Proponents plan to rally supporters before Tuesday’s public hearing at Seattle City Hall over giving up two blocks of Occidental Avenue South to build a Sodo District sports arena. But opponents also plan a presence.
Walking down this two-block stretch of Occidental Avenue South, it’s tough to decipher why it’s such a contentious part of the arena debate.
From South Holgate Street to South Massachusetts Street, few cars or trucks are spotted driving by during a two-hour-long late-afternoon stretch. Proponents of a proposed Sodo District arena pitched by entrepreneur Chris Hansen have posted photographs of a near-empty Occidental Avenue South on social media.
Hansen needs the city to give him the street for his arena, but opponents such as the ports of Seattle and Tacoma and various maritime unions are fighting the move. A public hearing about the issue will be held Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. at Seattle City Hall.
But for all the back and forth over the street’s importance, the ultimate battle isn’t just about the roadway. For Hansen, acquiring the street is the final big step to having a “shovel ready” plan he can present to the NBA in hopes of securing a team before his Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the city and King County expires in November 2017.
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And for his opponents, who care far less about the two city blocks than the fact that giving them up potentially could allow the arena to get built, it’s about preventing the project from being fast-tracked. They say Hansen and Mayor Ed Murray have pushed a reluctant city council into a vote next month to vacate the street before all legal requirements have been met.
“The MOU doesn’t require a street vacation now, and our environmental laws and policies do not permit one to be made,’’ says Peter Goldman, lawyer for a union representing longshoreman and warehouse workers. “By forcing a premature vote on a street vacation, Chris Hansen and his lobbyists are trying to manipulate our city officials.’’
And that’s why this particular street battle was never really about traffic. The real fight is over whether Hansen will be given tools to take a final crack at landing an NBA team before his arena-funding deal with the city and King County runs out.
Hansen knows this, which is why his website, SonicsArena.com, has cranked up the volume about needing a “shovel ready” plan that hinges on acquiring the street. In a recent post proclaiming “It’s Game Time’’ the website urges supporters to pressure politicians at Tuesday’s public hearing and sign a petition demanding the street be given up.
“This is an important step, since it will make the Arena ‘shovel-ready’ and send a strong message that our city is ready to welcome back the NBA and NHL to Seattle!’’ the post stated.
Sports Radio KJR hosts have touted the petition on-air and will join organizers of a fan rally at 4 p.m. at City Hall on Tuesday. Former Sonics player and coach Lenny Wilkens, former NBA star and University of Washington standout Brandon Roy and former Sonics play-by-play voice Kevin Calabro also will attend. The rally was organized by Hansen’s camp.
Those opposing the arena also plan a major presence at the hearing.
Goldman wrote a legal opinion to the council March 3 stating that any decision on the street must be deferred until all “final transaction documents” on the arena are negotiated and signed off on by a council vote at the end of the process. In an interview with The Seattle Times, he said that promising Hansen the street now if he fulfills certain conditions — including the securing of an NBA team — would prompt an immediate lawsuit in response.
The Northwest Seaport Alliance, a coalition of the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, sent a letter to the City Council on Monday, saying that turning over the street now is “harmful and premature.”
“We’re keeping all of our legal options open,’’ Port spokesman Peter McGraw said.
The ports and unions insist Occidental Avenue South is a major “relief valve” for overflow traffic off First Avenue and that repercussions of taking the street away will be felt by the entire Sodo District during times of increased congestion. But they also believe the arena and proposed entertainment development surrounding it would have an impact on industrial traffic well beyond those two city blocks.
They were supported Monday by a letter to the council signed by 36 state legislators — including Curtis King and Judy Clibborn, chairs of the respective transportation committees in the State Senate and House of Representatives.
The letter concludes “it would be counterproductive to site a new sports facility in an area already confronting major traffic issues.’’
Without the street, Hansen’s project can’t become “shovel ready” and likely would remain in limbo, because the NBA isn’t ready to grant him a team. His MOU has 20 months remaining and will provide up to $200 million in public bond funding only if he lands an NBA franchise.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver told The Seattle Times last April that his league is two or three years from even exploring expansion. Last week, NBA spokesman Mike Bass reiterated via email: “Our position remains unchanged. We are focused on the health and well-being of our 30 franchises and expansion is not currently on our agenda.’’
But Hansen’s supporters say a “shovel ready” arena plan could change that. They say that Hansen getting the street enables him to obtain needed permits and tell the NBA that construction can begin as soon as he’s given a team.
One person who agrees a “shovel ready” plan will improve Hansen’s chances is sports agent Leigh Steinberg, who worked on multiple franchise relocations and stadium bids in the Los Angeles area the past 30 years. Steinberg says such an arena plan can help secure a team in months rather than years.
“Yes, it’s important,’’ said Steinberg, who is not affiliated with the Seattle arena efforts. “It shows more dedication. It shows fewer deficiencies. It truncates the timing. It creates a visualization that this can happen rapidly.’’
Steinberg said the No. 1 thing leagues worry about are political roadblocks to approving venues. Once approval is given, he adds, leagues look at how “state of the art” a venue will be.
Hansen promises a modern and high-tech arena.
Steinberg said leagues prefer new facilities so other team owners can hold them up as templates in pushing their own cities to build tax-financed venues.
And that’s where the desires of leagues such as the NBA don’t always line up with what’s best for a city and taxpayers. Steinberg says he’s generally OK with new sports facilities as long as there’s “not a huge amount of public money.”
A Port of Seattle-commissioned poll suggests that 75 percent of Seattle residents don’t want the arena. Hansen’s supporters dismissed the results, saying questions were designed to elicit desired answers.
They contend the Sodo project is a good deal for taxpayers compared with sports proposals elsewhere. The maritime interests disagree, contending that hampering of the city’s industrial zone is a big hidden cost.
The winner won’t necessarily be the side making the best argument, just the one that wins the skirmish over these two blocks on Occidental Avenue South.
Regardless of how many people are driving on it.