The Merits Of Upgrading Seattle Center Coliseum

KeyArena was built in 1961. (Cliff)

The City of Seattle hosted a media tour of KeyArena on Wednesday. The City hoped to get attention for the request for proposals it’s issued to upgrade the Seattle Center arena to support an NBA and/or NHL team. The Seattle Times‘ Matt Calkins took to his column to try to poke holes in the City’s idea. (Note for the rest of the article I will refer to KeyArena as Seattle Center Coliseum since KeyBank has shirked its naming right dues since 2011.)

For those not up-to-date on the arena search, Seattle has been without an NBA franchise since 2008 when owner and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz sold the SuperSonics to an Oklahoma City-based group. Seattle has never had an NHL franchise but has had plenty of rumors of one. Boosters of either sport say Seattle Center Coliseum is too dated and small and not luxurious enough to support a modern franchise. Three major options have emerged in on-going arena debate.

  1. SoDo Arena. Hedge fund manager Chris Hansen’s proposal to build a new arena in Sodo, south of Safeco Field.
  2. Renovate Seattle Center Coliseum. Upgrade City-owned Coliseum to modern NBA/NHL specifications.
  3. Do nothing. Sports arenas are a dubious public investment so build neither and perhaps reap the most public benefit of all.

Calkins’ framing seems to favor the SoDo site while he rattles off problems with the second option of re-purposing the Seattle Center site:

An AECOM report in June of 2015 suggested KeyArena could be modernized for $285 million. But that report hasn’t done much to quell criticism of the renovation — and those critics’ questions are valid.

For instance: How would the revitalized arena accommodate parking? Garages that surrounded the Key during the Sonics days have since been replaced by housing and other businesses. Just going to a Storm or Seattle University basketball game these days can be a challenge for non-pedestrians, and those events typically draw, at best, less than half of what an NBA or NHL team would.

There also isn’t a light rail stop or freeway exit within a mile of the arena, and as most of us know, Mercer Street traffic is nightmarish whether there is an event at KeyArena or not. So how does one solve the transportation woes?

So, to summarize, Calkins believes parking, traffic, and the Coliseum’s potential historic landmark designation could impede the Seattle Center Coliseum upgrade. The first two points are hard to stomach, particularly for an urbanist. Here’s why: Seattle Center has lots of parking, is well served by transit, and has nearly direct access to SR-99 and, despite the suggestion above, I-5 is just a mile and change away too.


The obsession with parking isn’t exactly surprising but it is misguided. Calkins is correct that a popular NBA team could be expected to draw twice as many attendees as the Seattle Storm, who have pushed 9,000 average attendance in their more competitive years. However, it’s not clear NBA game day parking demand would be an insurmountable issue given the hundred or so parking garages and lots within a half-mile.

Parking is rarely fully consumed in Uptown. Each tag represents a parking venue. (Best Parking)

Moreover, we should expect busy events will only induce more people to walk, bike, taxi, or take transit to the arena. In fact, a sensible arena transportation plan would encourage it rather than plowing more parking garages into Seattle neighborhoods. Add to this: the parking problem and traffic problem are inextricably linked. To build more parking is to only exacerbate the traffic problem by drawing more cars to the area.

KeyArena was built in 1961. (Photo by Cliff)


So let’s talk traffic. Mercer Street is certainly a frustrating road at peak times both for motorists and the transit users caught in the crossfire. But will most arena attendees use Mercer Street? The more proximate SR-99 offers an alternative route to the north and to the south (soon in the very expensively built Bertha tunnel). Northwest Seattle has easy access via Elliott and 15th Avenue W. Granted folks headed to the Eastside may still have to deal with Mercer Street, Denny Way, or cut over to I-90, or perhaps use Alaskan Way, which seems to be planned to be built like a highway anyway rather than the complete street that was promised.

Of course, the SoDo arena faces its own traffic congestion concerns, which could be amplified when events are scheduled simultaneously at CenturyLink Field, Safeco Field, and the new SoDo arena. Hansen’s SoDo site has light rail access issues of its own since it’s awkwardly sited three-quarters of a mile away from both Stadium Station and SoDo Station. Plus, SoDo is predominantly industrial meaning fewer people live within walking distance whereas the Seattle Center is adjacent to some of the densest neighborhoods in the state. And minor point: Seattle Center does have Monorail access to Downtown, which may work for some trips.

