Seattle may not get a basketball team, but it does have a great big, obsessional sports event on its hands, worthy of the Viaduct Wars of recent years. This is the battle over Mayor Mike McGinn's new pet project, the basketball/hockey/rock-show arena proposed just south of Safeco Field. Great! Another distraction from the serious problems facing our region and our politics!
Battles over sports facilities are especially intense in this region. Politicians can't afford to ignore juicy offers by moguls to build a facility and go fishing for a major league team, and so McGinn's hand was forced once Chris Hansen, a Bay Area hedge fund manager, approached the city about nine months ago. But neither can politicians afford to be rolled, or to appear to spend public dollars on billionaires. The result is a kind of elaborately lawyered and spin-doctored kind of deal that invites skepticism.
Similarly, opponents must operate through surrogates, invent objections that mask their economic self-interest, and frame their opposition with care. ("Citizens for More Important Things," the previous anti-arena group that helped scotch a deal to keep the Sonics, is a good example of a well-framed name.) The Seattle City Council, likely the leader of the skeptics, will have to contend with charges that members are simply opposing the mayor's project because they don't want him getting reelected in 2013.
In short, a glorious (and silly) donnybrook. Mix in with this Seattle's chronic anxiety about whether it's major league enough (can six major league sports satisfy our yearning, or do we also have to have an Olympics?), and you really do have a kind of existential saga.
So let's take a dispassionate look at the biggest underlying issues, before things get way out of control.
One such issue is KeyArena at Seattle Center, the former home of the Sonics. Hansen apparently told the mayor that he had no interest in renovating the Key, effectively taking it off the table. But as City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw has asked, "What is it about KeyArena that money can't fix?" With nearly $100 million already invested in remodeling the Key and $490 million proposed for the new facility in SoDo, you would think the Key could work for just a few hundred million or so.
There are problems with the Key, particularly its comparative distance from I-5 and the growing traffic problems in South Lake Union. But there is a whole infrastructure of parking, nightlife, bars, restaurants, and buslines that serve lower Queen Anne. There's also the financial health of Seattle Center to factor in. Downsizing the Key to smaller rock shows and basketball crowds for the Storm and Seattle U. may not be the best financial fix.
Fixing the Key is plausible, if not ideal. First, the floor for basketball would have to be enlarged to accommodate hockey; this would be expensive and might cost some seats. Then the north and south ends would have to be extended substantially to handle concourses for food, exhibits, luxury boxes and the like. There are shortages of parking and serious access problems for loading in big shows. Expect all this to be put back on the table, though Hansen might short-circuit this debate by flatly ruling out the Key and threatening to take his marbles and leave town.
Curiously, Hansen could even end up managing the down-sized KeyArena. Hansen won't want to have a similar-sized Key competing for rock shows with his new Arena, so downsizing the Key will be an essential part of the deal. Hansen may be pressured to pay for some of this renovation, and the city says in its FAQ that "Chris Hansen has expressed interest in running the Key long-term."
Next comes the issue of whether the SoDo location is desirable, and what financial interests are behind it. Start with the fact that almost no location for an arena (or a convention center, or a hospital) is desirable. They are bulky, high-walled, parking-intensive institutions that fit poorly in any human-scaled, mixed-use urban setting. That's why they are normally relegated to the suburbs or disused, cheap land like railyards. The Eastside, which at least has people rich enough to afford basketball tickets, has apparently dropped out of the running, fearful of huge traffic jams at the I-405 intersections. One plausible location, south of Boeing Field in land owned by developer Dave Sabey, has good highway and transit access, but is probably too far from the Seattle hotels to gain favor.
The Sodo location about six blocks south of Pioneer Square's historic district is a transit nexus (Sound Transit, Metro bus tunnel, Amtrak, ferries), and it can keep the parking garages for other sports facilities busy in other times. It's close to I-5, SR-99, and I-90. But it's hard to imagine much of a supporting neighborhood, such as lower Queen Anne, arising nearby, particularly because of the industrial zoning that manufacturing interests will work hard to retain. Indeed, one of the deep Seattle issues of whether to allow SoDo zoning to change to allow residential and commercial uses will resurface in earnest in the Arena War.
The debate will also shine light on a significant figure in SoDo, the attorney Henry Liebman who has used greencard-related overseas investments to assemble 40 acres of properties, running mostly south of Holgate Street, the southern boundary of the proposed Arena. Liebman figures to be a powerful force for upzoning the area, and his publicity-shy ways could cast him in the same suspicion-rousing role as Paul Allen, the major developer in South Lake Union. Seattle loves such melodramas, and Hansen's own demeanor, avoiding the public and living in the Bay Area, will also fan such flames.
The proposed SoDo location also raises the issue of traffic, particularly Port-related and freight traffic, in the area. Freight mobility is already impacted by the stadiums, as well as the years of detours for the waterfront tunnel replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct. That said, the traffic impacts of teams at KeyArena might be worse.
