The new Dick’s Drive-In in Kent has been open only a month, but Mayor Dana Ralph describes it as a community institution.
“It’s a gathering point,” Ralph told The News Tribune on Thursday. The mayor said 20 or so customers were at the burger joint when she stopped by at 1:30 a.m. Thursday.
The new restaurant also is under siege. Sound Transit, the agency that runs Link light rail, Sounder commuter trains and regional express buses, is considering the Dick’s site for a new maintenance facility.
That doesn’t sit well with Ralph or other Kent officials, who are taking administrative actions to try to block the move.
“... We’re going to fight for our local businesses,” the mayor said.
Sound Transit officials argue they have to put a new maintenance facility somewhere and that they can’t let hamburgers, even those renowned Dick’s burgers, cloud their judgment when it comes to possible locations.
They say they can’t expand the region’s light rail system without building maintenance facilities to service its trains. A light rail extension to Federal Way, which includes a station near the Dick’s site, is expected to be finished in 2024.
The restaurant and surrounding shopping center are only one location under consideration, Sound Transit officials said.
“We are at the very, very beginning of this process,” the agency’s CEO, Peter Rogoff, told reporters Thursday.
Rogoff said the Dick’s site at 24220 Pacific Hwy S. is one of six the agency is considering for the new facility and that more properties might be added to the list.
It’s not easy to find places to put maintenance facilities, Rogoff said.
“We have to find 30 acres, roughly, and the land has to be both flat and in close proximity to the light rail line,” he told reporters.
Dick’s Drive-In executive vice president Jasmine Donovan — granddaughter of the chain’s founder — held a press conference outside the new restaurant with city officials Thursday.
“I didn’t expect to have you all back here in Kent so soon,” Donovan told reporters. “... It breaks our heart that Sound Transit is considering taking this away.”
Dick’s chose the new location by letting the public vote online in March 2017. More than 60 percent of the 170,000 votes were to put the new restaurant south of Seattle.
Donovan said her company started training employees for the new location in May and that some are using the chain’s scholarship program to attend the Highline College across the street.
Mayor Ralph told reporters that other businesses at the Midway Shopping Center also could be affected. That includes Lowe’s, which she described as the area’s only home-improvement store.
Asked if there’s been any indication whether the businesses would look for a new location in Kent if they’re forced to move, Ralph told The News Tribune: “We are not even having that conversation at this point. We want them to stay exactly where they’re at.”
Rather than taking over the restaurant, the mayor and Donovan want Sound Transit to build the maintenance facility at the nearby Midway Landfill.
The City Council passed a zoning ordinance Tuesday night in an attempt to protect the Dick’s site and make the landfill a more viable option, Ralph said.
Rogoff said the landfill is on the list of possible sites but that it’s not an easy solution.
It’s a Superfund site, he said, which could come with environmental risks and be significantly more expensive than the other sites to use.
“Just as we have an obligation to consider the Dick’s site, we have an obligation to consider the Superfund site,” Rogoff said. “... What we can’t do is just dismiss one site because we all love hamburgers.”
He indicated that the city’s zoning ordinance wouldn’t necessarily stop Sound Transit from building at the Dick’s site if that’s where the agency decides is best.
“Frankly, local zoning is an important factor in these decisions, but it’s not the final word,” Rogoff said.
He acknowledged that it’d be unfortunate to demolish the new building.
“We here at Sound Transit have as many Dick’s Drive-In lovers as any other employer, and I’m one of them,” he said.
He also noted that other sites on the list would mean demolishing a church or homes.
If the fight with Dick’s and Kent goes forward, it wouldn’t be the only time in recent years that Sound Transit has exercised eminent domain in the South Sound for its future plans.
The agency agreed in November to pay $2.4 million for the property in order to build a garage there for Sounder train commuters, according to court records. In the meantime, Sound Transit has agreed to lease the building to Eagles.
Dick’s customers Thursday were surprised at the idea that the new restaurant might be in jeopardy.
“It’s only been here a few weeks,” Alanna Sommer-Smith told The News Tribune as she picked up lunch.
Beth Smith said that she and her family have enjoyed having a Dick’s restaurant near their home. She ate at the location near the University of Washington when she was a student and introduced her children to the chain when it moved to Kent.
“It just got here,” she said, when told about Sound Transit’s possible plans for the site. “Why didn’t they tell them that before? They just built it. That’s sad.”