I sat down this week with Howard Lincoln, CEO of the Mariners, and Bart Waldman, the club’s legal counsel, to ask questions about the club’s objections to Chris Hansen’s proposed basketball/hockey arena that abuts the team’s parking garage in SoDo.
The city and county councils are expected to vote Monday to approve a memorandum of understanding with Hansen, a little more than six months after the Mariners wrote a letter to all parties saying the project “will not work” so close to their stadium and other businesses.
Here is the full transcript of the interview:
Q: Isn’t the primary reason for your opposition to the arena the threat posed by one or two more sports teams crowding the market?
Lincoln: I don’t think we’ve done as good a job as we should have in explaining our position to our public and our fans. I think our only issue is the ability of our fans to get to Safeco Field because of the worsening congestion in this area.
We’re not concerned about competition. The Sonics were here before we were. When they were here, we never even thought about competition. Our view is there is room in this market for the NBA, and the NHL as well.
This ownership group is the steward for major league baseball here. We felt an obligation to speak out and alert political leaders of our concern. It’s strictly about fans getting here. If they can’t get here, then baseball doesn’t work.
I was an NBA fan long before I was a Mariners fan. I saw Lenny Wilkens play at Seattle Center. My heroes were Freddy Brown, Dennis Johnson, Lonnie Shelton, and Jack Sikma. I was at those games before the 1979 championship. I remember (Golden State All-Star) Rick Barry almost running over my head when somebody threw beer at him.
The idea of the Sonics coming back is great. We don’t think an NBA arena works next to our parking garage. We are very pleased the way this is going — an environmental impact study that addresses fully the traffic and scheduling issues.
The one thing we didn’t make clear in the April 3 letter is we have a problem that is unique regarding scheduling. MLB announces its schedule in August each year and we have no ability to change the schedule. Other sports have more flexibility.
Q: Why do you think your position is misunderstood and denigrated?
Lincoln: Sports fans are pretty emotional. There’s a ton of people emotionally involved in getting the Sonics back. It’s easy for them to say the Mariners shouldn’t say anything, and that the Mariners have problems other than the one we expressed [congestion].
To the extent they have misunderstood what we’ve tried to say, I’d be the first to apologize.
Q: Isn’t the problem of seasonal overlaps something that can be negotiated and managed?
Waldman: We’ve looked at NBA and NHL master schedules. Depending on playoffs, you’d typically have six to 12 conflicts annually if both teams were here and made the playoffs. Roughly half the teams in each sport make the playoffs, so that would occur roughly half the time. We think it would be on average three regular season games and three playoff games for each sport.
The only place in the country that has all four teams in buildings close together is Philadlphia. They also have 22,000 surface parking spaces there, and the sports sites are not near their port, it’s away from downtown traffic, and is served by two major freeways and four major on and off ramps. Nor does Philadelphia have railroad tracks on one side and water on the other.
You can always deal with a one-off event a couple of times. We have done that with the Sounders, and we work like crazy to make it happen. We just did that recently (by changing a Saturday start time to reduce the conflict). You don’t want it to be a regular condition.
The difficulty is other events. The traditional wisdom on arenas is that you need 200-plus events to be successful; Chris Hansen has been saying 200-250 events a year. [Note: In an April interview with SPNW, Hansen said the arena, in the absence of an NHL team, could work financially with 120 event dates.] It’s the concerts, circuses, ice shows, trade shows and everything else that is typical to most arenas that’s the biggest problem. As many as a third to a half of our games can be conflicted. You start to get in a fight every Friday night with a concert versus a ballgame.
What volumes can SoDo handle on a weeknight?
Waldman: Our experience is that over 40,000, it’s gets tough. There’s no cliff, but a gradual accretion, both parking capacity and traffic, because they go together. When people don’t find parking, they circle, not sure where they’re going, which makes almost a compounding effect on traffic.
The original response from some political leaders was that the area handles Seahawks games that typically draw more than 65,000. But most are on Sunday. If you look at Monday or Thursday (NFL) games, it’s a real nightmare down here. Businesses close early and we send our [Mariners staffers] home at 3 or 3:30 in the afternoon so they can clear the area. You can’t get out of here after 5.
It’s the kind of thing when it happens once or twice, we adjust and pitch in because we all want what’s best for the community. But you don’t want to see it happen every week. It becomes very difficult.
Our crowds are different from Seahawks crowds. We hired a traffic consultant in December when we learned about the arena plan, we hired a traffic consultant. First thing we asked: How do we make it work? We weren’t trying to kill it. What we found was it was a lot more challenging than we anticipated.
The Seahawks crowd spreads out and comes in over many hours for tailgating. For the Monday night game, there were people putting up tents at 9 in the morning. By noon, I bet 25 percent of their crowd was in the vicinity, having lunch and making a day out of the game that night.
Baseball crowds come in the hour before a game, and basketball even closer. Baseball will always get some for batting practice, but most come in the hour before a game and basketball even closer. A very different pattern.
Also, rush hour comes through here because it’s one of downtown’s major routes to I-90. First Avenue South and Martinez Way is one of the busiest in the city. We saw information from an agency that rates intersections (for safety and traffic flow), which graded it as an F, a fail, the lowest rated intersection in the city.
There’s a lot of talk about this area as a transportation hub. That’s more at Union Station. Nice for the football stadium, but it’s a long walk to here and a longer walk to the Hansen site. Because of how bad traffic already is on First, Metro has moved all its buses off the street and moved the route to Fourth Avenue. That’s hard for seniors who take buses to our games and have to go home late at night all the way to Fourth.
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