Additionally, while Calkins laments the Coliseum does not have light rail station access within a mile, that will only be true until Sound Transit completes the Seattle Center station funded in ST3. Granted, Sound Transit doesn’t promise completion until 2035, but if the Ballard to Downtown line is expedited through cooperation with the City of Seattle or phasing construction in two segments, then the Seattle Center station may come on line much sooner. When the Seattle Center station opens, the arena there would boost almost immediate light rail access. Until then, it has solid RapidRide and local bus service.

Landmark Designation

So that leaves us with the historic designation of Seattle Center Coliseum as perhaps the biggest obstacle to renovation. Here’s what outspoken historic preservationist Knute Berger had to say about the Coliseum:

The Coliseum is not currently a designated historic landmark. Word is the city is preparing a nomination that will go to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Board within the next couple of months to settle the question. Artifacts Consulting of Tacoma, a well-respected historic preservation firm, is working on the nomination. They conducted a historic landmark survey of Seattle Center in 2013 and found the Coliseum’s to be landmark eligible. If it is designated a landmark, the city council will approve guidelines for what can and cannot be changed.

It is hard to imagine that the Coliseum won’t meet a number of the required criteria. Its distinctive look (that hyperbolic paraboloid roof suggestive of a Salish rain hat) make it a literal recognizable landmark; it’s a highly significant work by architect Paul Thiry, father of Northwest modernism; it is associated with the historic Seattle World’s Fair; and its original cable roof structure was innovative and, though replaced in the mid-1990s, the form of the roof is intact. No one who attended the World’s Fair in 1962 would fail to recognize the Coliseum exterior today.

The interior, which has been remodeled and reconfigured many times, is very unlikely to qualify for landmark protection, which means that it would be possible to build something entirely new under that roof that is consistent with the landmark status and in keeping with the building’s original purpose. Can it be made to work to current NBA and NHL standards? Consultants for the city and some of the potential RFP bidders say they are sure it can be.

Berger’s assessment could be mistaken and even the exterior of the Coliseum may fail to qualify for landmark status, which would allow a wholesale renovation. But if the exterior does qualify as a landmark, then a renovation of the interior may be sufficient to satisfy the demands of modern major sports franchises. Whatever ends up happening, let’s not be ruled by weak claims about parking and traffic.

City Council Rejects Hansen’s Street Vacation Request

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. 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. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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Brian Nelson


Did you ever regularly attend Sonics games at Key Arena?

Brian Nelson

Gotcha. I grew up in the suburbs and for us it was always much easier to get to Mariners games than Sonics games. Getting into the heart of the city to watch a game at the Key on week nights was a nightmare. And while public transportation has improved since then, its still not a good solution for most people who come to games from outside the City.

Brian Nelson

Thanks for the thoughtful response!

It’s not just people coming from the eastside, fans going to games from south of Seattle would have much easier access to a new SoDo arena too. Light rail will be a great solution for those living in the city to get to games however, when you’re talking about having to take an hour long LR ride to your Park & Ride in Federal Way and then have another 15-20 min drive home then that mode of transportation loses a lot of appeal. IMO lets leverage all this great infrastructure that has been built to get Hawks, Mariners and Sounders fans into the neighborhood to watch games. Key Arena/Coliseum is a longer driving commute for fans coming from the eastside and from south of Seattle. It’s also probably worse commute for anyone whose driving from north of Seattle and doesn’t have easy access to 99. Mercer street is a mess at rush hour and would only be amplified with a few hundred extra cars pushed onto it two nights a week for 6 months.

If we’re looking out 20 years, all the pieces to the waterfront project will be built – during weekend games how great would it be for fans visiting the city to start their day at the expanded market, walk down the terrace to the improved aquarium, walk their way down the dock, cross “railroad Ave” into the stadium district, grab some pub food and then go to the game. The Stadium District would be activated year round rather than hitting a dead period that we have now.

Anyway, I suppose we can speculate all we want but at the end of the day there will be a feasibility study that takes all of what we’re debating about into account, analyzes alternatives and then recommends a solution accordingly. It may include more parking, it may not 🙂

Sounds like we both love this city,are deeply interested in its future and just happen to disagree on this topic.

