With all the talk about transportation in the mayor's race, one piece is missing: the exit ramps from the SoDo basketball/hockey arena. No, not actual exit ramps, but political ones that would kill or relocate the project should the need arise.
The mayoral candidate who was a genuine SoDo arena skeptic, Peter Steinbrueck, lost in the primary, leaving behind Mayor Mike McGinn, the arena's champion, and state Sen. Ed Murray. Murray, as he is on many issues in his don't-rock-the-boat campaign, is cautiously supportive, but taking it all under advisement.
Investor Chris Hansen's proposed facility is procedurally tucked away in a campaign safe zone, meaning it is chugging along through the environmental impact statement (EIS) process with no major decision required before election day. The city has released a draft EIS, which is being critiqued and commented upon, and a final one should be issued early next year. While the EIS ostensibly looks at arena options and traffic issues, it's main value now is keeping the arena on the political bench.
That doesn't mean the critics have been quiet. The Port of Seattle, the Longshore union and other unions (ship pilots, railroad workers) worry about the impact of the project on freight mobility — being able to move cargo in and out on trucks, ships and trains. There's a general belief in SoDo that the project — and the likelihood of broken transportation mitigation promises such as those that happened with the other stadiums there — will truly threaten the port's competitiveness. As one testifier at a recent EIS hearing put it, "Please don't cut the jugular vein of commerce in Seattle!" To switch metaphors, critics worry that the arena's increased traffic and attendant development might be the straw that breaks the camel's back of industrial Seattle.
And, if the camel's back isn't broken, there is another camel problem: the one sticking its nose under the SoDo tent. Chris Hansen and his arena investment group have paid dearly for real estate to build the new arena and reshape the area surrounding it. SoDo developer Henry Liebman has described Hansen as paying "South Lake Union prices" for property there. SoDo is a Monopoly board right now for Hansen, Liebman and others, put in play as another transformable warehouse and manufacturing district.
A SoDo arena is seen by critics as yet another step down the road of putting blue collar (and living wage) jobs and the city's marine-industrial complex in jeopardy for the sake of a new entertainment district. Not that a basketball arena is incompatible with Seattle generally, but trying to shoehorn it in next to the Port's operations is dangerous, critics say, and will drive up the cost of doing business there. "We can have it all, just not all in one place," says one opponent of the SoDo site. The arena is moveable, the port is not.
SoDo is already transforming, arena or no. The city council recently approved a SoDo Business Improvement Area (BIA) north of Spokane Street and from 1st Avenue eastward that will allow business owners to tax themselves to clean up and promote the area. Skeptics have seen this as a precursor of gentrification: clean-up SoDo and condos will follow. On the other hand, as Jeff Long of Pacific Feather, an area organizer, points out, the area has been changing already thanks to spot zoning. Many employees in the new BIA are already office workers with jobs at Starbucks and the Seattle School District. Many of the textile and metal operations have already moved out.
Making SoDo safer — with private security, for example — seems like a benefit regardless of who works there, and there's no reason why the BIA cannot promote manufacturing over offices. Still, others see it as an inexorable march toward turning SoDo into another high-priced development zone. The Seattle Times worried in a recent editorial that the BIA would lead to SoDo losing its "gritty and useful" character.
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