SoDo arena: Mayoral candidates overlook the exit ramps

McGinn and Murray both speak well of a new sports arena, but is either one prepared to heed rising concerns?
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KeyArena: Could its site be an option for a new sports arena?

McGinn and Murray both speak well of a new sports arena, but is either one prepared to heed rising concerns?

With all the talk about transportation in the mayor's race, one piece is missing: the exit ramps from the SoDo basketball/hockey arena. No, not actual exit ramps, but political ones that would kill or relocate the project should the need arise.

The mayoral candidate who was a genuine SoDo arena skeptic, Peter Steinbrueck, lost in the primary, leaving behind Mayor Mike McGinn, the arena's champion, and state Sen. Ed Murray. Murray, as he is on many issues in his don't-rock-the-boat campaign, is cautiously supportive, but taking it all under advisement.

Investor Chris Hansen's proposed facility is procedurally tucked away in a campaign safe zone, meaning it is chugging along through the environmental impact statement (EIS) process with no major decision required before election day. The city has released a draft EIS, which is being critiqued and commented upon, and a final one should be issued early next year. While the EIS ostensibly looks at arena options and traffic issues, it's main value now is keeping the arena on the political bench.

That doesn't mean the critics have been quiet. The Port of Seattle, the Longshore union and other unions (ship pilots, railroad workers) worry about the impact of the project on freight mobility — being able to move cargo in and out on trucks, ships and trains. There's a general belief in SoDo that the project — and the likelihood of broken transportation mitigation promises such as those that happened with the other stadiums there — will truly threaten the port's competitiveness. As one testifier at a recent EIS hearing put it, "Please don't cut the jugular vein of commerce in Seattle!" To switch metaphors, critics worry that the arena's increased traffic and attendant development might be the straw that breaks the camel's back of industrial Seattle.

And, if the camel's back isn't broken, there is another camel problem: the one sticking its nose under the SoDo tent. Chris Hansen and his arena investment group have paid dearly for real estate to build the new arena and reshape the area surrounding it. SoDo developer Henry Liebman has described Hansen as paying "South Lake Union prices" for property there. SoDo is a Monopoly board right now for Hansen, Liebman and others, put in play as another transformable warehouse and manufacturing district.

A SoDo arena is seen by critics as yet another step down the road of putting blue collar (and living wage) jobs and the city's marine-industrial complex in jeopardy for the sake of a new entertainment district. Not that a basketball arena is incompatible with Seattle generally, but trying to shoehorn it in next to the Port's operations is dangerous, critics say, and will drive up the cost of doing business there. "We can have it all, just not all in one place," says one opponent of the SoDo site. The arena is moveable, the port is not.

SoDo is already transforming, arena or no. The city council recently approved a SoDo Business Improvement Area (BIA) north of Spokane Street and from 1st Avenue eastward that will allow business owners to tax themselves to clean up and promote the area. Skeptics have seen this as a precursor of gentrification: clean-up SoDo and condos will follow. On the other hand, as Jeff Long of Pacific Feather, an area organizer, points out, the area has been changing already thanks to spot zoning. Many employees in the new BIA are already office workers with jobs at Starbucks and the Seattle School District. Many of the textile and metal operations have already moved out.

Making SoDo safer — with private security, for example — seems like a benefit regardless of who works there, and there's no reason why the BIA cannot promote manufacturing over offices. Still, others see it as an inexorable march toward turning SoDo into another high-priced development zone. The Seattle Times worried in a recent editorial that the BIA would lead to SoDo losing its "gritty and useful" character.

Ed Murray seems intent on not making the SoDo arena becoming his deep bore tunnel, in other words making the mistake McGinn did by opposing a big project already in the pipeline. Murray has criticized the mayor on that point. The arena deal between Hansen, the city and King County has already been hashed out and awaits further development or modification through the EIS process. It also awaits Hansen's ability to attract a major tenant, namely an NBA basketball franchise and/or an NHL hockey team. Hansen has had setbacks on those efforts — neither the NBA nor NHL seem interested in expanding yet, and Hansen was roughly rebuffed in his attempt to steal away the Sacramento Kings. His clean image was tarnished in the process by his attempt to illegally undercut the Sacramento decision, news of which caused some Seattleites to raise eyebrows and opt for a re-appraisal of the man who seemed like the patron saint of the Sonics return.

