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Arena politics: getting toxic fast

The Port escalates the battle with a new round of studies, as opponents look for a way to have "a blameless kill."
The SoDo district

The SoDo district Nancy Regan/Flickr

Containers at the Port of Seattle

Containers at the Port of Seattle Bev and Steve/Flickr (2005)

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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Comments:

Posted Wed, Aug 8, 9:07 p.m. Inappropriate

I have bad news for the Port, paying a clerk $150,000 a year is your problem, one losing existing business.
The arena is a scapegoat for a dumb, slow, and bloated Port.

David, McGinn isn't Bergesz' opponent, anti-arena Port consultant is. Along with many other things, you got the politics wrong.
There might not be much of a win, but the resulting SonicsGate II movie exposing the killing of this proposal would live on for a very long time.

Mr Baker

Posted Wed, Aug 8, 10:40 p.m. Inappropriate

The citizens of Seattle have made it pretty clear that we do not want to pay for an arena so why do we need the Port of Seattle to fabricate reason to oppose this plan? If the City Council cannot say no to any plan that requires a public subsidy, then let's have a vote to see if the electorate have changed their mind. I do not know about Chris Hansen but Steve Ballmer could afford 10 arenas if that is how he chose to spend his money.

Posted Thu, Aug 9, 8:35 a.m. Inappropriate

It is the absence of brain-power which allows these "civic" business deals to sprout in Seattle. Get out the weed killer. All of this would be moot if the entity which owns and benefits from such a business operation paid for it.

Tell the story from a high level and leave out all the details and opinions of the various parties...boil it down to it's simplest reduction: person wants to run a business, but can't afford it. Convince citizens better off with than without. Divide, create artificial 'issues', let groups get emotional and do your dirty work. Praise person for providing us all such a great opportunity.

Classic Seattle. Drop a bomb, get a stadium.

Posted Thu, Aug 9, 8:37 a.m. Inappropriate

Brewster: You miss one very major, important point that the pro-arena folks also choose to ignore. Much of the opposition to the arena is because of the proposed location -- and at least a significant share could disappear if McGinn, Hansen, Constantine, Balmer, et al were to recognize that the WHERE is the most critical issue here.

As you say, "a preservation-minded city would be foolish to throw away 100 years of investment in creating a fine port, one that now has the classic combination of deep water, convenient rail lines, two interstates a few blocks away, and the complex weave of skilled support services such as repacking yards, repair facilities, inspection and customs operations efficiently nearby."

Simply move the arena to virtually any other location in King County, and even other sites in Seattle, and a significant share of the opposition would likely disappear. There is not only Key Arena but also the Memorial Stadium bowl at Seattle Center -- the latter ideal, perhaps, because as an "acceptable" arena is built in the Memorial Stadium site, the Key is upgraded and used as an interim facility (as Hansen plans), the team doesn't have to move far when it is finished, and the two complementary facilities and sizable investment in them and the Center over many years is not cast aside like garbage. We're supposed to be a sustainable city, right? Why not practice what we preach?

If Memorial Stadium doesn't work, there's always Rainier Valley as Richard McIver suggested, there's the Sabey site south of Sodo on the Seattle Tukwila border, there's Renton, there's Bellevue, and who knows what else? That site alternative evaluation is what is supposed to happen through an EIS BEFORE city/county electeds commit to one location.

Try as they might, arena proponents' continued attempts to portray people concerned about another Sodo arena as "anti-sports" or out to "kill" a Sonics' return are utterly without foundation -- and most of them know it. They scream that the Port and others don't have "facts", which is complete BS as shown in the numerous reports that have been prepared, but more importantly they have it 100% backward -- it is Hansen and crew that don't have facts to support their claim that the arena won't hurt Sodo, the Port, thousands of family wage jobs, and that there aren't far better site alternatives. That is what they are supposed to have BEFORE getting approval, but their attempt to run an end around of the EIS, or a pick and roll if you will, shows that they are not sure the outcome will be what they want.

The question is, can our electeds stand firm and do they right thing, or will they be cowed and awe-struck to the point of putting the interests of sports fans and a few multimillionaires and billionaires ahead of the interests of taxpayers and the region's economy?

Posted Thu, Aug 9, 6:56 p.m. Inappropriate

Alas, its the electeds who are increasingly addicted to "doing end runs around EISs" and primarily because they view them incorrectly as mere opportunities for citizens to vent.

afreeman

Posted Thu, Aug 9, 10:21 a.m. Inappropriate

The questions I still want answered is if this deal is such a good one, why do they want public subsidies/loans/whatever you call it? Why don't they just pay for it themselves?

