Sonics arena speculation: Think conventions and mass transit

Triangulate this: A new home for the NBA team will likely need to be a multipurpose facility with a strong corporate partner located near light rail. Eastside suburbs? Maybe.
Crosscut archive image.

A drawing of the proposed Seattle SuperSonics arena in Renton. (Sonics)

Triangulate this: A new home for the NBA team will likely need to be a multipurpose facility with a strong corporate partner located near light rail. Eastside suburbs? Maybe.

What next for the Sonics and their (seemingly genuine) quest for a new arena in the Seattle area? Quite a lot of possibilities are in play now that the Legislature declined to make life easy by handing over the keys to $300 million in visitor taxes. One of the more interesting notions is to combine the new arena with a convention center, thus tapping some other sources of rental revenue and governmental financing. The Oklahoma City group that owns the Sonics has talked to both Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue and the Washington State Convention and Trade Center in Seattle to see if there's a dance partner. So far, the dancing is pretty awkward. Meydenbauer Center makes some sense, since it's undersized and has some expansion space kitty-corner to the southwest, between the Center and City Hall. An enlarged Meydenbauer facility, coupled to the new arena, could offer space for trade shows like the Garden Show, as well as major meetings for companies like Microsoft and Amazon, which now often have to hold these gatherings out of state. (Safeco Field, sometimes used for these mega-meetings, means poor security, outdoor temperatures, and limited technology for whiz-bang shows.) Meydenbauer-plus could compete for the regional conventions that now go to places like Boise. Originally, the Sonics wanted this Bellevue site, but it couldn't be put together in time for the legislative session, and another Bellevue site, east of Interstate 405, was not very suitable, so the team went with the Renton alternative, far from hotels and therefore not able to offer much synergy with the convention business. The Meydenbauer site has more positives than Renton: downtown Bellevue is putting up hotels and offices and will be gaining light-rail transit. But the city doesn't own the property in question, City Manager Steve Sarkozy reports, and it does not appear to be big enough for an arena. He says there are no current discussions with the team about this idea. Two other problems: Parking is inadequate, so the new complex might have to park cars across I-405, with people movers to shuttle people to and fro. And the expanded convention center would be competing with Spokane's just-enlarged center. As for Seattle sites, there's clearly no room near the current Convention Center downtown and spanning Interstate 5, so where would it go? Convention Center director John Christison, not very enamored of the idea of a new conference facility to manage, admits there's a need for more exhibition space, local trade shows, and meeting rooms. But sports arenas don't configure too easily for such uses, he says. Christison confirms there has been some talk about Seattle Center as a site for a new arena-cum-convention-facility, but KeyArena would be very hard to reconfigure, since its 400,000 square feet is only about half the desired size of a modern new arena at 750,000 square feet. In addition, the "bones" of Key Arena are too close together to allow enlargement to handle hockey. What about at Memorial Stadium, at the east side of the Center? Extremely unlikely, other sources say. The supporters of keeping the teams in Seattle are trying to find a way to get back to Olympia with more benefits and fewer taxes. The hope is to make good on the pledge that any new arena would be truly multipurpose – basketball, hockey, and exhibit space. Combining basketball and hockey has happened in a few cities, such as Denver, but typically pro sports teams want to capture every last dime from every last hot dog at these facilities, so they don't want to split revenues. The Sonics owners are also wary of putting a new arena in Seattle, because of the local political climate (just passed: a strong anti-sports initiative) and because the mood in Olympia is to do no favors for Seattle, or at least its current mayor. But there are two wild cards in play, which might make a Sonics Convention Center suddenly come to life. One is Microsoft, which has remained very much in the background, even though the facility would be needed for company events and Microsoft is a natural major contributor for naming rights. Understandably, the company went mum after some initial enthusiasm, fearing that the Legislature would find it easy to say no to taxes and just leave it to the cash-rich mega-company to foot the bill. (No callbacks from Microsoft spokespeople on this story, either.) The other wild card is transit. As Sound Transit lays out its new routes and looks for ridership to fill up future trains, that opens up some interesting new sites for transit-related development, built around a major attraction like a conference and sports center. "Look at where the new routes are going," says one source mysteriously, "and not necessarily the Eastside."


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors