As Seattle grows, there will always be debates about what kind of city we want to be, how to innovate, and how welcome newcomers — all while protecting and enhancing those attributes that make this city so special.
The arena debate, much like the Alaskan Way Viaduct debate, has pushed these issues to the forefront and created an opening to talk about our maritime and industrial lands, plus the families that are supported by these businesses.
The discussion about Chris Hansen's plan to build an NBA arena and entertainment complex in Seattle's maritime industrial neighborhood south of downtown has focused on transportation, economics, and the excitement of having an NBA team back in Seattle. The idea of an NBA team returning has invoked a compelling emotional and familiar narrative for die-hard basketball fans: of paradise lost, the dark times, the redemption, and the promised land. The opposition similarly has tapped into a familiar American narrative of the promise of upward mobility through hard work and economic growth, a path lost if bread and butter blue-collar jobs are taken for granted in favor of more service and entertainment sectors.
But missing from the public conversation about Hansen's plan is just what kind of city we want to be. Will we be a city that continues to embrace our maritime and industrial heritage alongside lawyers, accountants, gamers, and the new technology sectors? Or will we push out the blue collar workers and with them the middle class?
Make no mistake. This is a social justice issue. It’s surprising that some of the main proponents of this plan turn out also to be eloquent orators on the need for a socially just society.
Mike McGinn and Dow Constantine, the main sponsors of the proposal, are social liberals. Some of our other socially progressive elected officials such as County Council members Larry Gossett, Joe McDermott, Bob Ferguson, and City Council members Mike O'Brien and Bruce Harrell were all predisposed to supporting the proposal — even before the appointed panels had convened and reported back, before the raging debates in the media ran their course, and in some cases, before the Mayor's office released the proposed "MOU" agreement to the public.
They are doing so long before any conversation has taken place about the social justice implications of the proposal. There is no evidence that any of these leaders are reconsidering their stance.
Most of the demands for environmental review have not come from the Democratic Party leadership or even the progressive left, but from established and fairly conservative members of the business community (save the ILWU, of which I'm a part, and some Democratic district groups). Several opinion makers on local blogs, with reputations built on center-left advocacy, have opined in favor of an NBA arena in SoDo. Seattle's array of social justice activists, who normally might be concerned with a Wall Streeter wanting public money for a private business enterprise, have been largely absent at the numerous public hearings.
The story of a hedge fund manager coming to town, wooing a politically troubled city leader into secret negotiations, pressuring a local government to take the deal with no review, trying to bypass the state's environmental review laws, while handlers embark on a massive public relations campaign complete with an astroturf rally in Occidental Park, is a classic challenge to progressives to make a lot of noise.
There are several issues related to the NBA arena proposal that have social justice implications, if it were to be built in Seattle's SoDo district. These include the health of small businesses, the quality of transit, the ability for the city to maintain social services, and the city's neighborhood groups’ ability to secure funding for future amenities.
It is difficult to convincingly dispute that an additional arena on First Avenue will exacerbate the existing traffic problems affecting the diesel truck traffic from the Port and rail yards, as well as the commuter traffic.
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