While Murray is not opposing the arena — in a recent KING-TV debate he reiterated that he sees it as an "opportunity" — he does have many friends who do oppose it, and he's sympathetic to the issues of the industrial zones in South Seattle and Ballard. He says that just as South Lake Union has benefitted from a committed strategic process on the part of the city, so too should SoDo. Can we do for blue collar and union jobs what we did for bio-tech and Amazon? As the child of a "working-class kid" from West Seattle, he's long had the work of the industrial and maritime sectors literally in view. Still, some are pressing him to be say more on the subject. Peter Steinbrueck, for example, recently told the Seattle Times that he would not formally endorse Murray until he had heard more from him on the subject of industrial Seattle.

If McGinn is all in on the arena, Murray is at least willing to listen to concerns. Seattle Port commissioner Tom Albro says he perceives Murray, whom he has endorsed, as "more open to the aspirations of the maritime industry and more open to the idea that it's vital to an urban middle class." Justin Hirsch of Local 19 of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union says the union is backing Murray even though he's "not given us a straight answer" on what he would do on the arena. Still, Hirsch says they've concluded that "McGinn has absolutely no interest in listening to us. It's a shame for such a populist mayor to ignore such an important part of the city." They will have Murray's ear and some trust in his experience in Olympia on transportation issues where they've worked with him before. Murray says he wants an arena project where "freight and the port can function." The question is whether the two are completely incompatible, or whether everyone can be made happy with the right mitigation — and affordable solutions,

Instead of second-guessing the arena, Murray sees the process going forward, but there are potential "exit ramps" ahead. Delay in getting a sports franchise allows the Port of Seattle and other opponents to make a stronger case. There are possible legal challenges coming. There is still much to be worked out regarding the impact of the arena on transportation and freight mobility. There is the problem that the agreed window for Hansen to come up with a franchise — five years —might be too long to keep SoDo in development limbo, or under a "dark cloud," as Steinbrueck calls it. And cloud-wise, that covers Seattle Center too, which must figure out what to do with Key Arena if it loses its profitability and raison d'être.

There is also the draft EIS itself. Arena opponents like Longshore lawyer Peter Goldman scoff at the document's downplaying of the potential negative economic impacts of the arena on industry. The Port Commission agrees and wrote McGinn on Sept. 30 to ask the the EIS be thrown out and that the whole process be restarted, citing what they believe are flaws in the draft EIS's basic assumptions. For one thing, they believe it does not look at enough alternative site options, nor do they find its assessment of the economic impacts credible.

It's not uncommon for an EIS to be self-serving on behalf of those who propose a project. A standard to consider: Is the arena EIS as thorough in looking at the pluses and minuses of the big picture impact as, say, the mayor would like to see on coal trains? Is it overly optimistic on the pluses and dismissive of the minuses as virtually all megaproject plans are, a fact the mayor himself condemned in reference to the waterfront tunnel? When asked for his thoughts on the SoDo EIS, McGinn was is conspicuously and uncharacteristically bland: "DPD [Department of Planning and Development] is doing its job to identify impacts and mitigation. I look forward to the review of the public comments."

A better win for the city, argued by some SoDo arena opponents, is a Seattle Center location for the project — either on the site of (a probably demolished) Key Arena or possibly Memorial Stadium. This would kill two birds with one stone: boost the center and solve the SoDo conflict — though demolishing the Key would bring on a battle with preservationists. It is also an option rejected by the city and Hansen, however — and the NBA has already declared Key Arena inadequate for an NBA team. It is also not where Hansen has chosen to sink a small fortune in real estate. Many wonder if one private investor's decision should be driving city policy to such a degree, though that often is the Seattle Way.

Richard Conlin, one of two votes (along with Nick Licata) against the arena plan, seems to be on the same page. Via email he says, "My personal goal is to work with the manufacturing and industrial folks (including the Port and unions) to start defining a real industrial policy, which would include the transportation system. That way, we could figure out whether and how projects like the arena fit in, and what mitigation would be needed, and do it in a comprehensive way rather than focusing on this one (admittedly big) project."

Exit ramps could also open up as the city council addresses the draft EIS and the vacation of Occidental Avenue, and as the details of the direct and indirect costs to taxpayers of the arena are fully tallied. Seattle council member Sally Bagshaw — who voted for the arena plan with some skepticism — thinks there's a unique opportunity now to have a broader "conversation" about the future of SoDo, and indeed the maritime and aerospace industries.  She'd love to see the Sonics back but thinks the location decision should be reopened. She's reached out in an email to the Port commissioners and others and would like to have a true a "regional summit," regardless of who wins the mayor's race. The response, she says, has been positive. She thinks her fellow council members are ready for that discussion as well. Certainly, there is a lot at stake in an economy that goes well beyond basketball, and the council will surely want to get the final decision right.

(Disclosure: Sally Bagshaw is married to Bradley Bagshaw, the chair of Crosscut's board.)


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.