Seattle and King County leaders say the Port of Seattle can thrive next to a new NBA and NHL arena, but the Port sees potential damage to its plan to expand and add up to 100,000 new jobs to the area.
Port of Seattle commissioners finished up a glossy and ambitious plan earlier this year to expand operations and bring 100,000 new blue-collar jobs to Seattle by 2036. They made a video and bullet-pointed fliers, and headed out to seek support from city and county officials.
But instead, they felt blindsided by the mayor and King County executive’s proposal for a basketball and hockey arena they say threatens everything in their plan.
They forecast a doomsday scenario for Sodo if the 18,000-seat arena is built: It snowballs into hotels, restaurants and shopping. Traffic congestion slows freight, so shipping companies start using other ports, erasing thousands of middle-class jobs and a $3 billion industry.
“Placing the arena in the proposed site is more than symbolic,” said Port Commissioner Bill Bryant. “It is part of a bigger decision about what sort of city we want to have and whether we are going to embrace family-wage and industrial jobs in South Seattle.”
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That reaction has drawn a few eye rolls at City Hall, where the City Council is considering whether to support what Mayor Mike McGinn has called a self-funding sports and entertainment venue.
“I think there’s a certain amount of weariness in having the issue brought up again and again so that there’s not the kind of fresh, ‘aha’ moment, but rather, ‘Oh, we’ve heard these complaints before,’ ” said City Councilmember Nick Licata.
The arena would be financed with up to $200 million in city and county bonds, plus at least a $290 million private investment from a team led by San Francisco hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen.
The mayor says the NBA and the Port can thrive next door to each other in Sodo, and the Port Commission says the mayor doesn’t understand what’s at stake.
The dispute gets to the heart of a debate Seattle has all the time: Can the city have both the shiny trappings of a so-called “world-class city” and the long-standing maritime industry on which Seattle was built?
Busier Port envisioned
The Port’s Century Agenda calls for major expansion of the Port’s capacity over the next 25 years, increasing by a third the number of containers that pass through. Since there’s no room for the Port to expand geographically, that means more trucks, more rail cars, more operating hours on nights and weekends.
When the Port spoke up early on about traffic concerns, McGinn arranged to have Hansen fund a $50,000 traffic study. Seaport Managing Director Linda Styrk promptly wrote another letter expressing concerns about the study.
“Of course, any one sector will push hard to prioritize the needs of their sector, and we’re working hard to balance them” with jobs in other sectors, such as tourism, McGinn said in an interview.
But to those who work in the city’s maritime industry, the arena would be another step toward its demise.
“It’s sort of a death by 1,000 cuts,” said Jordan Royer, vice president of external affairs for the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association. “You keep encroaching, and then they’ll want to build hotels, they’ll want to build condos. … Then people will start to complain about the Port because there’s lights on, it’s noisy, there’s trucks, there’s trains, and they’ll want the Port to go away.”
Encroachment a choice
Port Commission President Gael Tarleton said she was particularly concerned that Hansen told The Seattle Times editorial board he considered encroachment on Sodo’s industrial land inevitable.
“It’s not inevitable unless that is the choice that we make,” she said. City and county leaders are blinded by Hansen’s offer to pay for $290 million of the $490 million arena, she said. “They’re not looking down the road and around the corner. They see it as an immediate opportunity, and it’s not a long-term vision.”
Bryant says the arena should not be built without improving freight mobility through Sodo.
“If you want to put the arena there, you’re going to have hundreds of millions (of dollars) of transportation mitigation to make it work,” he said.
Traffic mitigation could become too expensive to make the site workable, Bryant said.
McGinn, on the other hand, says the Port is tying all of its problems to an arena that will not encroach on industrial land. It’s inside the city’s designated stadium district.
The arena, he said, would create less traffic than the Port itself might create by adding 100,000 jobs. Much of the arena traffic would be in the area while much of the Port is closed, he said.
“We shouldn’t look to the arena to solve all the problems that the Port has,” he said. “That’s not what we ask of any other development.”
McGinn defended his own commitment to the city’s maritime industrial jobs. His jobs plan includes community-college courses for industrial and maritime jobs, and the city spends millions on improvements to bridges and overpasses the Port needs for freight traffic, he said.
Tarleton acknowledged Port officials have made similar arguments before. They fought McGinn on his effort to stop the Highway 99 tunnel from being built, and opposed a “road diet” he put in place on Nickerson Street.
On Tuesday, the full commission will discuss another letter its members will all sign that they hope will explain their concerns in terms of jobs and their vision for the city.
“What’s Sodo all about?” Tarleton asked. “It’s really the soul of a working-class city.”
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @EmilyHeffter.