THA assesses need for housing and art spaces on Hilltop


Klaire Ethridge, co-founder and executive director of the Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center, looks at her computer as the academy class practices Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, in the Hilltop neighborhood of Tacoma.

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Trust on Hilltop has been fractured, according to Klair Ethridge. Important commitments to the community have been called into question.

All of this has left the 66-year-old Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center co-founder feeling betrayed, angry and raw, and she’s not alone.

In a historically black neighborhood used to having the short end of the stick, the Tacoma Housing Authority’s recent profanity can’t help but feel more of the same.

Ethridge opened the Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center with the late Kabby Mitchell III in 2017, with the goal of providing top-notch performing arts education to children of color and marginalized communities. The nonprofit studio currently offers ballet, flamenco, and other dance lessons in the former Hilltop Rite Aid building to more than 200 students. This is another in a series of temporary homes.

It’s one of the reasons Ethridge was so excited when she began working with THA more than two years ago on a plan to make the Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center the anchor retail tenant in the development. of 230 units of the soon-to-be-built housing authority at South 11th and L streets.

The only problem?

After years of discussion and preparation – including working with the housing authority and architects on potential designs – THA is now considering going in a different direction with the project.

Ethridge’s vision – which she says was embraced by Hilltop residents and shared by THA staff members from the start – is to open a studio and community performance space of more than 10,000 square feet, expanding access to the arts for children and responding to a need that the community had expressed loud and clear.

But earlier this month she learned there might not be room for the community performance space she imagined, she said. In fact, the square footage that THA recently offered to TUPAC is about half of what was originally planned, according to emails provided to The News Tribune.

Such a move would not only scuttle his plans, Ethridge said, it would blatantly ignore the demands and desires of Hilltop residents.

Meanwhile, for THA – who recently endured a tumultuous power transfer at the top – it would be a misstep that threatens to erase all the work that has been done to prove that this time would be different.

“It basically boils down to the fact that the new management just isn’t interested in the voice of the community,” Ethridge told the News Tribune. “It’s disappointing to say the least, and I think the community will really suffer for it.”

Earlier this week, THA Executive Director April Black confirmed THA’s intention to alter development plans and reduce the amount of commercial space available.

On Friday, she said that decision was now being reconsidered – in part due to community outcry.

At an estimated cost of $92 million, Black described the project as “the largest single-phase development THA has completed since Salishan.” Given the amount of debt and federal housing tax credits it will take to see it through — which will exceed initial estimates — she said it’s potentially safer and more financially sound for the community. housing authority to reduce the amount of retail space while increasing the number of affordable homes.

Basically, Black explained, there’s less risk to the housing bottom line, and reducing the amount of retail space would allow THA to include three more three-bedroom units.

Designs for the development must be finalized soon as the project is due to start this year, she said, and THA’s mission to create affordable housing must be at the center of any decision made.

“It’s a tough decision to make because I know we’ve been with TUPAC, and having a performing arts space in the Hilltop is important to the community, but we’ve also heard that having housing in the Hilltop and an accommodation in Tacoma is important,” Black said.

While few doubt that Tacoma and Hilltop are in desperate need of affordable housing, that doesn’t mean the possibility of THA dropping a black-run nonprofit that relied on the agency was welcomed by some of the most committed community leaders. in the future of the district.

Branden Nelson, president of the Hilltop Action Coalition, described the HAT decision-making process as “problematic” and “disconnected.” He noted that community and cultural space was one of the things Hilltop residents have repeatedly said they hope to see in the new development, as well as a commitment to supporting black businesses.

“It’s something that has continued to happen at the Hilltop for many years. We’re promised something and then it’s not delivered. Things just get dropped in our community and we don’t have any input,” said Nelson said, pointing to the years-long Design the Hill and Housing Hilltop initiatives that were specifically designed to gather community feedback and counter the history of gentrification in the neighborhood while giving residents their say. to say about their future.

“Take it or leave it. We kept making it happen on Hilltop,” Nelson said.

Christopher Paul Jordan, the director of Fab 5 — an arts and mentorship program based on Hilltop — has been fully involved in the Design the Hill and Housing Hilltop initiatives.

Jordan said a decision by the THA to remove the carpet under TUPAC would be a slap in the face for the community and would also directly contradict all the hard work and faith residents have put into the process.

Jordan described it as a decision he is not ready to accept.

“Evicting the Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center and removing cultural and black commercial spaces from the Housing Hilltop development is a dangerous and unhealthy idea that’s bad for Hilltop and bad for Tacoma,” Jordan said. “This sudden eleventh-hour betrayal of democracy and community by THA is emblematic of the brazen kind of visionless leadership that sadly seems to excel when housing organizations abandon their values.”

On Friday, Black said she realizes Hilltop’s trust in THA is on the line and plans to fully reconsider all options before making the final decision.

While Ethridge said she was “relieved” to hear the news, she also acknowledged that “some skepticism remains”.

“I hope they reverse the horrible decision and that we continue to work to create a truly viable performing arts space for the Hilltop community,” Ethridge said.

“We’ll see what happens.”

This story was originally published January 15, 2022 5:00 a.m.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and underground news columnist for The News Tribune. A recipient of the McClatchy President’s Award, Driscoll lives in downtown Tacoma with his wife and three children. He is passionate about the City of Fate and strives to tell stories that otherwise would not be told.