10,000 people who work in the area, including thousands of support staff at nearby St. Joseph and Tacoma General hospitals. The units would be affordable for people making about $39,000 a year or less — that’s about 80 percent of the city’s median income, which is about $49,000 a year.
Mirra also said doctors working across the street at the new health clinic also might find the units appealing.
“A reasonable result would be a project that serves a wide range of incomes,” Mirra said. “Affordable housing is a necessary part of every healthy neighborhood.”
Mirra and Grossman have been making the rounds of community and business groups, seeking feedback and support for the project. The Central and New Tacoma neighborhood councils have agreed to send letters of support, Mirra said, and presentations are planned for the Hilltop Action Coalition, Historic Tacoma and the Black Collective.
On Thursday evening, the group working on the so-called MLK Subarea Plan also endorsed the idea, citing the redevelopment of those parcels as one of the top priorities of its urban planning process.
Grossman told the group that he has at least one investor interested, and that he’s spoken to several local restauranteurs about potential expansion into the buildings. He referred to “urban entrepreneurs” — the owners of 1022 South, the Broken Spoke and Fulcrum Gallery, to name just a few.
Connie Brown of the Affordable Housing Consortium reminded Grossman that people in the neighborhood don’t want franchise retailers.
“That’s OK,” he said. “Franchise retail doesn’t have an interest in this site.”
“We want to see more homegrown businesses,” Brown emphasized.
“Us too,” Grossman replied. “And from a practical perspective, none of the national chains will be interested when they see the demographic of that site. The logical tenants are Tacoma businesses opening up a second, third or fourth location.”
“We have talked about Starbucks quite a bit, though,” Brown added with a wry smile.
“Starbucks would be interested in this space because it’s cool, but they want a drive-through,” Grossman said. “I kid you not. They won’t build without a drive-through.”
A collective groan indicated that idea was a non-starter.
“The thing that makes this cool and exciting,” Grossman said, “is to make it local local local.”