In what may be a painful irony
, the Sonics may have come up with a very promising location for a proposed new arena, just as the team is having more and more financial and political problems.
The site in question, according to two separate sources in a position to know the Sonics' plans, is the sprawling Associated Grocers warehouse site just south of Boeing Field and just west of Interstate 5. It was recently bought by The Sabey Corp.
, whose owner, real-estate developer David Sabey, once held a stake in the Sonics and was a big civic booster of the 1990 Goodwill Games. Sabey did not respond to a phone message to his office requesting comment on the possible use of the site for an arena.
Late Friday, May 18, Sabey spokesman Richard Milne explained that Sabey bought the site with "no intention" of using it as a home for the Sonics arena, and that the property is fully leased, counting options, for four more years to Associated Grocers, so is "impractical at this time" for Sonics use. Sabey added, through his spokesman, that he strongly supports the Sonics' owners in their quest for a good site.
Then on Sunday, May 20, Sonics owner Clay Bennett made his first comments in weeks, telling The Seattle Times
that he still preferred the Renton site and that he has not had substantive talks with Sabey about the property south of Boeing Field. Bennett added that he is a friend of Sabey's and is well aware of the site. "I'm open to ideas, but there's nothing there," Bennett added. Also on Sunday, the Tacoma News-Tribune, citing unnamed sources, reported
that Sabey offered his newly acquired site as part of a stake in the team and, when that offer was rebuffed by Bennett, Sabey offered to buy the whole team.
This site in question has many advantages for a large arena. It's large, at more than 55 acres, which means you could develop parking, hotels, meeting facilities, and other synergistic aspects. The site is visible from the freeway and has good freeway access at the Boeing Access Road exit. Sound Transit's new line passes right by, and there is a transit station planned (though currently deferred) just south of the Boeing Access Road, right by I-5, including a 350-car park-and-ride lot. The Sounder commuter rail line also passes right by, and the Sound Transit station plan is to enable transfers between light rail and commuter rail on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks. Throw in the proximity of Highway 99 just to the west and you have about as ideal a situation for getting people to and from the site as you could imagine.
Of course, such a large
and convenient site would also work for many other uses. Bidding for it was intense, with a reported 200 interested parties vying before Sabey closed the deal for about $80 million in February. In turn, one problem could be that the land is too valuable to be affordable by the Sonics group. Another potential problem is the proximity of Boeing field, just to the north, which limits height on the site to 37 feet, though one source says that limit applies to only part of the site (where you could put parking).
The Sabey site could be a real game-changer, and that seems badly needed. The Oklahoma City group of owners, led by investment banker Clay Bennett, has been floundering badly since setbacks at Olympia
, according to the Tacoma News Tribune
. A proposed Renton site on former Boeing land, cobbled together to have more plausibility in Olympia, is now said to be pretty much defunct, despite Bennett's continued support for it, and that could cost the Sonics a key legislative supporter – Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton. Microsoft, a key to corporate support, continues to withhold its dowry. Possible Bellevue sites are awfully compact for such plans. Nothing in Seattle has turned up, and Seattle politics continue to discourage the Sonics owners.
Interestingly, the Sabey site straddles Seattle and Tukwila, with 75 percent in Tukwila. That might be a face-saver for Seattle, keeping the team "in Seattle," but it might also mean that the Seattle initiative that severely constrains new sports facilities in the city limits could be a deal-breaker.
It's a big enough game-changer, finally, that it could enable an ownership change. The Oklahoma City owners appear to be running out of patience and are worried that they have bitten off more than they can manage. Perhaps the Sabey site will be attractive enough to inspire a local group to take the Sonics off the hands of the Okies.