Battle lines are forming over the Occidental Avenue street vacation, which could (un)pave the way for Chris Hansen’s basketball and soccer arena, ahead of a big vote expected at the May 2nd full council meeting. In the Sustainability and Transportation Committee, Sally Bagshaw was the only councilmember to vote against the petition asking for a street vacation. Despite passing 4-1 in committee, the proposal could still fail if the four remaining councilmembers, who have yet to weigh in, vote against it at the full council meeting. Go to 2:30:00 in the committee meeting video to hear Bagshaw excoriate the street vacation.

The street vacation for Occidental Avenue S would stretch from S Massachusetts Avenue to S Holgate Avenue.
The street vacation for Occidental Avenue S would stretch from S Massachusetts Street to S Holgate Street. (FEIS)

In her dissent, Bagshaw cited how bad congestion already is on game days:

Beyond the fact that we don’t have a team, traffic problems are real on 1st Avenue and 4th Avenue now through Downtown and in SODO. I live and work on both those Avenues and see it every game day on my walk or ride home. On game days now, 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Avenues are congested beyond tolerance.

Under the terms of the proposed street vacation, we councilmembers are being asked to give away a 65’ wide street forever. The traffic has not been mitigated under the terms of this street vacation. It will only get worse if this new arena is sited there without functional replacement of transportation space on Occidental Way.

Councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Kshama Sawant have already joined Bagshaw in voicing opposition. But ostensibly Debora Juarez and Lorena González are still on the fence. They should reject the petition; the public benefit of the project is much too low to justify ceding an important thoroughfare without even the hint of a guarantee of an NBA franchise, nor importantly of mitigation for the lost public right-of-way. Are we running a city here or an amusement park?

Losing connectivity on Occidental Avenue S isn’t some pedestrian pet issue, motor vehicle traffic will lose out too: “Without that portion of road, the Seattle Department of Transportation says that a total of seven minutes worth of congestions will be added to neighboring 1st Avenue,” Eric Mandel reported.

The proposal seems to include green space, but a street it is not. (Seattle Arena)
The proposal seems to include green space, but a street it is not. Note that no NBA franchise has yet been secured to fill the arena. (Seattle Arena)

The Port of Seattle came out hard against the street vacation and the arena citing concerns about traffic congestion jeopardizing freight mobility. Moreover, the Port has fought to keep SODO’s industrial zones industrial rather than turning them over to other uses. Unfortunately, internal memos show the Port all too willing to consider just that if it was for their own new headquarters. Notwithstanding their hypocrisy, freight mobility does remain a lingering concern with the Port just across the tracks.

The Port is a lot more fundamental to Seattle’s economic success than any sports stadium with a dubious economic impact study. One economist, Victor Matheson, suggested that promoters exaggerate stadiums’ economic impact tenfold and thoroughly took down the talking point that stadiums are economic engines. Most economists agree that stadiums are bad investments for cities.

Hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen is definitely trying to insinuate he can resurrect the SuperSonics. Will the NBA cooperate?
Hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen is definitely trying to insinuate he can resurrect the SuperSonics. Will the NBA play ball? (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

So, it comes down to whether it make sense for the City to sell at a bargain price a section of Occidental Avenue S to Chris Hansen for the purposes of maybe resurrecting the Seattle SuperSonics when the NBA is not interested in an expansion and he has no team interested in relocating. Why cede a street to such a hypothetical?

The prospect of the NBA returning to Seattle is exciting (apparently particularly to our male councilmembers), but we should not let our excitement blind us into giving a handout to a hedge-fund manager before he’s even come through with his end of the bargain. Come talk to us when you have the rights to an NBA franchise and even then don’t expect us to give you the keys to the city.

Finally, let us just note how strange it is for the City Council to act so quickly on a street vacation petition for a speculative NBA arena while so many larger city priorities are being delayed time and again from the Bike Master Plan to the HALA rezones to the Center City Mobility Plan. This is a council poised to put a sports arena, decidedly a luxury, ahead of core city needs. And here I thought they were the most progressive council in city history.

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32 COMMENTS

  1. Sorry Doug, but as a short-term resident, your lack of history with Seattle is clearly apparent in the subjectiveness of your writing.
    If you’ve lived here for more than 10 years, you wouldn’t be dumb enough to vote “yes” on things such as “Move Seattle” or yes on “HALA” or or levies that take away the need for this city to force politicians to start solving real problems, namely transportation corridors. The elected city politicians do not want to do the heavy lifting, because it requires effort. And the heavy lifting starts with getting the state of Washington on board with changes in how to fund the REAL problems and issues that need to be addressed, not a private landowner wishing to take away a street for his sporting special interests. One group of investors on one piece of property, sucking up important council time for this crap. Or is it the other way around?

