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.
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 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.
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.
Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.