Another betrayal of Hilltop? Reconsideration of arts center makes some people think so

·6 min read

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

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

In a historically Black neighborhood accustomed to getting the short end of the stick, recent waffling by the Tacoma Housing Authority can’t help but feel like more of the same.

Ethridge opened Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center with the late Kabby Mitchell III in 2017, with a goal of providing top-notch performing arts instruction to children of color and marginalized communities. The nonprofit studio currently offers ballet, flamenco and other dance classes out of the old Hilltop Rite Aid building to more than 200 students. It’s another in a string of temporary homes.

That’s one reason Ethridge was so excited when she started 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 housing authority’s soon-to-be-built 230 unit development 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 said was embraced by Hilltop residents and shared by THA staff members from the very beginning — is to open a studio and community performance space of more than 10,000 square feet, expanding arts access for children and delivering on a need that the community had voiced 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 THA has most recently offered TUPAC is roughly half of what was originally envisioned, according to emails provided to The News Tribune.

Such a decision wouldn’t just scuttle her plans, Ethridge said, it would blatantly disregard the demands and desires of Hilltop residents.

Meanwhile, for THA — which recently endured a tumultuous transfer of power at the top — it would be a misstep that threatens to erase all the work that went into proving that this time would be different.

“It basically comes down to the fact that the new leadership just is not interested in the voice of the community,” Ethridge told The News Tribune. “It’s disappointing, to say the least, and I believe the community will really suffer because of it.”

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

On Friday, she said that decision is now being reconsidered — in part due to the community outcry.

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

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

Designs for the development need to be finalized soon since the project is scheduled to break ground this year, she indicated, and THA’s mission of creating affordable housing must be front and center in any decision that’s made.

“It is a difficult decision to make because I know we have been with TUPAC, and having a performing art space in the Hilltop is important to the community, but we’ve also been hearing that having housing in the Hilltop and housing in Tacoma is important,” Black said.

While few people doubt that Tacoma and Hilltop are in desperate need of affordable housing, that doesn’t mean the possibility of THA abandoning a Black-led nonprofit that has been counting on the agency has been well received by some of the community leaders most invested in the neighborhood’s future.

Brendan Nelson, the president of the Hilltop Action Coalition, described THA’s decision making-process as “problematic” and “out of touch.” He noted that community and cultural space was one of the things Hilltop residents repeatedly said they hoped to see in the new development, as was a commitment to support Black businesses.

“This is something that has continued to happen to the Hilltop for many years. We are promised something and then it’s not executed. Things are just dropped in our community and we have no input,” Nelson said. He pointed to the years-long Design the Hill and Housing Hilltop initiatives that were specifically designed to gather community input and counteract the history of gentrification in the neighborhood while giving residents a say in their future.

“Take it or leave it. We’ve continued to have that happen on Hilltop,” Nelson said.

Christopher Paul Jordan, the director of Fab 5 — a Hilltop based arts and mentorship program — was integrally involved with both the Design the Hill and Housing Hilltop initiatives.

Jordan said that a decision by THA to pull the rug out from under TUPAC would be a slap in the face to the community and also directly contradict all the work and faith that residents have put into the process.

Jordan described it as a decision he’s not willing to accept.

“Kicking out Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center and removing cultural and Black business spaces from the Housing Hilltop development is an unsafe and unhealthy idea that’s wrong 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 unfortunately seems to excel when organizations responsible for housing abandon their values.”

On Friday, Black said she realizes that Hilltop’s trust in THA is at stake, and plans to fully reconsider all the options before making the final call.

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

“My hope is that they do make a reversal on the horrible decision, and that we’ll continue working to make a really viable performing arts space for the Hilltop community,” Ethridge said.

“We will see what happens.”

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