When it comes to superheated potatoes, such as sports arenas and stadiums, our local politicians have learned to do their deals very quietly. And so, with a solution for the Sonics starting to come together
, mum's the word as the dealmakers quietly work Olympia and the mayor's office puts Humpty Dumpty together.
We scribes have to interpret hints and auguries. The appearance of developer Matt Griffin as a dealmaker, for instance, is a sign of seriousness. Griffin is a master of these complicated arrangements, combining private parties with government actors, as he did with Pacific Place and the downtown SAM-WaMu deal. Further, Griffin will give the Sonics-saviors better diplomatic relations with the Governor and the Legislature than Mayor Nickels would have.
So too the way this possible deal is being tested with the Legislature, in its waning days, bespeaks a canny lobbying strategy. Go in late, so there's less time for public uproar, and only talk with the leadership, and only in private conversations. If a deal comes together, the leaders can jam it through, but if it falters, few need know who or what was involved.
Another tea leaf is the stalling of the Seattle Center levy, once scheduled for a fall 2008 vote, which suggests that the levy is going to turn into a save-Key-Arena vote, once a team has been secured. (My guess: The NBA will reward the Oklahoma City group with the New Orleans Hornets, sweetening the deal for the Okies so they can sell the Sonics to a Seattle group at a discounted price.) The vote will thus be framed about our beloved Seattle Center, not a public bonanza for billionaire sports owners. And the new owners will be compared favorably with the demonized Okies, and even selfish Howard Schultz.
As ever, read the fine print. The new group is said to be willing to pay $150 million, or half the cost of refurbishing Key Arena, but the real calculations are over who gets the revenue, particularly parking and rentals of the Arena for non sports events. Parking revenues, for instance, have long been retained by Seattle Center, to compensate from all the losses from the Arena itself.
One of the real victims of this way of saving a sports team is that there's no room for planning to do the right thing, as far as urban planning and design are concerned. You can make a compelling case that trying, yet again, to make Key Arena work for basketball is foolish. Traffic in South Lake Union is going to be a nightmare soon, thanks to all the new development and the very limited east-west access. Retrofitting the Key for elaborate concession arcades will gobble up more of the Center, especially to the south of the Arena, thus further urbanizing this one piece of large parkland in park-starved downtown Seattle. And keeping the Sonics in thrall to the maze of clamorous interest groups that bedevil the Center is probably a formula for another expensive crisis/solution ten years hence.
By contrast, look at San Francisco
, where the Giants' AT&T Park is a key part of a discussion about urban development that includes a new, generous park perched against Mission Bay, a boom in medical research buildings and housing units. Four groups are making proposals, in a very public discussion about urban design and uses around the ballpark. Among the proposals: theaters, an artist colony, building walls covered in vegetation, outdoor amphitheaters, plans for taming game-day crowds by making them clientele for streets lined with dining and entertainment venues.
That's the path to public education about design issues, and using sports facilities as generators of public goods and striking architecture. Nothing could be farther from that than the Seattle pattern, in which gun-shy politicians cut secret deals with very basic bottom lines. After they do their backstage work, they bring this message to the public: Take it or watch the team leave town.