Home-away-from-home vs. development
A restaurant that has been dishing up pot roast and peach pie at the same address for 25 years — the heart and soul of Burien, as...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Meal Makers' emphatically loyal customers, many of them seniors, are questioning the wisdom of city officials who would demolish the homey restaurant to make way for the decidedly more modern, upscale and, yes, youthful Town Square.
The four-block development, ambitious for a town of just over 30,000 people, would feature 250 to 275 townhouses and condominiums, stores, restaurants, office space, a multiplex theater, a new library and a new City Hall — wrapped around a plazalike park. Groundbreaking would be early next year.
Officials are counting on Town Square to stimulate the city's lagging tax base and usher in what Burien lacks: a nightlife.
While many in Burien have supported the city's efforts to resuscitate downtown, they don't want it at the expense of a restaurant they consider family — a place where veteran waitresses peer out the windows to see who is entering so they can pour the coffee before the customer sits down.
"The officials who run this city are not thinking about what the people want," said Helen Kauffman, 71, who has lived in Burien for 50 years. "They are only thinking about what they want."
In defense, city officials are emphasizing that they, too, dearly want Meal Makers to remain a part of downtown Burien. They have offered to move the restaurant to the margins of Town Square, where officials feel it would fit better with other charming yet humble main-street businesses.
But neither restaurant owner Kevin Fitz nor his landlord, Strobel Family Investments, a trust that has held the property for 30 years, are interested in moving. They want the city's Southern California-based developer to overhaul its design and build Town Square around Meal Makers and the rest of the Strobel parcel. They are challenging the city's condemnation action, filed late last month.
Burien is offering to buy the Strobel parcel, which amounts to about 6 percent of the Town Square development, at what it believes to be fair market value — $600,000 — or to swap it for the piece of city-owned land adjacent to Town Square. The land exchange would require Strobel to pay a $150,000 premium, although that amount appears to be negotiable.
"My family has invested in the community, paid taxes and been loyal for 30 years, through good and bad economic times," said Robin Oldfelt, one of seven Strobel sisters who inherited the land after their parents died. "Now is the time for our investment to pay off."
"A support center"For the past two months, City Council members have heard a heaping helping from Meal Makers' loyalists, some of whom are threatening payback at election time.
Customers say the restaurant is warm and welcoming, particularly to its elderly and disabled customers — as valuable as the city's senior center, they say. A woman who lives in California wrote the council that she relies on Meal Makers to provide her 86-year-old parents good food and good company.
Others agree. "It's a support center," Robert Livingston testified recently at a council meeting that drew 150 to 200 Meal Makers' supporters. "It's far, far more than just a place to sit down and have a hamburger."
Meal Makers' dinner specialty, pot roast, sells for $8.25. Comfort food at a comfortable price will always have a place in Burien, say council members, who object to the spin customers have put on the debate that the city is trying to shutter Meal Makers.
"I'm a longshoreman, not a restaurant owner, but I don't believe it would impede Kevin's business to move where we propose to put him. In many ways, it's a better location than where he is now. I think it would fit Meal Makers perfectly."
Although the controversy over Meal Makers has exposed Burien's generation gap, some of those supporting the restaurant also have backed the city's efforts to develop Town Square. Kauffman, who lives within walking distance of the development, said her husband, who is disabled, is looking forward to visiting Town Square on his motorized scooter.
And Fitz, Meal Makers' owner, has sat on numerous committees that helped shape Town Square. Like many in Burien, he wants Meal Makers and Town Square to co-exist.
"But it's my decision alone to make on whether I want to move or not, and I've made the business decision that I don't want to move," he said. "It's a question of risk; there are too many unknowns. It would be hard to reproduce the feel and the ambience."
In development's pathMeal Makers' 2,800-square-foot building is one of a smattering of structures that rise out of an otherwise depressing expanse of asphalt — the four blocks destined to become Town Square. City Hall, a former bank building, is Meal Makers' neighbor.
Meal Makers' combination of vinyl benches and swivel counter seats can accommodate about 70 customers. The spotless restaurant, decorated in green and beige, is bathed in natural light, surrounded on three sides with windows.
Fitz, who grew up in Burien, has tried to keep Meal Makers current with the times, offering espresso drinks and adding low-carb fare to a menu that already includes specials for seniors. By choosing not to move, Fitz is showing loyalty to a landlord, Oldfelt, whose family has been good to him for a quarter-century.
"If she chooses to retain her property, I'm going to support her in that," he said.
Oldfelt, who lives in University Place in Pierce County, said her father and his business partner branched out from selling real estate and began buying properties more than 40 years ago. When they split up in 1982, the partners flipped a coin over who would get the residential vs. commercial sides of the business. Robert "Bob" Strobel won commercial.
In addition to the Burien land, Strobel Family Investments owns two shopping centers in Thurston County, and the family partnership wants to develop the Burien property itself.
"We have the resources to do it and a desire to do it," Oldfelt said.
The family has offered to make exterior changes to Meal Makers and build a new multistory structure on what is now the restaurant's parking lot. The goal, Oldfelt, said, would be for the redeveloped parcel to fit seamlessly within Town Square.
But Town Square's developer, Urban Partners, believes that is not possible. The current Town Square design has a road, open space and parking where the Strobel property is.
Leaving the Meal Makers building in its current location "would obliterate the plan," said Dan Rosenfeld, principal of Urban Partners. Rosenfeld said the city's offer to relocate Meal Makers to the adjacent piece of land fronting Southwest 152nd Street, across the street from the movie theaters, is "front and center, the highest-profile site of the entire Town Square assembly."
Oldfelt accuses the city of altering its design at the 11th hour, nudging the road north to take out a corner chunk of Meal Makers' building, in order to facilitate condemnation of the Strobel property.
But Burien City Manager Gary Long said the road was moved to meet space requirements for the movie theaters, library and City Hall, as well as improve traffic flow through the development.
In promoting Town Square, city officials have tried to allay concerns that the development would threaten existing businesses, saying a vibrant new core would be good for all of downtown. But with the possibility that Meal Makers could expire, council members find themselves in a tough political spot.
"I also love going to Meal Makers on Sunday mornings, sitting at that breakfast bar between a couple of people and feeling like I'm right at home," council member Lucy Krawowiak said.
"The most important thing for people to remember is that this isn't a either/or choice of Meal Makers or Town Square. I'm still hoping, praying and sending good energy that it will all work out."
Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293
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