Seattle needs to think carefully about the impact on the Port and maritime businesses before it abandons use of a key street in Sodo so Chris Hansen can build an arena.
If only Howard Schultz hadn’t sold the Sonics. If only the buyers, those frackers from Oklahoma City (and I’m not using Battlestar Galactica slang), hadn’t bought the team and “stolen it.”
If only. No wonder the writer Mercedes Lackey said, “Those must be the two saddest words in the world.”
And two words to further divide our already riven city.
The civic wound from losing the NBA team was on display again this past week when hundreds of fans attended what might ordinarily be a humdrum event: a City Council meeting to discuss vacating two blocks of a public street.
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But that street is Occidental Avenue South, and hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen says he needs that space to build his new arena. The Mariners received the same consideration in 1996.
The problem: The Port of Seattle and other maritime and industrial interests claim closing Occidental and other traffic effects of the arena could damage one of the region’s key economic assets.
It’s easy for many to dismiss the Port’s concern.
The creators of the documentary film Sonicsgate made a time-lapse look at the street and posted it on YouTube. It’s tough to find a big rig using Occidental.
But the time lapse isn’t for 24 hours. Nor is the day representative of Port activity, which can wax and wane according to ship and train arrivals, as well as agricultural and container-traffic (think the run-up to the holidays) seasons.
The Port lacks hundreds of partisans to pack a meeting. It hides in plain sight, especially in a city so bonkers for software and shiny new glass towers.
But Seattle needs to think carefully before giving Hansen what he wants.
The arena site sits awkwardly between the Port terminals and railroad yards. Unlike Tacoma, Seattle must truck most of its containers between dockside and trains. This requires intensive use of a limited street grid, and at a time when the city is more congested than ever.
Occidental offers valuable relief for First Avenue South, especially when containers are being moved to and from the BNSF Railway’s Seattle International Gateway yard. The city can’t mitigate this loss if it closes the street.
Nor is a stretch of roadway and more congestion the end of it.
Hansen wants to build not only an arena but also an entertainment district. Some industrial property owners are eager to see the grimy area south of the arena site rezoned for condos and upscale city uses.
As for the arena, even though it lacks either an NBA or NHL team, Hansen would want to see it occupied as many nights as possible. That’s where the money is.
So what should be one of the most valuable industrial and manufacturing districts on the West Coast could begin a slow, or fast, decline.
“Many have legitimate concerns of where (the) land-use change dominoes could end,” Mike Moore, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association and retired Coast Guard captain of the Port here, told me.
To be sure, the issue has many moving parts and uncertainty.
A report prepared for the Port by Martin Associates showed more than 23,400 jobs connected to marine cargo in Seattle in 2013. These are generally family-wage positions, paying much better than the jobs connected with sports (aside from the millionaires on the court). How many of these might be lost? How soon? Would they merely relocate elsewhere in the region or leave permanently?
Moore cautioned that “once you get rid of water-dependent use it doesn’t come back and the same could be said for industrial lands.”
A city concerned about inequality should pay attention. Maritime jobs represent well-paying blue-collar positions that fill the middle between the tech elite and fast-food work. Seattle would be foolish to drive them away.
As important, being a trade gateway requires a port. Seattle’s seaport and its surrounding assets help the city punch above its weight and provide critical economic diversity.
Even allied with the Port of Tacoma in the Northwest Seaport Alliance, it faces a new level of rivalry from other West Coast ports.
Why? Because ships are getting bigger and container lines have too much capacity. Also, we will soon feel the effects of a wider Panama Canal. Not every port may make it. Staying competitive will require public investments — and support from all governmental entities.
Yes, I’ve changed my mind on this. And no, nobody ordered me what to write or “got” to me.
In 2012, I wrote in favor of Hansen, saying he offered a good deal and the city ought to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time — build the arena and mitigate the Port’s concerns.
I’m no longer sure of either. Hansen’s stock fell because of his secret effort to submarine the Kings in Sacramento. And I’m not sure the city has done sufficient study on the economic effects of a Sodo arena on maritime industries and the Port of Seattle.
“When the facts change, I change my mind,” John Maynard Keynes said to a man who confronted him. “What do you do, sir?”
I wish I had a magic wand to find a transit-friendly, downtown site for the NBA — if it wanted us. It’s questionable how much pro sports contribute to a city’s economy. But the Sonics are part of Seattle’s soul.
Then again, so is this magnificent natural deep-water port.