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KeyArena still has a winning play

The sun is far from down on KeyArena's usefulness. Credit: Sounder Bruce/Flickr

An NBA basketball arena for Seattle seems to be operating in the Bertha Zone: The city is committed to a stalled effort with an expanding time frame, meanwhile multiple other options hover, but never quite gel.

But the waiting game just got more interesting, with the revelation of the existence of a consultant’s report for the city council—completed six months ago— that finds one of the original location options, KeyArena at Seattle Center, could still make sense as a pro-basketball venue. Rejecting that option has been key to the whole current plan.

The city has two years to go on a five-year agreement passed and signed in 2012 with Chris Hansen, the South End-bred boy who made lots of money and has invested heavily in SoDo with a plan to build a basketball-hockey-concert arena upon hopes of attracting an NBA franchise. He was greeted as a hometown hero, the best hope of “bringing back” the Sonics, a team loss that is still felt bitterly by many sports fans. His plan for a privately owned arena bucks the trend of publicly funded sports facilities, though it still relies heavily on tax breaks and financing from the city and King County. The agreement attempts to wire-around a law that limits what the city can do to support pro sports franchises with taxpayer money.

But there are problems. One is that Hansen’s plan pivots on getting an NBA franchise first, and the NBA has no plans to expand soon, or expand to Seattle. Other cites, like Kansas City and Las Vegas, are probably ahead on the waiting list. Hansen’s efforts to nab the Sacramento Kings didn’t help his image or his reputation with city council members, as his people violated California law in that effort. There are also opponents of the Hansen plan who intend to file a lawsuit the minute it is implemented by the city, and there are ongoing concerns about the SoDo location that could prove problematic for industrial and maritime industries, traffic, railroad operations and Port of Seattle.

Mayor Ed Murray, who inherited the arena agreement, has sworn to live up to it, and the city is proceeding—as the state contractors are doing with Bertha—to do the bits it can do while it waits for a franchise. Vacating a stretch of Occidental Street for the proposed arena project, for example, is on the immediate agenda. Still, while he is determined to be seen to be honoring the agreement, Murray admits his personal first choice would have been to find a way to make KeyArena, the Sonics former home, work. Hansen believes that’s a non-starter, and it’s been accepted wisdom that the Key is inadequate and can’t meet NBA standards.

That conclusion has put a large target on the back of the Key—a legacy structure from the 1962 world’s fair and a successful concert and event venue that has hosted hockey and NBA basketball in the past, and is home to the Seattle Storm, Seattle University basketball and the Rat City Rollergirls in the present. Without the Sonics and in the absence of a new, competing Hansen facility, it has a positive cash flow. With the Hansen arena, it has been considered a dead duck.

The city council, however, commissioned a report by a group called AECOM to look at options. The Seattle Times reported earlier this month that the report had been quietly circulating since it was completed in June. Their headline was that contrary to Hansen’s or previous received wisdom, the Key could be modified to accommodate an NBA and/or NHL franchise, with significant investment in upgrades and by reconfiguring the interior space significantly. And this could be done while preserving its familiar pyramidal exterior which forms a ground-level centerpiece for the Center.

That’s important because the report acknowledges that the roof of the Paul Thiry-designed arena is eligible for landmark status, and would almost certainly be landmarked if any major redevelopment was in the offing. The report suggests that such an upgrade would be the best option in terms of generating major revenues—possibly between $1 and $2 million profit per year for the city. The Key could have seating for more than 17,000 basketball fans.

The site is also potentially more viable given transportation upgrades that are needed for the growing tech-centered Interbay area. Sound Transit is considering light rail routes to Ballard that could serve Seattle Center and Interbay. No potential arena site lacks transportation issues—be it SoDo, Tukwila, Bellevue or Seattle Center. Still, access to rail and transit is a major factor in all of those and the long-term rail plans could help the Center.

The report contains some sobering information, too. If Hansen’s arena in SoDo is built—or another is built elsewhere—the arena would likely be a marginal operation for the long term and probably run at an ongoing deficit. Revenues only from college basketball and special events likely wouldn’t cover costs. If the Key were upgraded and had one major league franchise, either hockey or basketball, it would cover costs and generate a modest profit. Financially, the best option could be investing in general upgrades but not the nearly $300 million it would take to get up to NBA standards, yet also not having another arena in the region to compete with. That could generate a profit of more than $2 million per year.

There are intriguing options for repurposing the Key in the event of an arena elsewhere: a reconfiguration with a dual theater set up, conversion to a kind of entertainment zone or mall with multimedia shows or attractions like Legoland, DisneyQuest, or a permanent Cirque de Soleil-style or dinner theater experience. Another idea is an indoor adventure-sports park with a velodrome, rock climbing walls, a skate park and ropes courses. Another possibility: an education-oriented STEM incubator, with classes, showcasing start-ups, possibly something like a robotics center.

The Seattle Center’s heavy tourism traffic is a big advantage with some of these options. Attractions like Chihuly Garden and Glass and EMP have added to visitor appeal as the Center has shifted from its post-fair role as home to bedrock cultural institutions like Seattle Art Museum or Seattle Symphony, which moved downtown.

The report also tiptoes into a politically controversial area. The consultants point out that if the city decided to simply raze the Key, the property could be converted to housing, with room for 400 to 500 units of workforce or market-rate housing on city-owned land. That could be seen as being in keeping with the need for more housing in Lower Queen Anne and Uptown; it would also move to integrate Seattle Center with the neighborhood around it. As a side note, Walt Disney, when was conceiving Epcot as a permanent “world’s fair” park in Florida in the mid-1960s, seriously considered having people live in the theme park to demonstrate the future of urban-living. Still, such a move would necessitate the demolition of a landmark structure and a serious re-conception of the Center’s civic role.

The report suggests that KeyArena—undemolished—still has options.  The fact that it could be successfully upgraded should be welcomed by those who love pro sports and history. It was designed as a permanent structure that could be adapted for multiple purposes, including sports. The Seattle Times has editorialized in favor of keeping it in play as a potential NBA site. At some point, a decision will have to be made, but until the Hansen agreement is revised or expires, it behooves the city to have good alternatives.

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