The Seattle City Council surprised some yesterday when it voted against an Occidental Avenue street vacation that hedge fund manager Chris Hansen requested in order to clear the way for a new arena in SoDo to maybe lure an NBA franchise back to Seattle.

The vote turned out to split along gender lines. The council’s five women voted against while its four men voted for the measure, resulting in some heated Twitter vitriol. The vacation seemed destined for approval in the full council vote after it had passed 4 to 1 in the transportation committee, with the four councilmen and Sally Bagshaw voting. In an April post, I urged the other four councilwomen to join Bagshaw to vote no, and lo and behold they did. Ah the power of the urbanist advocacy! Although truly I was but one voice among many questioning the prudence of the vacation.

A Phoenix Rising From Burnt Coffee Grounds?

Advocates hoped that the proposed half-billion-dollar arena would raise the Seattle SuperSonics like a phoenix from ashes more burnt than the Starbucks coffee former owner Howard Schultz got rich pedaling before he bought and sold the team to a group led by Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett in 2006. The street vacation put a wrench in those plans.

Schultz had bored of the team when it proved less than profitable and difficult to run like a personal fiefdom and after the City did not immediately succumb to his extortive demands for a publicly funded new arena. We are eerily in a similar position with Hansen requesting $200 million in public bond money to attempt the dark alchemy of resurrecting the Sonics. It would appear Kshama Sawant got it right in her dissent when she called owners “the barons who control our professional sports teams.”

Protecting The Port of Seattle

Sawant worried the concession to Hansen’s fledgling ownership team would jeopardize jobs at the Port of Seattle: “I do want to help bring back the Sonics, but I cannot do that on the basis of undermining our working waterfront and good-paying unionized industrial jobs.” Several councilwomen echoed those concerns. Debora Juarez said, “You can always build an arena. You can build three arenas, you can build five arenas. You can build them anywhere. But you cannot build another deep-water port.”

This rendering lends perspective to the close proximity of the proposed arena to Port of Seattle operations.
This rendering lends perspective to the close proximity of the proposed arena to Port of Seattle operations. (360 Architecture, Inc.)

Arena boosters claim the arena would not negatively impact Port of Seattle and the street vacation would not impede traffic. In fact, some suggest the arena could even improve traffic and freight mobility since it could spur on the Lander Street overpass project by using a big chuck of the $40 million Hansen pledged to the SoDo Transportation and Infrastructure Fund in the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that he signed with the City.

Unfortunately, even a streamlined Lander overpass is expected to cost $140 million. The Move Seattle transportation levy allocated $20 million in “seed money” for Lander but who would fill the remaining $80 plus million funding gap? If the City’s pending federal grant application fails, that will be a tough question to answer.

Arena Quest Continues

The pro-arena crowd has emphasized how crucial having a shovel-ready plan is to wooing the NBA or the NHL. The MOU is still active for a few more years, and the street vacation could still be negotiated should Hansen seduce a pro sports team in that timeframe.

Hansen’s MOU with the City would still grant him that public bond money for a new Seattle arena if he secures an NBA team by November 2017. That seems less likely without the street vacation — not that it was particularly likely with it — but Hansen struck an optimistic tone after the setback yesterday. “Today’s City Council vote was disappointing but we don’t believe it is the end of the road in our quest to bring the NBA and NHL back to Seattle,” he said in a statement posted online.

I applaud the Council’s restraint in the face of vocal arena boosters. Ceding a street this prematurely cedes the City’s leverage to get a better deal. It’s not that urbanists should oppose a new arena. An arena to anchor NBA and/or NHL franchises in Seattle is not a bad idea. Using $200 million in City bonding capacity for a sports arena is a bad idea. If we are offering a $200 million public loan and vacating a street, we should demand extraordinary public benefits.

The Council was wise in holding onto what little leverage it still has within the MOU framework. The ball is still in Hansen’s court. He should know, though, that if he comes at the City’s basket with weak sauce, we have five councilmembers poised to swat away his lazy layups.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. At a minimum, for $200M in the city’s bonding capacity, they should demand that whatever team franchises use the facility, they can never leave the region.

  2. In the near term, this means no NHL or NBA in a location that’s best suited for an arena: near freeways, at the confluence of transit, and walkable from downtown. Events would have taken place at the arena in the evening and weekends, when the port is inactive. I see no chance of another project in Seattle city limits, and both leagues have discounted rebuilding Key Arena (public park, historic structure). In the long term, I do believe there will be a new arena, but likely in Tukwila or Bellevue. And without the joint operating agreement proposed under the SODO MOU, Key Arena will deteriorate as an empty money pit for the city.

    • Key Arena actually makes turns a profit of about 1.2 million dollars each year now that the Sonics left. OTOH, the venue lost millions when Sonics played there. http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/keyarena-turns-a-bigger-profit-than-it-ever-did-with-the-sonics/

      True, the MOU promised upgrades to Key Arena but it also promised to compete with Key Arena for concerts and events, cutting into its profitability.

      The problem with the proposed arena’s transit access is that it would be situated halfway between Stadium Station and SoDo Station requiring a .75 mile walk across pedestrian wastelands either way. This would make light rail a less efficient way to get to the arena.

      • Yes, it’s .75 miles away from each station, but it’s still a viable walk. Compare it to Key Arena which is not near light rail (and won’t be for decades) and suffers from gridlock near game time due to all of the development that has happened.

        • Assuming ST3 passes, Key Arena/Seattle Center is going to have its own subway stop by 2038 and probably sooner if they can speed the project up and/or phase it in two parts (and build the Interbay/Ballard part in the second phase).

          Key Arena is already served extensive bus service including the Rapid Ride D and all of them drop off pretty close. (Plus the Monorail FWIW.) Meanwhile most of the buses to the stadiums drop off on 4th Ave S requiring a longer and less pleasant walk over the railroads tracks.

      • Requiring the construction of an elevated walkway that’s earthquake resistant would solve this.

        • That wouldn’t make the distance much shorter and besides the best practice for pedestrians is to have a vibrant streetscape with shops, bars, and cafes and safe efficient intersections of traffic-calmed streets not an elevated walkway in the sky.

  3. Yeah, I hate the subsidy but I also hate that the alternative could well be a suburban sprawl location.

  4. Let’s make sure that there’s good walkshed to the light rail line folks… maybe a moving sidewalk?

  5. In Europe, ownership of sports franchises by the fans is commonplace. American team owners have frowned upon this practice, even though the Green Bay Packers have been successful with it. Seattle fans may hate the Packers, but this isn’t what they hate about them.

    If we could have publicly owned, non-profit teams in Seattle, partly to insure that the teams would forever stay in Seattle, this would be a worthy public investment.

    In the case of the Packers, it has created one of the best-managed sports franchises in the world, and the team literally puts Green Bay, an otherwise insignificant city of barely 100,000, on the map. (I am a cheesehead who grew up in Madison during the Vince Lombardi era.)

    Unfortunately, American franchises are billionaire’s playthings, and many cities and states have gotten a bad deal from building stadiums and arenas. The public benefits don’t pencil out in most cases, in part because the “sports barons” usually retain the right to abandon the deal.

    I’ve never been a professional basketball or hockey fan, yet I would happily cut my ties to Wisconsin sports teams if I could make modest investments in publicly owned Seattle teams.

    Seattle pro teams would bring millions of promising new fans to the NBA or NHL. Can we dare the “sports barons” of these leagues to try out another business model in Seattle?

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