Thursday, June 29, 2017 This Week's Paper

Students plot out a newly revitalized Hilltop

This year marks the fourth in which University of Idaho senior architecture students have traveled to Tacoma to take on one of the most challenging assignments of their college careers: take a neighborhood that is currently in a state of disrepair, that is experiencing challenges commercially and residentially - and transform it into a vibrant, thriving and appealing place to live.

In the past, South Tacoma, McKinley, Lincoln and Brewery District have all been revamped by the same project by students, and this year's neighborhood presented another interesting challenge: Hilltop.

Cordoning off an area of Hilltop that encompassed 16 blocks and was centered at Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, Marshall's 15 students worked in four teams, with each taking a block and examining all aspects of the area, including housing, businesses, existing architecture and historic buildings that should be preserved.

"We looked at how the area could be developed over the next 20 years," Marshall said. "Adding housing, increasing pedestrian amenities, decreasing crime, promoting health and decreasing fossil fuel use were all goals. We wanted to make the area more sustainable."

A new-and-improved Safeway mixed-use center, entertainment center, civil rights center, new restaurants and cafes, church buildings, hotels and senior housing, parks, a clustering of currently spread out medical facilities, a library and a gym were all elements that were added to the area or revamped to draw more people into the neighborhood.

The students' visions for what Upper Tacoma could look like one day were presented to the public at an open house at SureHouse Open Bible Church on Nov. 30.

The area of Hilltop chosen was composed of streets in a cruciform, extending from South Sheridan and South Yakima avenues, South 13th and South 9th streets, and students were asked to envision a mixed-use neighborhood in their projects.

Student Greg Nakata took inspiration from elements already existing in Hilltop, primarily the culturally diverse mural across from People's Park. "I saw a theater and urban backyards," Nakata said.

His design included the Courtney Building, and in it he saw a microbrewery and restaurant, with loft apartments on top. The Tempest Lounge would remain and would have a backyard performance space added for community entertainment opportunities, and was to be moved next to a bookstore, photo service store, art gallery and a live/work building.

Le Le's, a popular Thai and Vietnamese food staple in the area, could become an indoor/outdoor restaurant next to a pedestrian alley, with garage doors that would open in warm months and close during the winter. A subterranean parking garage was a main staple, with row houses integrated near People's Park.

One central and important aspect that the students and Marshall both felt would be integral to a revitalization of Upper Tacoma was a center for arts, and student Veronica Finney had the task of creating it.

In her design process, Finney noted a lot of empty vacant lots, which she said presented both challenges and opportunity. "It's an ideal spot for a civil rights plaza. My main word was 'unity.' I saw space for music performances, murals and glassblowing. The performing arts center would have an elaborate space, and would support all of the arts."

A gallery and wine bar, arts education center and civil rights plaza were integrated, and Finney felt that the plaza was a form of expression and could mean different things to different people. Rehearsal and music practice spaces, a concert hall, Italian restaurant, subterranean parking, dance retail store and office spaces were also part of her plan to enliven the area.

One of the design plans that seemed to garner much positive support and interest on behalf of the community was Jose Barajas' Safeway Mixed-Use Center. His expanse for the project was the furthest west of all, and the site was transitional between residential and commercial.

Barajas shared that when he visited Tacoma, he noticed that this area of Hilltop had great views, and that being near downtown and the water caused him to notice the multitude of shipping containers in the area, and their tie to the city's history.

"I thought it would be a good idea to use them to make living spaces," Barajas affirmed. In his mixed-use center, the spaces above Safeway would contain artistic and environmentally friendly, repurposed shipping container dwellings and below would be room for parking that would extend two blocks. A gym would be added on the next block, spurning a much needed outlet for physical activity on Hilltop.

Surrounding the mixed-use center, Barajas posed the idea for retail spaces, a community courtyard and row houses. The courtyard would contain a playground, water feature, community gardens, picnic area, open green spaces and an intimate path, truly making this center of Hilltop one that could inevitably be bustling with activity, people and a strong sense of community.

"This was a student exercise and I provided them with ideas to think about. The city is changing, and we are here to give ideas for what we might be able to do by trying out the mixed-use center here," Marshall said.

Each of the 15 students' plans maintained the historic aspects of the Hilltop area while simultaneously shifting it from neighborhood on the brink of decay to a bustling oasis of urban life that could one day be a reality for the Tacoma neighborhood. And the community appreciated the students' optimism and creativity for the possible future of their home.

PDF documents of each student's design plans will be posted online and available for viewing at the Tacoma Culture website at