Office of the Mayor
Seattle may not get a basketball team, but it does have a great big, obsessional sports event on its hands, worthy of the Viaduct Wars of recent years. This is the battle over Mayor Mike McGinn's new pet project, the basketball/hockey/rock-show arena proposed just south of Safeco Field. Great! Another distraction from the serious problems facing our region and our politics!
Battles over sports facilities are especially intense in this region. Politicians can't afford to ignore juicy offers by moguls to build a facility and go fishing for a major league team, and so McGinn's hand was forced once Chris Hansen, a Bay Area hedge fund manager, approached the city about nine months ago. But neither can politicians afford to be rolled, or to appear to spend public dollars on billionaires. The result is a kind of elaborately lawyered and spin-doctored kind of deal that invites skepticism.
Similarly, opponents must operate through surrogates, invent objections that mask their economic self-interest, and frame their opposition with care. ("Citizens for More Important Things," the previous anti-arena group that helped scotch a deal to keep the Sonics, is a good example of a well-framed name.) The Seattle City Council, likely the leader of the skeptics, will have to contend with charges that members are simply opposing the mayor's project because they don't want him getting reelected in 2013.
In short, a glorious (and silly) donnybrook. Mix in with this Seattle's chronic anxiety about whether it's major league enough (can six major league sports satisfy our yearning, or do we also have to have an Olympics?), and you really do have a kind of existential saga.
So let's take a dispassionate look at the biggest underlying issues, before things get way out of control.
One such issue is KeyArena at Seattle Center, the former home of the Sonics. Hansen apparently told the mayor that he had no interest in renovating the Key, effectively taking it off the table. But as City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw has asked, "What is it about KeyArena that money can't fix?" With nearly $100 million already invested in remodeling the Key and $490 million proposed for the new facility in SoDo, you would think the Key could work for just a few hundred million or so.
There are problems with the Key, particularly its comparative distance from I-5 and the growing traffic problems in South Lake Union. But there is a whole infrastructure of parking, nightlife, bars, restaurants, and buslines that serve lower Queen Anne. There's also the financial health of Seattle Center to factor in. Downsizing the Key to smaller rock shows and basketball crowds for the Storm and Seattle U. may not be the best financial fix.
Fixing the Key is plausible, if not ideal. First, the floor for basketball would have to be enlarged to accommodate hockey; this would be expensive and might cost some seats. Then the north and south ends would have to be extended substantially to handle concourses for food, exhibits, luxury boxes and the like. There are shortages of parking and serious access problems for loading in big shows. Expect all this to be put back on the table, though Hansen might short-circuit this debate by flatly ruling out the Key and threatening to take his marbles and leave town.
Curiously, Hansen could even end up managing the down-sized KeyArena. Hansen won't want to have a similar-sized Key competing for rock shows with his new Arena, so downsizing the Key will be an essential part of the deal. Hansen may be pressured to pay for some of this renovation, and the city says in its FAQ that "Chris Hansen has expressed interest in running the Key long-term."
Next comes the issue of whether the SoDo location is desirable, and what financial interests are behind it. Start with the fact that almost no location for an arena (or a convention center, or a hospital) is desirable. They are bulky, high-walled, parking-intensive institutions that fit poorly in any human-scaled, mixed-use urban setting. That's why they are normally relegated to the suburbs or disused, cheap land like railyards. The Eastside, which at least has people rich enough to afford basketball tickets, has apparently dropped out of the running, fearful of huge traffic jams at the I-405 intersections. One plausible location, south of Boeing Field in land owned by developer Dave Sabey, has good highway and transit access, but is probably too far from the Seattle hotels to gain favor.
The Sodo location about six blocks south of Pioneer Square's historic district is a transit nexus (Sound Transit, Metro bus tunnel, Amtrak, ferries), and it can keep the parking garages for other sports facilities busy in other times. It's close to I-5, SR-99, and I-90. But it's hard to imagine much of a supporting neighborhood, such as lower Queen Anne, arising nearby, particularly because of the industrial zoning that manufacturing interests will work hard to retain. Indeed, one of the deep Seattle issues of whether to allow SoDo zoning to change to allow residential and commercial uses will resurface in earnest in the Arena War.
The debate will also shine light on a significant figure in SoDo, the attorney Henry Liebman who has used greencard-related overseas investments to assemble 40 acres of properties, running mostly south of Holgate Street, the southern boundary of the proposed Arena. Liebman figures to be a powerful force for upzoning the area, and his publicity-shy ways could cast him in the same suspicion-rousing role as Paul Allen, the major developer in South Lake Union. Seattle loves such melodramas, and Hansen's own demeanor, avoiding the public and living in the Bay Area, will also fan such flames.
The proposed SoDo location also raises the issue of traffic, particularly Port-related and freight traffic, in the area. Freight mobility is already impacted by the stadiums, as well as the years of detours for the waterfront tunnel replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct. That said, the traffic impacts of teams at KeyArena might be worse.
A third big issue will be trust. These deals require leaps of faith in such tattered institutions as the NBA and the NHL, famed for ripping up supposedly binding agreements with cities when necessary. Seattle ought to know, of course, after watching its binding agreements for the Sonics to play at the Key, and a 30-year lease on the Kingdome, both prove short-lived. The proposer of the deal, Chris Hansen, is unknown and his rapid acquisition of wealth via hedge funds will compound his problems in gaining trust. (Attention: Occupy Seattle!) One also wonders at his real motives for this project, since he hasn't been a Seattle benefactor before (he grew up in Seattle), isn't much of a sports fan, and will bring in other (unnamed) investors who might control the enterprise. This is not exactly the Nordstorm family.
One possible investor would be Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's CEO, a true basketball fanatic, and the almost-savior of the Sonics at the Key. Another motivation could be the need for Microsoft to have large meeting spaces for its sales conventions and other pep rallies. The new Arena, one should note, is not just about sports and rock shows: it will also be a large facility for big meetings, rallies, maybe even a national political convention, a very big deal for focusing attention on any city.
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