Richland redevelopment gets tricky as Panda Express eyes waterfront

Panda Express will open a Chinese-American fast-food restaurant next to the Columbia River in the heart of Richland.

It is the latest in a series of big moves in Richland’s central business district, where the city is fostering business and residential development along the Columbia River.

The Panda Express site, 924 George Washington Way, is the former City Buffet, across the busy arterial from the former Richland City Hall campus, itself a redevelopment site.

That puts it in the middle of the action, making it part of a strategy that involves a series of chess-like moves to repurpose key public and private properties along the city’s primary north-south artery.

Panda Express, based in Rosemead, California, confirmed it will open the restaurant in the spring, one of two new restaurants set to open in the Tri-Cities in 2023.

The other is in Pasco. Together, they will bring the local footprint to five restaurants. A Las Vegas-based trust paid $1.8 million in April for the George Washington property, consisting of a 7,732-square-foot building and a 1.4-acre lot.

Mandy Wallner, the city’s economic development manager, confirmed the city has seen a permit request for Panda Express that could see the existing restaurant building, constructed in 1954, torn down.

The building has been empty for about eight years, even as the neighboring Sterling’s Restaurant was  rebuilt at the back of the property, closer to the river.

“To see this is getting off the ground, we’re excited to see redevelopment of any time at that spot,” she said. That said, Panda Express will need a special-use permit to install a drive-thru, which is not automatically allowed in the central business district.

While Wallner is pleased to see a vacant property come to life, she envisions more than fast food on the high-value property, which borders Howard Amon Park on one side and faces the former City Hall property on the other.

Wallner would like to see the developer pursue higher-density use or even a multi-story building that takes advantage of the Columbia River views to the east.

The city launched its downtown improvement project prior to the pandemic when it opened its new City Hall in 2019 and made updates to Swift Boulevard.

It razed the old administration building and put the 2.8-acre site on the market as it sought a developer willing to turn it into something worthy of the location.

Wallner said it received some offers but nothing “exciting.” It took the property off the market in 2021 to assess its own land requirements, she said.

That includes a larger police station than the one sitting between the former City Hall property and John Dam Plaza. Everything is on the table, from expanding the current building to building elsewhere, she said.

The city council is expected to discuss facilities needs when it meets May 17.

For the time being at least, it is unclear how much of the 2.8 acres at the old City Hall site will be available for economic development purposes.

As it ponders its requirements, Richland is moving ahead with another key central business district initiative. It will finalize its purchase of the now-closed Economy Inn, 515 George Washington Way, in June.

Once it owns the property, it will assess the building and demolish it. The one-acre site likely will be the new home for the fire station at George Washington Way and Swift, freeing up that property for a more river-focused use.

Along with the Richland location, Panda Express will open a new Pasco location at 1525 W. Court St. The developer intends to demolish the former credit union on the site and build a 2,668-square-foot structure with drive-thru, according to environmental documents. The original Pasco location is on Road 68.

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