A third big issue will be trust. These deals require leaps of faith in such tattered institutions as the NBA and the NHL, famed for ripping up supposedly binding agreements with cities when necessary. Seattle ought to know, of course, after watching its binding agreements for the Sonics to play at the Key, and a 30-year lease on the Kingdome, both prove short-lived. The proposer of the deal, Chris Hansen, is unknown and his rapid acquisition of wealth via hedge funds will compound his problems in gaining trust. (Attention: Occupy Seattle!) One also wonders at his real motives for this project, since he hasn't been a Seattle benefactor before (he grew up in Seattle), isn't much of a sports fan, and will bring in other (unnamed) investors who might control the enterprise. This is not exactly the Nordstorm family.
One possible investor would be Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's CEO, a true basketball fanatic, and the almost-savior of the Sonics at the Key. Another motivation could be the need for Microsoft to have large meeting spaces for its sales conventions and other pep rallies. The new Arena, one should note, is not just about sports and rock shows: it will also be a large facility for big meetings, rallies, maybe even a national political convention, a very big deal for focusing attention on any city.
Mayor McGinn, after reneging on his election pledge to go along with the waterfront tunnel and stumbles in his first two years, is not greatly trusted. The Arena Review Panel put together by McGinn has a short time for its report (six weeks) and seems tilted toward supporters of the idea. That puts the real arms-length review in the lap of the Seattle City Council, notably the finance committee chair Tim Burgess, an almost-declared candidate to run against McGinn in 2013.
However, King County is in the picture, bringing one of the most trusted financial analysts in the region, Dwight Dively (former budget director for Seattle) to the table. Why the county is involved is a bit mysterious. The deal involves dedicating sales and property taxes for the Arena to retiring the public bonds to help finance the project, and the county would get its share of those taxes, so it must sign off. This will bring the County Council into the fray, which means reactivating the chief aports dealmaker in the region, Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer, who normally aspires to a sports-savior role.
But still, King County Executive Dow Constantine could have simply noted that the county will have to sign off on any deal presented, and retreated to the sidelines. Instead, there he was, with McGinn, announcing the exciting offer and taking significant ownership of the process. This is a big boon for the mayor and Hansen, since Constantine has an excellent top staff and lots of credibility in business and political communities.
His presence was, to me, the one clear signal that this project could happen. But it may just have been Constantine's political smarts, knowing that something with this much fan appeal, benefits to the tourism industry he staunchly supports, and significance for the business leadership in the region, was too politically juicy to let McGinn get all the credit.
Finally, there is the question of credible opposition. Some who oppose it, presumably including the Mariners, fearful of competition for tickets and luxury suites, will not do so openly, or will focus on secondary issues such as shared parking. Other opponents, such as Teamsters worried about trucking routes, can probably be brought along with mitigation measures or promises. Arts groups, worried about still more claims on the entertainment dollar, will not dare to voice such concerns publicly. Groups that worry about the way the measure uses up city bonding capacity, putting off their own hopes for bond issues, risk appearing selfish, jeopardizing their position in line, or standing in the way of immediate construction jobs.
What about the Seattle City Council? First nose-counts put Bruce Harrell and Mike O'Brien on the side of the mayor, Jean Godden the chief skeptic, and the others "from Missouri." Sally Bagshaw is expressing initial concern that KeyArena was not considered and how reliable any long-term contracts can be in such a league. But the council usually moves to an accommodationist position, after extracting some concessions on the margin. They will be wary of stirring up some very noisy antagonists: basketball and hockey fans, construction workers, the tourism industry, and the business community that is always pushing for more "global mind share" for Seattle, which sports headlines reliably bring. That tends to leave vocal, stubborn opposition to figures like Chris Van Dyk, easily stereotyped as naysayers. And there won't be a public vote.
This is not to predict that the Arena will be built. It's likely to be a long slog, particularly finding teams to relocate, and such long-fought issues in Seattle often mean that they die of a thousand cuts. Also, the 2013 mayor's race could offer a political opportunity to do what McGinn did in 2007 — take a clear, unpopular stance (against the tunnel in his case) that rallies a significant and passionate following, and ride that single issue through a crowded primary to a victory.
The one mayoral aspirant who seems best suited for that role is an early skeptic of the Arena proposal, Peter Steinbrueck. The issues line up well for him: preservationist stance on KeyArena, protecting industrial zoning in SoDo, devotion to social causes. Steinbrueck, on his Facebook page, was early out of the blocks with his criticism: "As much as I love the game of basketball … I wonder who in Seattle thinks we need another pro-sports arena? And can the city afford it? Show me one sports stadium in the U.S. that has not enjoyed massive public subsidies.” One good way to frame such opposition, while still favoring sports, would be to say, "Only at KeyArena," a pro-basketball stance that is nonetheless a deal-killer.
History has its fine ironies. Mayor McGinn, who arrived in office by fighting the establishment's pet project, the tunnel, may be ushered out by fighting for the establishment's newest pet project, the Arena. At any rate, let history note that this mayor (like all before him) has now made it across that familiar line separating the oppositional maverick to being a mayor of big-project, big-coalition, big-money politics. Thanks, Chris Hansen: We needed that!