The last-minute settlement over the Seattle SuperSonics is sadly typical of politics around here. Why settle something when you can drag it on for years to come? Maybe we should call the new team, in the unlikely event it ever arrives here, the Seattle Viaducts.
Settling in a firm way a heated public debate like this one is risky for politicians, which is why they look for face-saving irresolution. Once something is settled, the losing side goes into permanent opposition, rather than holding out hope and courting favor with all the parties. The plan is to hold out a win-win solution, sometime in the hazy beyond.
Our local leaders have perfected this shuffle in transportation planning. The classic case is the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which was swept under the rug until the 2001 earthquake and remains in flux to this day. The next attempt at a solution will be after the coming election, after which... The battle between bus systems and rail has been raging, unresolved, since 1968. Irresolution is our brand. We keep the process going as long as possible, keep all options open, and then finally make a decision when all sides are exhausted.
So now we join the ignoble list of cities who have sorta-ready stadiums, wanly hoping for a new team someday. We'll pour more money into KeyArena to keep the hopes alive and to keep the Sonics fans from tarring and feathering Mayor Nickels. We'll keep Seattle Center in planning limbo because, who knows? someday maybe? never-say-never?
Crisp, we don't do. A clean, move-on resolution of the Sonics story would have been to take their money, come up with a good plan for KeyArena that adapts to the loss of the team (downscale it to match the needs of the Storm and the new market for rock shows, which is half the size of the Key, etc.), and let some new basketball team form around a new arena somewhere else, if it happens. Instead, we'll wait five years to know what to do with KeyArena. (And then probably ask for an extension, to keep the melodrama going into triple overtime.)
Just to compound the confusion, the deal is arranged in such a way as to make getting a new basketball team even harder. As I read the agreement, the Oklahoma City owners would not avoid the second, $30 million payment if an NBA team were to come to Seattle and play somewhere other than at KeyArena. But that's the most likely scenario: a modern, humongous, multiplex entertainment palace with acres of parking, alongside a freeway, somewhere outside of Seattle congestion and politics and land costs. The city government now has a $30 million incentive to work against the most plausible way to get a new team.
So we'll have five years of dithering, blame-mongering, and false rabbits being pulled out of false hats. Great for the media circus, to be sure. And amid this muddle, no politician can be hung out to dry, since they are all lined up, smiling foolishly, atop a fence. We've lost a team, lost momentum for reviving Seattle Center, lost face. But hey! Nobody's going to lose an election!
And that's been the point all along.