  2. I find myself in a strange position after reading this article. I’m a strong supporter of many of the stances that this website holds, but at the same time, I’m a Sonics fan who was born and raised in the Seattle area. This is the one of the few times, I’ve strongly disagreed with an article on The Urbanist.

    I understand that the studies saying that there is no “public benefit, but one needs to look no further than all “the Seahawks signs and 12 flags on construction sites around the city to see that there is a real cultural impact. That’s part of what brings a city together. In all my years living here, I’ve never seen an event that brought together the city of Seattle like the Super Bowl run in 2013 and the subsequent victory parade.

    As a child of the 90s, the Sonics were to me back then like the Seahawks are to many people now. Yes, I totally get that I’m making a more emotional argument than purely logical, but the chance to bring the Sonics back to Seattle means a lot to many people.

    From what I understand, this arena deal is significantly better than what the public had to pay for Centurylink and Safeco fields. I’ve seen many of the Port’s arguments debunked in other sources. To me this seems like a classic case of NIMBYism by the Port and the Seattle Mariners. “We’re not against building an arena, just not here.”

    This article doesn’t seem to present a fair argument for both sides of this issue. Using words like “handout to hedge fund manager” to paint a negative picture of the developer is a clear way to bias the reader. You don’t use “tax breaks for a software monopolist” when talking about the latest Vulcan deal.

    The last point I’ll make is about the non guarantee of the NBA team. That is correct that there is no guarantee that we’ll get a team. But it’s my understanding that the arena wouldn’t be built unless an NBA or NHL team were coming. If we had to wait until we had a team for sure, it would be a chicken or the egg problem. If it won’t be built without a team, what’s the negative of having it approved?

    Anyways, love your work in general! Just wanted to bring an urbanist sports fan view to the table.

    • Thanks for your kinds words and your readership, DL.

      You raise some good points. I think there is community benefit to having a professional sports team the many in the region can rally behind. I disagree that that benefit merits $200 million dollar in public investment. Safeco and Century Link were rotten deals; that doesn’t make this one right for being marginally less rotten. If cities stop paying sports teams’ ransoms, perhaps franchises will start channeling their enormous profits into paying for their own arenas rather than relying so heavily upon public extortion.

      I think you’re correct that some Port of Seattle rhetoric is probably exaggerated. Still, I think some of their fundamental concerns about traffic congestion remain unanswered rather than debunked.

      And well Hansen is a hedge fund manager 🙂 I will try to be more even-handed in the future. Software monopolist is an excellent descriptor too.

  3. You insinuate little or no mitigation. There is something like $70 million in mitigation for the arena project, all paid by Hansen. You seriously need to do some more research on this project.

    • $70 million in mitigation for up to $200 million in bonding, plus losing a street, plus rezoning industrial land isn’t a good deal. I could support an arena in that location but it’d have to be a better deal than has been offered.

      • What do you mean it’s not a good deal? All of the $200 million in bonds are paid back to the City & County. Then the City & County get the land and the arena free of charge after the 30 year agreement expires. Sounds like a pretty damn good deal to me. Then you add in the $70 mil in infrastructure improvements in SODO, labor peace with the unions, agreements to use minority labor and a lot of jobs and revenue for the city, you’re looking at a golden deal.

  4. Why is the market rate of $18-20 million a “bargain rate”? Moreover, it’s a five year vacation, nothing permanent. It cannot be vacated without an NBA team.

    Article simply rife with misinformation.

    • That amount compensates for the real estate value but not for the loss of the public right of way. Those are two separate things.

      • I think that amount compensates for both. People act like this street vacation is some kind of outlandish special privilege, but it’s a routine act performed countless times throughout the history of this city. The Port itself has had 36 vacations, many in SODO. There are hundreds of other street vacations right in SODO itself.

    • The Seattle process, though admittedly frustrating and time-consuming, isn’t the reason we don’t have an NBA franchise. We don’t have an NBA franchise because none are or were for sale and although the commissioner just intimated a slight softening to discussing an expansion, there’s little reason to expect the owners have changed their minds as of yet. Part of the reason why NBA franchises don’t move often is because they can always extort their cities/states for a new arena like is happening with the Milwaukee Bucks right now.

          • Here’s the questions you should be asking:
            1) Who will pay for a Key Arena remodel? The city? Hansen? A holographic unicorn?
            2) Is the city legally bound to follow through on the MOU without taking significant actions toward another project?

            Answers:
            1) No one.
            2) Yes. The MOU legally binds them to the SODO project. They would get sued and lose big for breach of contract if they began work on another arena project.

            Buried? No. Ignored for lack of any legal ability to follow up on it? More likely.

