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The arena’s forgotten issue: social justice

Mayor Mike McGinn and County Executive Dow Constantine discuss a plan for a new arena in Seattle during a Feb. 16 press conference. Credit: Office of the Mayor

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.

Adding to the traffic problems are all of the Metro buses that will sit in traffic next to these trucks and sport fans, whose routes have already been compromised and shifted off First Avenue because of existing traffic delays. Most of these buses are destined for the south end of Seattle and King County, adding more commute time to an already long ride. This is a problem that people in Laurelhurst or Wallingford may not see. Add in the emissions from commuters' cars idling next to trucks and buses, and the pollution implications add up.

Several studies have pointed out that the net economic benefit from sporting stadiums is marginal, and this was acknowledged by the panel of experts appointed by McDermott in its report to the county.

We have seen this in the case of our existing stadiums, in relation to both Pioneer Square and the International District. Century Link and Safeco have not prevented longtime small business from closing or moving out of Pioneer Square. Fans are not walking into the heart of the International District en masse enough to make up for the loss of game day business, while people not attending the events avoid the area to avoid getting caught in traffic. The assumption with the SoDo arena is that fans will spend their money on site, or in the new restaurants and hotels that will be built in the area. None of these will be existing mom-and-pop outfits.

What will be the impact on these adjacent neighborhoods that are already struggling? Will more empty storefronts lead to more teardowns and gentrification, plus the loss oflong time family businesses and affordable housing? No one seems to be asking those questions.

Speaking of neighborhoods, Seattle is blessed with a neighborhood community council program, where proposals for street improvements, parks, trails, policing, green initiatives, and just about anything else that has hyper-local interest gets handled. Much of this activity is motivated by the opportunity to garner grants for projects and services, and weigh in on capital project funding for infrastructure and amenities. Every community council has its list of projects yet to be funded. Every year sees more are added to the list, as new solutions arise and improvements need to be made.

Much of the funding for these types of projects come from the city's budget, including the borrowed funds from bond sales and levies. The city has a finite amount of capacity to borrow money through bonding. An additional $120 million in general obligation public funds for an NBA arena that will be solely dedicated to paying for its construction means that the city — and the neighborhoods are on the hook if there is a shortfall in repayment. Any guarantee that tax revenue generated from arena events will cover these bonds is still up for debate.

Much has been said about the possibility of, and even the desire toward driving industrial and maritime trade-related jobs to Tacoma. If this is the effect of an arena being built in SoDo, there are other implications besides the jobs question. If one-third of Seattle's tax revenue is based on trade, and the additional tax revenue from the arena is dedicated toward paying for the arena, what should the city do about the tax revenue shortfall as a result of trade-based and industrial businesses moving south?

The choices are raise taxes and cut programs. Even in progressive Seattle, programs for homeless, domestic violence advocacy, energy assistance, housing, just to name a few, are always the first to see funding cuts when dealing with a budget shortfall. Will Hansen or the NBA promise to cut the city checks for the difference over 30 years, to guarantee that social service programs will stay funded, should negative economic consequences prove to be the result of an NBA arena in that particular location?

I doubt that they will.

This is a cursory glance at the social justice implications of an NBA arena in SoDo. There will be more traffic, resulting more pollution. Transit will become less efficient. The ability of neighborhoods to get future funding at the current level would be at risk. Decreased tax revenues, either from a possible shortfall in arena tax revenue, or tax revenue lost through trade and industry being driven out of the city, means the city raising taxes or cutting social spending, or both.

Another arena won't do much for Pioneer Square or the International District, nor the small businesses left in those neighborhoods. All of these will impact people on the lower income scales disproportionately.

The Port of Seattle, the manufacturing interests, and even the Mariners do not have much of an axe to grind when it comes to these social justice issues relating to a NBA facility in SoDo. But I bet someone else might if they knew what is at stake.

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