Two topics are toxic in Seattle politics: transit and sports stadiums. When each comes up, it's like tossing a grenade into a fetid bog. All kinds of damage is done, all sorts of monstrous critters surface. So it is proving with Chris Hansen's proposal for a NBA arena in SoDo.
The latest chapter in what is likely to be a long saga came Tuesday with a series of consultant reports commissioned by the Port of Seattle. The Port meeting to hear the reports made clear how (justifiably) alarmed the Port is by the Arena, because of traffic issues and the loss of Port-related cheap land in the area.
But also you could see how ticklish the issue is for the Port and its commissioners. In typical passive-aggressive Seattle style, they phrased their opposition as a call for better process, not necessarily opposition. The meeting left unclear whether the Port really is opposed to the Arena (as I suspect it is), just feels the need to stand up for its many customers, or is engaged in extracting road improvements in the bargain.
The Port is understandably wary of offending all those Sonics fans and other economic interests (including cruise ships and SeaTac traffic that would benefit by one or two more major league teams in town, drawing visitors). Another factor is the Port's ambitious plan to add 100,000 new "seaport, airport, and tourism-related jobs in the next 25 years to the existing 200,000 jobs dependent on the Port." The Arena would clearly crimp those plans. Awkwardly, the debate about the Arena puts the wisdom and feasibility of the Port's ambitions back on the table for debate.
So the Port is treading carefully. At the meeting, the consultants did all the overt opposing, attacking the Arena group's sketchy transportation study, questioning whether the stadium zone was ever intended to allow a third sports facility, showing how much truckers already avoid afternoons when there's a Mariners game that night. With only a few minutes discussion, the commissioners unveiled and passed a tame resolution, saying "the Commission opposes the signing of binding commitments for the siting of a sports facility in the SoDo neighborhood prior to completing a full programmatic Environmental Impact Statement" that would consider alternative sites, impacts on industry, and specific mitigations and their funding.
The EIS is unlikely to happen. A memorandum of understanding (MOU) such as the city council is now debating normally doesn't trigger an EIS; the permitting does. A programmatic EIS is toothless, or easily manipulated (pick a few dumb alternative sites and show how bad they are). Probably what the Port is trying to do is to buy time and to give the city council a safe place to perch (just standing up for proper "process"). A safe semi-opposition, in turn, would absolve the councilmembers of actually thwarting the Sonics' glorious return while maybe also driving Hansen out of town in frustration. All kinds of people are looking for a blameless kill.
But if the call for an immediate EIS is kind of a political bluff or stall, there is an implied legal threat behind it, which would be for a court later to find that the city and county had irrevocably committed themselves to the Arena with very little consideration of alternatives and negative impacts. Someone, possibly the Mariners, could bring such a suit if all the other efforts to sink the Arena fail. What's a major sports facility without a lawsuit or two?
It is not just the Port that is tiptoeing through political minefields. Grenade-style, this issue is already entangled with the 2013 mayor's race. We also have the Seattle City Council's desire to extract a better deal than Mayor Mike McGinn got from the sports barons, and not to offend too much the powerful interests on both sides of this question. This is a council that loves to be loved, and this is not an issue where a compromise will bring a lot of love.
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