Let's get real: The arena will kill KeyArena

With the SODO arena deal primed and ready, it's time we got serious about what it will mean for KeyArena.
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Architect Paul Thiry, a proponent of modernism, designed the original Seattle Center Coliseum, now called KeyArena: This is structure as sculpture.

With the SODO arena deal primed and ready, it's time we got serious about what it will mean for KeyArena.

The growing support for the $490 million arena deal brokered with investor Chris Hansen by the Seattle City Council, Mayor McGinn and Executive Constantine is exciting. While most of us genuinely want a new generation Sonics team to return to our city, nearly all want to ensure taxpayers are not footing the bill or assuming inappropriate risk.

As a legislator representing much of the waterfront, links to downtown, the Seattle Center – the heart of tourism in our city – and much of the Port of Seattle area, I give the plan on the table a solid B+. It’s absolutely essential that the city council take one more step forward to make it an A+.

Fortunately, the power to take the final step rests exclusively in the hands of the city council and mayor and is not dependent upon Hansen.

First, let’s proudly acknowledge that the deal is exceptional: It changes the game nationally relative to ending limitless public subsidy of professional sports facilities. It is not, however, as strong as portrayed relative to the city’s lack of commitment internally to focus on the future of Seattle Center.

The ‘externalities’ of effects of the proposed arena on the transportation and freight infrastructure of SoDo (any serious expectation that the location will be anything other than SoDo is pure folly – this is largely a real estate play) have been well captured. There is an acceptable plan in place and the ecosystem of partners is ‘in the game’ to ensure our city recognizes the long-term economic issues inherent in our industrial lands.

Here’s a big unaddressed problem: The ‘externality’ of the negative effect on Seattle Center by ending the useful life of Key Arena is the weak link. The language in the proposal to study the future of Key Arena punts on any meaningful commitment that recognizes the reality on the ground. Key Arena is dead and done the day the new arena opens. The city is effectively handing Hansen a monopoly of economic value in the form of no competition to his new facility, and yet the $7 million reserved from taxes paid during the two years the Sonics will play in Key is a trivial concession.

Is it his obligation to fund a rejuvenation or rebirth of Key Arena in some new fashion? No, but it is the obligation of the city to do more than include flowery, non committal language in the deal that translates into government talk for ‘we’ll see what we can do next time.’

This is the next time.

The city council and mayor have a public obligation to do right by Seattle Center – the entity that feels a direct and painful impact of the policy decision they’ve made – since they are hastening and formalizing the very day when Key Arena’s life comes to an end.

Today Key Arena is break-even and even generates money (about $300K a year plus $1M in parking revenues linked to events) through more than 110 events from Seattle Storm to Elton John, Madonna and other concerts. The day the new arena opens is the day Key Arena’s life ends as those events shift to Hansen’s venue. The useful life of Key Arena is coming to end at some point anyway, on some level, but under the new plan the fat lady is now walking on stage and will likely arrive in about 24 months.

My hope and request is that the city council and mayor double down on their formal and informal commitment to the future of Seattle Center and not pretend that the externalities of the arena decision are not directly linked.

Specifically, I believe the current plan can be dramatically improved by dedicating the same amount of emotional and political energy to the long-term interests of Seattle Center for the next 50 years that we’ve dedicated to this arena deal itself. Doesn’t the heart of our city – which brings in millions of tourists a year, hosts major events, connects our community and more – deserve at least that same level of commitment?

It’s an exciting opportunity if we seize it.

We need to formally, aggressively and boldly update the Seattle Center’s comprehensive master plan in an economically realistic fashion. We need to engage the community and explore options for the site's revitalization — imagine a specialty K-12 STEM school, public sports facility, or community center where Key Arena now stands. We need to free the Seattle Center staff from the day-to-day tactical financial pressure of making short-term money for the city while the larger public value is eviscerated by the arena deal. We need to open the door to creative and energetic private partnerships that create new possibilities for the space. We need to make a serious commitment that this council and this mayor will propose a bond to facilitate this major investment through within the next four years.

We need to double down on our commitment to the future by finally – after years of promises – prioritizing the Seattle Center at the same level as parks, housing, family levies, seawalls, libraries and more.

If the council walks the walk around showing the public a meaningful commitment to the future of the regional treasure that is Seattle Center, then it’s ‘game on.'

This article originally appeared on the blog of Reuven Carlyle


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