Editorial: Public Art Has Hilltop Area Sitting Pretty

2017-04-19 | News Tribune

April 19 --The first thing visitors should learn upon arrival in Tacoma is that art isn't just for museums.

The 40-plus murals scattered across city neighborhoods define each unique place, and it's why we're pleased to see Tacoma Community Redevelopment Authority call for more public art.

The newly renovated Valhalla Hall in the Hilltop neighborhood stands as a blank palette waiting for resident artists to provide some urban panache. There's been $8,000 allocated to create two murals in the building's covered courtyard; another $12,000 will restore a utilitarian gate.

Artists can apply for one or both opportunities. After the May 1 deadline, a panel of seven people will choose the artist. Organizers promise collaborative communication with neighborhood residents before making a final selection.

Valhalla Hall, which sits on the 1200 block of Martin Luther King Jr . Way, has been part of Hilltop for more than 100 years. The Redevelopment Authority bought the boarded-up building out of foreclosure in 2014.

Visionaries called the purchase a "catalyst project." They hoped that honing in on a neighborhood asset would spur other businesses to do the same. It was a bet worth taking.

As anyone who's purchased an old building can vouch, the road to renovation is anything but smooth. As TNT columnist Matt Driscoll's reported last year, developers questioned the $7 million project at several steps along the way. Thankfully, the commitment to the spirit of the former Swedish-American Community Center stayed intact.

Last fall, Mayor Marilyn Strickland spoke with members of the Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church and aptly described Hilltop revitalization as a roller coaster. "We have made attempt after attempt after attempt, but it finally feels like we're getting some momentum."

Strickland is right. The Hilltop neighborhood is seeing changes, and they're coming fast.

Light rail is expected to travel through the MLK Business District by 2022, unless President Donald Trump's federal budget cuts derail it. Meanwhile, the City Council recently approved an eight-year property tax deal for a developer who wants to pour $40 million into a Hilltop high-rise apartment building with retail space on the ground floor and 247 apartment units on upper floors.

Pierce County is one of the fastest-growing counties in the state, which means housing supplies are shrinking. Once-neglected neighborhoods like Hilltop will undoubtedly catch the eyes of investors and new residents.

All these changes lead to some concerns that putting in market-rate apartments, new retail and light rail will despoil Hilltop's diversity and culture. Or worse, displace longtime residents by driving up the cost of living.

We wish developers of the new Hilltop high-rise had made a small gesture against gentrification by including some affordable housing in their mix, much as Point Ruston developers are doing.

Valhalla Hall, just down the street from the new development, will demonstrate that having market-rate and affordable housing doesn't have to be an either-or proposition. The building now has 24 apartments, nine designated for low-income residents.

One thing that will truly reinvigorate the neighborhood is preserving the sense of community already there. This is why public art is so important.

Proof can be found in several murals on the Hilltop, a project that began in the early '90s. A mural celebrating the Hilltop's rich history is currently underway at the People's Community Center .

It's fitting that a once-troubled neighborhood should be known for a wealth of public art.


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