Arena politics: getting toxic fast

Site of the proposed new arena in SoDo. First Avenue South is the western boundary; the Safeco Field garage is to the north. Credit: Sportspress Northwest/City of Seattle

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.

Consider how the alliances line up, and the political firepower they have. Pro-Arena interests would be tourism, real estate developers eyeing SoDo as the next South Lake Union, sports fans and their media allies. Anti-Arena interests are the industrial jobs in SoDo, the Mariners (impacted by parking and congestion and competition), the statewide network of businesses dependent on an uncongested Port, and assorted citizens likely to be furious about the public sector bedding down with greedy sports monopolists (again). The pressure on the councilmembers from such well-armed forces is intense. And everyone remembers how the slick maneuvers that got voter approval of Safeco Field and Qwest (now Century Link) Field embittered many citizens against politicians for decades.

From my soundings of the council, it seems clear that the mayor's original proposal and MOU "will not be approved," in the words of Councilmember Tim Burgess, who is leading the council deliberations on this issue. Nor is the council apparently ready to vote in the next few weeks, though it was floating a package of modest transportation improvements and greater public protections early this week. "I can see myself getting to Yes," says Burgess, but only if there are more financial protections and more of the public money goes to "public good," as opposed to the private Arena. (There are probably two votes for the mayor's version of the Arena deal, Bruce Harrell and Mike O'Brien.)

Burgess, an all-but-declared candidate for mayor in 2013, brushed off speculation that Mayor McGinn was finding himself another wedge issue. McGinn did just that in 2009 when he opposed the deep-bore tunnel, which lonely position got him enough strong partisans to get through a crowded primary; he then fudged his position to win the general, though against a weak opponent. The analogy would be to wedge Burgess and other likely opponents into an anti-Arena position. If this is McGinn's tactic, Burgess has to be careful to "improve" the public side of the deal without sinking the project.

But if the council does get to yes in this fashion, there will be serious collateral damage. It will confirm the historic pattern that the council, despite brave words of opposition at the outset, is, as Ado Annie sings in Oklahoma!, "I'm just a girl who caint say no."

Port Commissioner Bill Bryant commented on Steve Scher's "Weekday" on KUOW yesterday that the whole debate raises a kind of ultimate issue: "What kind of city do you want to live in?" Bryant contrasted the low-wage service-sector jobs of an Arena with the family wage jobs that the maritime-industrial center of South Seattle brings. Big, nearly existential issues are at stake, which is the real reason this debate is so fascinating and so meaningful.

Seattle is trying to do a very difficult thing: transition to a post-industrial, tech-and-brainpower city while also retaining the blue-collar, Boeing-centric, SeaFair-loving, big-seaport aspects. In effect, build a balanced economy that few cities manage to pull off. (San Francisco, for instance, shipped its port across the Bay to Oakland.) We had a version of this fight over the Seattle Commons, where a low-cost warehouse and repair-shop district that all cities need was turned into Amazonia, with an enticing escalation of land values.

You can make the argument that the Port is being unrealistic in thinking that it can withstand all these economic forces, fend off more valuable uses for manufacturing and industrial land, and also grow substantially. You can cite lots of other cities that have moved their historic ports to remote locations that are mostly a modern nexus of docks, railyards, and interstate highways. You could argue that the growth of the Port should be directed to land-rich Tacoma, perhaps through a merger of the two ports.

A better argument, in my view, is that 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. Rather than its being the Port's fault that it has built all this and can expand it, is it not more fundamentally a planning failure that Seattle decided to put the stadiums in this awkward, conflict-certain industrial zone?

Curious, then, that the Port seems to be the one on the defensive, forced to hire consultants to do the work the city should have done. The reasons for this odd balance of power have to do with the Port's own political isolation, an independent entity not liked at City Hall because of its aloofness and not very visible to the public. (Quick: name the five Port commissioners.) Two other factors: We are a region always hurrying to the Next Economy, and we have politicians too easily cowed when that grenade gets tossed into the local waters.

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