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Return of the Sonics: a refresher on Seattle’s arena options

The proposed arena in Seattle's Sodo neighborhood. Credit: 360 Architecture

My father came to the United States in the late 1970s to study at the University of Puget Sound. Being from the Middle East, his favorite sport was soccer.  But even to an international student with little exposure to basketball, the Seattle Supersonics were pretty damn impressive.

My father left the Pacific Northwest after graduating in 1983, returning with a family in 2001. I was just six, and at that point mostly interested in trading cards and video games. Yet I dropped everything whenever a Sonics game was on TV, staring at the physical feats of what I could only consider to be local gods. I was convinced that I wanted to play in the NBA when I was older, and for the Supersonics specifically.

Then the Seattle Supersonics left town. It was 2008, and like many other devastated fans, I lost interest in basketball soon after. The excitement for the sport was gone, until rumors began surfacing of the team’s potential return to the Emerald City.

Before that day comes, however, the team will need a new home court to bring fans flocking back in green and gold. The same goes for those hoping for a new professional hockey franchise here. And despite the proposals detailed below, it’s not going to be easy.

President Barack Obama recently threw a new wrench into Seattle’s arena plans, proposing a nationwide end to the tax breaks that new sports venues often receive – namely, on the bonds that finance them. He tried the same thing last year and failed, and this time might be similar. If successful, bond funding for the Sodo proposal would cease to be an option, and odds of a Supersonics revival would get much slimmer.

To be sure, there are other issues standing in their way. The two NBA franchises most primed for relocation – Sacramento and Milwaukee – recently secured funding from their cities for new arenas. The NHL is looking to grow, but Commissioner Gary Bettman has gone back and forth on Seattle as a destination.

But many local fans are convinced that each league is simply waiting for a Seattle arena to materialize before committing. In recent years, various proposals to build a better multipurpose venue than KeyArena have surfaced. Lack of investors, delays on city approval, and outcry from opposition groups have slowed progress on all the projects.

Progress may come this spring, when the City Council holds a public hearing on the proposed Sodo arena, or even sooner if the Tukwila arena proposal secures more funding. But because our last big arena debate is years behind us, we present a refresher on the background and odds of our most viable proposals.

Credit: 360 Architecture
Credit: 360 Architecture

Sodo

What’s the proposal?

Build a new arena in Seattle’s Sodo neighborhood, near Safeco and CenturyLink fields. The proposal also incorporates building a public park, new sidewalks and a pedestrian bridge in the area.

Who are the backers?

Entrepreneur Chris Hansen is the main financer, and has expressed a much bigger interest in an NBA team than the NHL. The city of Seattle has agreed to offer $200 million in public financing if both NBA and NHL teams move to a SoDo arena, $120 million if just one franchise appears.

Key developments

  • In December 2011, the mayor and King County Executive’s offices reached agreement with Chris Hansen on a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) over his arena proposal, which expires in November 2017. From the city, Hansen requests a two block street vacation on Occidental Street in order to build his new arena.
  • Hansen’s 2012 efforts to relocate the Sacramento Kings made Seattle fans hopeful, only to fall through when the team got funding for an arena in their current city. I don’t doubt tears were shed in Seattle that day.
  • A series of favorable reports have trickled out since 2012. An SDOT-commissioned study found found that parking and transit capacity was sufficient for the location. A King County Council review panel called the proposal “one of the most favorable to the public of any recent partnership.” And in November 2015, SDOT submitted a positive recommendation for the requested street vacation to the City Council, stating “this portion of Occidental does not serve as a critical function to the street grid.”

What does it stand now?

A public hearing on the requested street vacation has been set for March 15 by the City Council, and is set to draw supporters and opponents alike. A council vote will come by April 25 at the earliest.

Winners and losers?

The ports of Seattle and Tacoma, the longshoremen’s union, and other maritime groups are vehemently opposed to the Sodo arena. They claim the street vacation of Occidental Street would cause more problems to the already congested traffic for freight trucks, hurting hurt their industry. A lawsuit from those groups is likely should council approve the plans, delaying Hansen’s development plans further.

If the NBA and NHL decide to expand to Seattle, they’d be the big winners in this deal: a brand new arena right next to Safeco and CenturyLink fields would be the prime location for games. Seattleites would also have a concert venue other than KeyArena or the Tacoma Dome.

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Seattle Center

What’s the proposal?

Renovate what has become the elephant in the city, KeyArena, to fully support NBA and NHL games.

Who are the backers?

The maritime groups who dislike the Sodo proposal are supportive of KeyArena’s renovation. It would cost around $285 million as opposed to at least $500 million for a brand new arena. The person or entity who would pay that sum is a question, however.

Key developments

What does it stand now?

There are no concrete plans to renovate KeyArena, but groups opposed to the Sodo arena are anxiously awaiting the March 15 public hearing for its street vacation. If the City Council approves it, maritime groups will cite the AECOM report to argue KeyArena presents a better option.

Winners and losers?

Maritime groups opposed to the Sodo arena would prefer KeyArena as the option. Seattle Center businesses would benefit from a resurgence of crowds to the arena, but transportation to Sodo is much easier than to Seattle Center, so commuters would be hacked off. And as Thiel pointed out, the NBA and NHL would not be happy about a city-run, renovated venue.

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Tukwila

What’s the proposal?

Build a new arena in Tukwila, south of I-405. You didn’t misread that: this proposal would bring a new arena pretty close to Seattle, but not to the Emerald City itself.

Who are the backers?

Connecticut-based investment banker Ray Bartoszek and his firm, RLB Holdings. But Bartoszek seems more interested in owning a hockey franchise than basketball, so this proposal is not favored by Sonics fans.

Key developments

  • Bartoszek and Tukwila agreed on zoning for his privately financed arena in early 2015. Bartoszek signed a contract to reimburse the city for “peer review around the environmental analysis” and other related fees. In December, it was reported that he’d missed a payment and owed $63,359.52 to the city.
  • Bartoszek paid the full amount owed to the city of Tukwila last month, revealing that his proposal was very much alive.

What does it stand now?

Bartoszek has paid Tukwila for its services, and the city is now waiting on next steps from him. He is reportedly still working on securing private financing, likely another investor, to move forward with the project.

Winners and losers?

The city of Tukwila and its businesses would probably benefit from the influx of spenders to the arena. But who in Seattle wants to go to Tukwila to see big time sports or concerts? The city isn’t exactly known for its post-game nightlife. And Seattle residents hoping for a new venue for not only sporting events, but concerts and other shows too, would face more difficult commutes to the new venue than they would to Sodo or Seattle Center, especially those depending on public transportation.

Photo credits:  

Sodo arena design: 360 Architecture

KeyArena: Jed Scattergood

Tukwila arena: Populous Renderings

 

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