            It’s a very simple situation, but unfortunately Geoff Baker and a few others are dead set on manufacturing fallacious reasons to not complete the SODO project.

  5. Every single opinion in this article is off base and many of the facts are just wrong. The seven minute delay is in like 2030 traffic on a worst case day with all the teams in all three stadia. This guy needs to get the facts straight.

    • Sorry for quoting a worst case scenario, but I think Politfact would give me mostly true FWIW. There is no way subtracting one street and adding another big venue with a commensurate massive parking ramp is going to make traffic better. That isn’t how these things work.

      • Read the FEIS. That’s where that data point came from; Politifact just politicized it.

        It’s really not a big venue when compared to Safeco or CLINK. It’s like 1/3 the size.

        Council is mandating that an access road be open to serve more or less like Occidental does now, so totally a moot point anyways.

  6. “much too low to justify ceding an important thoroughfare”
    Have you ever seen this stretch of Occidental? It is barely used. The number of trips per day is in the low-four digits, more used as an alley than a throughfare.
    “Come talk to us when you have the rights to an NBA franchise and even then don’t expect us to give you the keys to the city”
    There will be no NBA team without a ready arena plan, and the arena by the terms of SonicsArena’s deal with the city cannot be built (and the road not vacated) without getting a team. So if no team materializes, the street stays as a little-used relief valve. Everybody’s happy.
    “Under the terms of the proposed street vacation, we councilmembers are being asked to give away a 65’ wide street forever”
    Even if the arena is built the city can take possession of it after 30 years and turn it back into a street if they so choose. This isn’t forever. It doesn’t even have to be for all that long.

    • Arena. Not. Needed. Public. Money. Need. Not. Be. Spent. For. It. Brainwashed. Masses. Notwithstanding.

      • Except we are talking about the city’s bonding capacity which will be paid off via arena profits, and not money that the city has that’d be diverted from stuff like homelessness or school subsidies. The monetary contribution the city is making will make Seattle a profit, and that money could potentially be used on the things you’d like to see. But if you can come up with a way to turn bonds-for-homeless-shelters into a money-making opportunity lets absolutely do that instead.

    • Even a less busy street has value in the street grid especially at peak times like when before and after a game went traffic spills onto neighboring streets. Turning it back into a street after 30 years would involve demolishing the arena would it not? Who is going to pay for that? Granting this street vacation now gives up our leverage to negotiate a better deal for the city whenever the NBA (or NHL) gets serious about getting us a team. It’s frustrating that up to $200 million in bonding was promised. Why give away another bargaining chip?

          • The MOU states that Hansen has to pay for demolition costs. The MOU has been around for 4 years now. It’s a key part of this entire discussion, and a key argument in the comment that you think I didn’t read. There is no deflection here. These are mere facts that are entirely salient to this thread and this discussion as a whole.

      • (iii) Demolition and Removal. If ArenaCo does not exercise the foregoing call option and the City and County do not exercise the foregoing put option, then at the end of the term of the Arena Use Agreement (including any extensions exercised by ArenaCo or its designees or approved successors and assigns), if neither the NBA Team nor NHL Team agree to continue to play at the Arena, then at the sole determination and election by the City and County, ArenaCo or its designees or approved successor or assigns shall be obligated to pay for the reasonable and actual direct costs of demolition and removal of the Arena Facility; provided, however, that in order to elect to exercise such right, the City and County must provide ArenaCo or its designees or approved successors and assigns with written notice of such election within 180 days following the end of the term of the Arena Use Agreement (including any extensions exercised by ArenaCo or its designees or approved successors and assigns).

      • Unfortunately, the NBA and NHL have stated repeatedly that Seattle has to get it’s arena act together before they can consider us more seriously for a team. So it’s arena readiness first, then team consideration.

        Regarding “negotiating a better deal for the City,” even Neil Demause who runs a blog specifically about arenas and arena financing, and is very tough on arena deals everywhere in the US, has stated that this is the best city/arena deal he has seen yet.

      • One of the stipulations the city council attached to the deal the other day was that SeattleArena would pay into the Lander Street Overpass project, which would do far more to improve traffic in the area than Occidental could ever do. This project likely doesn’t happen without the arena.
        The city can do with the land what it wants at the end of the 30 years, and as Jeremiah outlined below Hansen is obligated to pay for it.
        The city has zero leverage for when the NBA “gets serious.” That’s why the league left and why it hasn’t come back. If we ever want a team here again, having an arena ready that uses no public money is really as good as we could hope for. The city has already leveraged Hansen for a number of concessions, and he has met the requests.
        Neither league is going to come in here and will Seattle NBA/NHL into existence, any more than any other business. And they aren’t going to come to a city without a workable arena.

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