Also, what’s up with this Stephan F. guy? I can’t tell if he’s a troll or not…

Mike Carr

“we should expect busy events will only induce more people to walk, bike, taxi, or take transit to the arena. In fact, a sensible arena transportation plan would encourage it…” This makes no sense. No one in Magnolia, Ballard, Crown Hill, Bryant, Wedgewood, West Seattle, Burien, Tukwila, Bellevue, Renton, Bothell,….. would ever walk or bike to a game at Key Arena. Just saying so does not make it true. Getting to Key Arena around 5:00-6:00 on a Week night, when fans would be going to a hockey or basketball game, is already tough enough with downtown, I-5, Mercer, and many side streets usually clogged. ST3 station coming online much sooner than 2035, whoa you are dreaming! Need to take a serious look at a transportation plan which would actually work. Just saying use the monorail, walk, bike, or take light rail which is not even planned to be working until 2035 is pure crazy talk. Parking is still an issue


It’s not always a matter of refusing alternatives. Sometimes they don’t exist, at least as a practical matter. Try getting home after an evening event at Seattle Center, when buses run infrequently. And your bus journey requires a transfer.

Brian Nelson


It’s much cheaper to pay for a $15 parking spot than to pay for an Uber/Taxi to Redmond, Bellevue, Bothell, Lynnwood, Renton, Tacoma, Federal Way or Everett.

Stephen Fesler

Brian –

He wasn’t asserting that for outside of Seattle, which should be obvious from the above.

Brian Nelson


Not sure if you’re just straight up trolling or what…

Mike: “No one in Magnolia, Ballard, Crown Hill, Bryant, Wedgewood, West Seattle, Burien, Tukwila, Bellevue, Renton, Bothell,….. would ever walk or bike to a game at Key Arena.”

Doug: “Maybe not many would walk or bike from distant neighborhoods, but they can and do take a bus :)”

RDPence: “Sometimes they don’t exist, at least as a practical matter. Try getting home after an evening event at Seattle Center, when buses run infrequently. ”

Doug: “Then increase transit frequency on game day. Metro Transit already does this for Mariners and Seahawks games. Also if people can afford a $15 parking spot they can probably afford to take a cab home if the bus is too slow for them.”

Me: “It’s much cheaper to pay for a $15 parking spot than to pay for an Uber/Taxi to Redmond, Bellevue, Bothell, Lynnwood, Renton, Tacoma, Federal Way or Everett.”

Stephen Fesler

Brian –

I’m not sure why you’d assert that. His reference to taxi prices was clearly meant within Seattle. You’re jumping to absurd conclusions. Read that thread again.

Brian Nelson


I really don’t know why you are being so weird about this. This whole conversation literally started with Mike talking about how it’s impractical for people outside of Seattle to walk/bike to games. Since directly quoting didn’t seem to help, maybe this will clear things up bit further for you


Mike: No one is going to bike or walk when they are coming from really far locations like Burien, Tukwila, Bellevue, Renton, etc.

Doug: If they are coming from really far locations like Burien, Tukwila, Bellevue, Renton, etc., then of course they won’t bike/walk, however they will take the bus

RDPence (Referencing both Mike & Doug): Taking a bus isn’t practical for these really far locations like Burien, Tukwila, Bellevue, Renton, etc, there are too many transfers/ and the buses run too infrequently

Doug: Well in-order to help out these people who travel to really far locations we should add more buses on game nights like what currently happens during M’s games, if bus rides take too long for them then they can always take a cab home, they’d be paying $15 for parking anyway.

Brian: It costs a lot more than $15 to take a cab home to Burien, Tukwila, Bellevue, Renton, etc

Seriously, I feel like I’m in bizarre-o world right now and Stephan is the mayor!


Anyway, the point that Mike, RDPence, and myself are trying to make is that there are not many good public transportation options for the many, many Sonics and hockey fans that live in the suburbs of Seattle and will be attending these games/matches. Driving their cars will become a necessity for those fans because buses, light rail, biking, walking or taking an Uber are not all that viable. SoDo has infrastructure that is set up much better to facilitate driving fans get to and from the arena. See weekday game nights at Safeco for an example.

Jeanine Curtis

This article fails to account for the fact that basketball and hockey are WINTER SPORTS, and game times start in the evenings, well after dark. No one is gonna bike to and from a game. Also, fails to account for the fact that many fans don’t live in Seattle proper. Sodo already has traffic infrastructure in place, already has easy access to transit, light rail, passenger ferries, and both I-5 and I-90.

