Office of the Mayor/Flickr
Sportspress Northwest/City of Seattle
Chris Hansen describes himself as a patient guy who takes a long term view of everything in his charge.
Which is good, because he's beginning to feel just a bit annoyed at the process of getting his proposed arena project off the ground.
"So much attention on one thing," he said, offering a small smile over lunch last Thursday (April 26). He is hoping to advance the public discussion beyond the issues of traffic and parking that have spawned dismay from the Mariners, the Port of Seattle, the industrial council -- his would-be neighbors in SoDo.
But it's not as if his day job as a hedge-fund manager has left him with no experience in the bruising give-and-take of business.
"I have a very thick skin - I have to in my business," he said. "I’m happy to be engaged in this for four, five or six years, however long it takes to nurture the project, as required."
So for basketball fans lamenting the loss of the Sonics, don't worry: He's not flinching. But beyond the more modest issues of strident words and narrow media focus is a serious matter: Who pays for whatever street upgrades are necessary to placate SoDo's aggrieved parties?
It won't be him. And the city is staying mum.
In an exclusive, lengthy interview with Sportspress Northwest -- portions are below and the the full transcript is in two parts, here and here, on SportspressNW.com -- Hansen said he doesn't know yet what the resolution will be. He's funding a traffic study, due in about a month, to find out more, but is unlikely to be the only or even primary source of cash for needs that some say could run more than $100 million.
"If someone tries to put me on the hook for an infrastructure project of this magnitude that should be undertaken by the city, it would make this project not viable," he said. "If you tack that onto the cost of an arena, it would be unrealistic."
The issue has come up because a previous city project designed to alleviate SoDo traffic congestion had its funding diverted several years ago to the Mercer Street improvement project. The recession and its subsequent loss of tax revenues has constrained the city budget to re-fund the SoDo fix, chiefly a "flyover" of the railroad tracks on Lander Street, just south of the proposed arena site, that would keep auto traffic from snarling at a busy railroad crossing.
Beyond the issues of convenience for sports fans and teams, the arena project raises big urban-planning questions for the future of SoDo.
As Hansen put it, "There's only one way for downtown to grow."
He and others see the aging industrial district as the future home for high-tech and other businesses to replace the maritime and blue-collar businesses that have long occupied the city's south end. The development of light rail, a streetcar system, and the end of the Alaskan Way viaduct open up opportunities and problems for current and future businesses.
In the interview, Hansen declined to talk about prospects for team relocation or who will join him in a partnership to build the arena and purchase teams if and when they become available.
He did say that most plugged-in Seattleites will be familiar with the names on his short list -- should the dream be realized.
"Right now, there's nothing to sign up to," Hansen said. "I’m not under any pressure to put a group together. I’m financing the land acquisition myself.
"There will be plenty of household names on the list. I think you (media) should rest assured that a lot of the right people are interested."
Meantime, he said negotiations over details in the memorandum of understanding between him, the city and King County are going smoothly: "All parties have stayed true to the framework of the deal, and only minor, technical issues remain."
Hansen was relaxed, candid and incisive in his understanding of the logistics and politics that are a part of the deal.
But if he had his druthers, he would have participated in the return of the NBA as a minority owner "with an aspiration to a majority stake when I was more ready."
That said, he is fully engaged, even if he makes his appearances at quiet lunches rather than flamboyant press conferences.
"The (pro sports) owners who are less seen tend to be more successful," he said. "I don’t mean detached. You can’t be detached. This is not a hobby. It does require your commitment at the highest level."
Here are highlights from the transcript of the conversation with Hansen, the Seattle native and hedge fund manager from San Francisco who wants to build a $490 million arena in Seattle's SoDo district that would house relocated NBA and NHL teams.
Thiel: Regarding the controversy over traffic and parking raised by SoDo businesses including the Mariners, does it feel as if you walked into a family fight about commitments unkept by the city?
Hansen: I knew a little bit, but probably not enough. I went at the site selection in a non-political way. It’s a great site with two stadiums already here. And any event at the arena would bring half the crowd of the other venues. If (other sports teams) can get people in and out, it should be relatively easy for us.
Traffic will be a problem with any site. The port has valid concerns. But most of the problems existed before we got here. If you use the analogy of a car’s carbon footprint, if we we can make the arena’s carbon footprint negative, we’re doing a good thing. The thing we underestimated was people using our project as a tool to get their needs addressed before we ever brought up the project.
Thiel: So the arena represents leverage for some constituencies?
Hansen: I’m sure at some level that’s probably the thinking. But it would be unfair of me to comment.
Thiel: Is it is clear to you yet who will be responsible for road/traffic improvements such as a possible Lander Street overpass, from which funds were diverted years ago, and now would cost as much as $180 million by some estimates?
Hansen: I’ll say it like this: I’m going to make a financial commitment to an arena. It’s pretty much set how much I’ll put in. Some could be redirected to other areas. If someone tries to put me on the hook for an infrastructure project of this magnitude that should be undertaken by the city, it would make this project not viable. If you tack that onto the cost of an arena, it would be unrealistic.
We’re funding a traffic study, which is really on behalf of other constituencies. The city’s involvement is to assure independence, and it is running the show more than we are. The discussion probably needs to happen on what the optimal solution is.
There’s only one direction for downtown to grow. South Lake Union is pretty well filled up. When downtown expands into Sodo, with or without an arena, there’s going to be conflict with the port, railroads and others. That discussion has to take place. Our role is that when we bring night events here, we will make things better, not worse.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!