Even if they did pay for everything themselves, I would still oppose the proposed location for all the reasons Mr. Brewster and others point out. But my big choke point is public participation of any kind. Can't we ever just decide that the public will NOT participate and put that idea to rest?

mspat

Posted Thu, Aug 9, 11:24 a.m. Inappropriate

The more people look at it, the more Tacoma Dome appears to be the superior option.

It has its own transit station for Amtrak, Sounder, LINK and ST buses.

It has ample parking.

It is accessible to the main sports fanbase of South King.

It is at a crossroads of highways that includes access to the peninsula.

Why reinvent the wheel?

Tacoma Dome has the same seating as the proposed new arena...yet it is ready and waiting.

We could have NBA and NHL sports tomorrow...with the Tacoma Dome!

jabailo

Posted Thu, Aug 9, 2:14 p.m. Inappropriate

Arthurking is right on the money... The PORT operates year round, creating jobs year round, and decent living wage ones as compared to ushers, food workers, and parking attendants. The Port is far from perfect, but while NBA and NHL franchises come and go, Seattle's location stays the same distance from the far east ports.

IF you were to move old 99 further east, and swap it for rail lines that connect to the waterfront piers, you would remove a lot of truck traffic, reduce pollution, and then you could open up the some of the rail yard to build your stadium there. At one point a while back someone was interested in the Goodwill site off of Dearborn. That, too, would provide a great and accessible footprint and keep the Port access open.

IF our port is to compete with Tacoma, and other west coast ports, transportation access has to be improved, not reduced. This is not pro or con sports, it is just common sense use of tax dollars.

Posted Thu, Aug 9, 5:04 p.m. Inappropriate

Very good piece, David. It's not just the jobs and the wages, important as they are. The Port is visual and animated and, at least on the West Coast, unique. Other cities have moved their port operations (wisely, perhaps) and port operations in LA, San Francisco, even Vancouver are separated from the City. Here the Port gives Seattle a character and a look that is endlessly fascinating, a playing field surrounded by an audience on several hills and downtown. I think being so woven into the City makes our Port less competitive economically and I suspect Port management is less than inspired but Seattle without a healthy Port is what? Spokane, Salt Lake City? it's really worth defending.

kieth

Posted Fri, Aug 10, 8:27 a.m. Inappropriate

There are far better places to build a new area around here for fans, teams and commerce.

Chris Hansen should find one of them.

Jan

Posted Fri, Aug 10, 11:07 a.m. Inappropriate

And had our elected leadership been acting on behalf of tax payers and regional commuters rather than downtown developers, the viaduct would still be handling all of these issues of capacity and access and none of this Mack Sennett damage control would be necessary.

jmrolls

Posted Fri, Aug 10, 11:51 a.m. Inappropriate

To Jabailo's suggestion of using the Tacoma Dome as a new Sonics venue, I have to raise the question that underlies this whole debate in the first place: Does the Tacoma Dome have luxury box suites? If not, it would have to install them, because providing exclusive playrooms for rich folks is really what major league sports is all about these days. To keep saying that major league sports 'brings everyone together', as the arena lobby and its supporters would have it, is completely undermined by the new sports architecture, for which luxury box suites serve only to separate the haves from the have-nots, even to the extent (by means of separate entry-ways and elevators) of keeping the 2 groups from ever rubbing shoulders during a game. It's a new form of social apartheid, and it shocks me that the public--the public in a so-called democratic society--should be expected to help pay for it.

Posted Sat, Aug 11, 8:14 p.m. Inappropriate

Tacoma Dome is a tabular rasa inside, and can be configured for any sport, or event, with any seating arrangement.

If it were to become the sports arena of NBA and NHL play, of course skyboxes would be considered.

However, let us remember, whatever luxury boxes bring in, it is the television rights that matter the most. So, the stadium has one requirement -- it has to look full and look good on TV. Where it is should have more to do with cost, but also access to the types of people who will attend such an event.

Seattle, in my view, make it clear when only 1/3rd of the people supported fighting to keep the Sonics there that the real sports fanbase is outside Seattle...in places like Kent, Bellevue...and Tacoma!

jabailo

Posted Fri, Aug 10, 12:01 p.m. Inappropriate

Terrific piece. Thanks.

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