Another point it fails to mention is that Key Arena has been tossed back and forth, discussed, studied, and pored over by quite a number of potential developers and investors, including Chris Hansen. They all walked away with the same conclusion: a boondoggle not worth the expense or effort. At best, it would serve as a temporary venue while another arena is being built. Key Arena, actually, was the reason the Sonics left to begin with.

Key Arena could still have value, repurposed in some other fashion. Perhaps as a smaller concert venue, or even a museum or something. But we’ve been flogging this expired equine for more than a decade now. It’s time to move on.


I think the value here is the city can use the Seattle Center RFP as negotiating leverage to get better terms for the SoDo arena. I think SoDo is still clearly the preferred alternative, but I think having additional irons in the fire is a good idea at this point in the process.

Mike Carr

Since you are still dreaming Doug T, why not just extend the monorail through ballard then over to the light rail station in Roosevelt. Complete at the same time a new basketball team starts playing at the Key Arena and you now have a transportation plan which would link multiple neighborhoods.

Stephen Fesler

Mike –

You know better than this. Doug already explained this above. As he noted, there will be a light rail extension in the coming years which will effectively achieve this. I have no idea why you’re trying to be obstinate.

Jeanine Curtis

“in the coming years” he says… yeah… 2038.

As for the biking at night after Mariners games… Ms play in the spring and summer. As I said before, NBA/NHL are in the winter.

That still doesn’t account for the very many who live well outside Seattle proper, where biking to a game is just out of the question. You’re not gonna get everyone on bikes, despite your deep desire to do so. Some will have to drive, and there’s MUCH BETTER traffic infrastructure and parking that will be available in Sodo.

Another point about Key. You could repurpose, without demolishing the roof for the landmark folks, and make it a smaller concert venue. That can turn a nice, tidy profit. If SoDo Arena is built, that would displace the current Showbox Sodo. I think Showbox at the Center has a nice ring to it. As a smaller venue, it wouldn’t be such a pain for the smaller acts to play, with the Key only having one narrow loading dock for stage equipment. (A common complaint among big acts that have played at the Key, and some would rather avoid the Key altogether.)

Jeanine Curtis

The issue with the loading dock is also because big rig trucks have a hard time accessing it. Key already loses events to other venues of the same size. In the summer, it loses out to Whiteriver and the Gorge. In the winter it loses events to Tacoma Dome, or sometimes acts will skip this region and go to Vancouver or Portland instead. Doesn’t have to be a 1500 seat venue, but it could be repurposed for smaller acts that would not compete with larger venues.
Sodo Arena would be for bigger events, and has the infrastructure ALREADY IN PLACE to handle it… wouldn’t have to wait nearly 20 years.

Another thing: Key remodel what with the RFP, Environmental Impact Study, Transportation/Traffic study, dealing with the Landmark preservation folks, getting the financing together, battling the LQA Nimbys, etc would take at least (AT LEAST) another 2 yrs or so before a single shovel hits the ground, assuming there aren’t more delays. At least 5 yrs until renovation/construction completed (that was a kind estimate from city officials). With all the buzz surrounding expansion in the NBA and possible team moves/expansion in the NHL, that could be too long to wait. If Seattle misses the window of opportunity there, could be another decade or two before the city ever has another chance with either league. We’ve been without the Sonics for nearly a decade already.

Again, I will point out that Key Arena is the reason the Sonics left in the first place. They remodeled it, and less than ten yrs later it was deemed unacceptable for the new business model. So do we really need to risk going through that mess again? Doing another remodel, only to have the leagues say “meh, no thanks.” ??? Do we really want to end up like the Sprint Center?


The other low hanging fruit in transit access to the Seattle Center would be to operate the monorail as a transit service rather than a tourist attraction. Operating hours should be adjusted to accomidate visitors and staff leaving late night events. ORCA and regional transit passes need to be honored for fare. Staffed ticket booths should be closed in favor of ORCA compatible ticket vending machines.


Yeah, I think the Monorail access is under sold.

1) An area renovation should provide the necessary political attention to achieve ORCA integration, or even a Metro take-over of the Monorail whenever the city’s contract with SMS expires. Right now it’s simply not a priority for the relevant agencies.

2) As Link continues to expand, a Link-Monorail 2-seat ride covers more and more people.