Why Seattle should root for Tukwila's arena

By Knute Berger
Crosscut archive image.

With a pro sports arena in Tukwila, Seattle gets all the benefits with none of the hassles.

By Knute Berger

The plan to build a privately funded hockey and basketball arena in Tukwila is welcome and could be a big win for the region, especially Seattle.

First, Tukwila is a better spot than the arena/entertainment district Chris Hansen has planned in SoDo which is disruptive to so much immoveable infrastructure, such as the port and rail yards. Industrial Seattle has been largely opposed to the plan, especially the Port of Seattle which has concerns about further choking a choke-point for freight mobility. Plus, if we’re going to get picky about Seattle industry (see the dispute over harboring Shell’s Arctic oil rig), we’ll need to baby what we have.

Second, even if you think SoDo’s industrial lands should be redeveloped for higher and better use, is a sports arena the best way to go? And if the city is going to loan its bonding capacity for a public purpose, is hockey and basketball it?

I think Seattle’s industrial area should remain just that, but if it were to be redeveloped at some point, I can think of better uses, like affordable housing for those who won't benefit from the boom that will follow the post-Alaskan Way Viaduct, "waterfront for all" zone along Elliott Bay. I’d rather see housing than hockey.

Third, the Tukwila plan is in a place that will actually be enhanced by an arena. And I doubt it will be encumbered by the scale of mitigation issues and uncertainty surrounding the Seattle site. I'm thinking about impacts from the deep-bore tunnel and its schedule, and the related waterfront makeover. The city’s EIS admits that both mega-projects are significant unknowns. Tukwila, on the other hand, is a Regional Growth Center looking to urbanize and diversify. An arena could be a catalyst project.

Tukwila is also a good spot in terms of transportation. It sits at the junction of two big Interstates, I-5 and I-405, and is serviced by transit and Sounder rail. It’s also close to Seattle (we share a border, in fact), there are no bridge traffic hassles and large big-box type businesses and Southcenter mall flourish there. The largest percentage of arena attendees in Seattle, according to the newly released final arena EIS, would come in on I-5 or I-90 as it is; a relatively small number would come by rail or ferry. In other words, the Tukwila location should work and either location will be largely car dependent.

Fourth, Seattle must think regionally. We need to behave less parochially when it comes to development. We are surrounded by cities that are zoned for big growth, want to urbanize and are more affordable. South King County is where the growth and diversity is. It is in our interest to funnel growth into that area; Seattle can’t handle it all. We’ve already got professional football, soccer, baseball and women’s basketball. Why not spread the sports wealth around a bit and spur development in areas that take some of the pressure off here? And speaking of pressure, as Seattle Times business columnist Jon Talton points out, do we really want Seattle dependent on yet another big league business that requires public welfare now and will likely increase demands over time? (Threatening to move if we don’t come through?)

Fifth, already the city is asking for a redo of the original deal with Chris Hansen. While it was totally appropriate for then Mayor Mike McGinn and the city council to try to get a NBA basketball team back in Seattle, the deal struck in 2012 had many flaws. First and foremost, it violated the intent and perhaps even the letter of Initiative 91, which Seattle voters passed specifically to limit the city’s public deals with professional sports franchises. The current Memorandum of Understanding (for the SoDo arena) is a court test waiting to happen — if it’s ever implemented.

In contrast, the Tukwila proposal is privately financed. Any public assistance would have to be paid by taxpayers of another city, apart from whatever King County might to decide to kick in. And while Hansen has signaled that he will consider changes in his agreement with the city — such as considering a NHL hockey-first scenario instead of waiting indefinitely for an NBA team to materialize — both he and the city council are facing some stark new realities.

One is a mayor who doesn’t have his stamp on the agreement. Ed Murray has long said that SoDo was not his first choice for an arena site, but that he would honor the existing agreement. However, he’s now saying that there must be more private and less public money involved. City council president Tim Burgess, who was instrumental in striking the original deal, agrees that the current deal is  “not doable” in its current form.

Another new City Hall reality is district elections. The council might have a better chance of cutting a new deal now with Hansen feeling the pressure of Tukwila competition, and council members girding for turnover in November. Can this council salvage a deal before a new, possibly more skeptical council is elected?

Another pressure is the delayed political fallout from Hansen’s illegal dealings in California. In his effort to lure the Sacramento Kings, his people violated campaign finance laws. While he was quickly and initially viewed in Seattle as a basketball savior, his good-guy image was tarnished.

All things considered, when it comes to an arena deal, the politics are ripe for a do-over.

Murray does not want to be the mayor who “lost” a chance to replace the Sonics. He has to make the effort, and the pro-SoDo arena folks are full speed ahead on doing what they need to in order to keep the arena design and planning moving ahead. A major milestone upcoming: vacating a stretch of Occidental Ave. South. This is bound to prove controversial (remember Whole Foods in West Seattle?), though hardly a major barrier to a city that once vacated a city street for a massive brothel on the slopes of Beacon Hill. Nonetheless, a new arena deal won’t solve all the potential problems on the ground.

With an arena in Tukwila (or Bellevue, for that matter), Seattle would get a new arena for less public money and fewer risks — both are substantial. There’s no guarantee that an NHL or NBA team will come to Seattle, or that either the Tukwila or Hansen partnerships will survive. The Times’ Geoff Baker reminds us how fragile these deals often are. Essentially, you have to build an arena on spec. The market demands that potential franchise cities go all in before leagues make any commitments to site a new team, and even then it’s only a maybe. Seattle has little leverage in this game.

Despite being next door, Tukwila or Bellevue-based teams will still be “Seattle” teams, just as suburban teams much farther out play for New York, San Francisco and other cities. Seattle still has the national brand. With a Tukwila deal, the city can still win.


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

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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