Starting next week, music fans and jerseyed-up Kraken supporters will descend upon Climate Pledge Arena for the first time after years of anticipation. There’s an air of excitement in the city as the billion-dollar sports-and-entertainment complex prepares to open its doors and host the new NHL franchise’s inaugural season.
Game day foot traffic should be a boon for nearby bars and restaurants, but not everyone in Climate Pledge Arena’s shadow is thrilled with their new neighbors.
For the past 14 years, the Seattle Center has been home to The Vera Project, an all-ages music venue and youth center empowering young people to become active participants in Seattle’s music community. As the nonprofit music hall attempts to bounce back from a pandemic that has bludgeoned music venues across the globe, its reopening push has been hampered by a slate of construction-related issues, curtailing the number of shows and programs it’s able to offer, said Ricky Graboski, Vera Project’s executive director.
“We just can’t have young people in the space,” Graboski said. “There’s been so many potential issues of being in the middle of this active construction site that we can’t in good faith have our members meetings or have our volunteer meetings or have committees on site.”
Last month, The Vera Project sent a letter to Climate Pledge Arena and Seattle Center detailing a host of grievances, including obstructed access to their space, construction noise that disrupted day-to-day work and prevented the use of their recording studio, as well as confrontations with construction staff. The letter, which Graboski said followed months of talks and “half measure” attempts to address the group’s concerns, also outlines various safety issues and damage to its space caused by construction vibrations. At one point, a piping issue caused 110-degree steam to blow into the Vera Project while a group of young people were recording a podcast, forcing an evacuation.
After shuttering for 16 months during the pandemic, Seattle music venues began reopening in July, though construction issues would delay The Vera Project’s comeback concert until September. During that first show back, the venue’s emergency exit was blocked four times, a violation that could have prompted the fire marshal to shut them down, Graboski said.
“We’ve had such severe issues that we need to mitigate basically in between each show to make sure the next one’s going to be possible,” he said, also noting construction vehicles have blocked the main thoroughfare to Vera Project’s below-street-level entry point at times. “When things happen like that three of our first five shows, you start to slow down a little bit and try to figure out what’s actually going on.”
The Vera Project sought an unspecified amount of financial restitution from Climate Pledge Arena, though Graboski said the complex “refused to entertain the conversation.” The September letter cited potential losses of more than $200,000 if the nonprofit was unable to resume its full programming slate this fall, which Graboski said it has not yet been able to do.
“We recognize that some of our neighbors have understandably been impacted by the construction work at Climate Pledge Arena and on the Seattle Center campus, and we have worked consistently to communicate with and support them throughout,” a Climate Pledge Arena spokesperson wrote in a statement. “We consider The Vera Project to be a partner and we have supported their work during the pandemic. We have ideas for a potential ongoing partnership and believe that the brand-new arena and regenerated NorthWest Court yard and DuPen Fountain will ultimately benefit all of us over the coming years.”
Edie Burke, Seattle Center ombudsperson for the arena project, acknowledged that construction on the North Plaza has “impacted them considerably due to their location.” Burke, formerly KeyArena’s facility manager, said in a statement that they have met with Vera Project reps every other week since October 2018 and “have consistently communicated about construction impacts.”
The Vera Project’s recent complaints prompted “several large meetings” with construction managers and representatives from the arena, Seattle Center and The Vera Project “to plan ways to mitigate their inconveniences,” primarily focusing on access issues, Burke said. Seattle Center has also scheduled and paid for staff to help Vera patrons find their way into the venue during events.
“We have been diligent, responsive and understanding,” Burke said.
While arena construction is seemingly on track for completion ahead of its first concert next Tuesday — an Oct. 19 date with home-state rock heroes Foo Fighters and Death Cab for Cutie — that doesn’t mean The Vera Project will be entirely in the clear. According to Seattle Center reps, one of the projects most directly affecting the venue is some overdue maintenance and a redesign of the DuPen Fountain, located “just outside Vera’s front door.” With arena construction already impacting that area of the campus, Seattle Center took the opportunity to move forward with the “much-needed” work simultaneously. After the first phase wraps up this month, work is set to resume in February.
The Vera Project isn’t the only resident arts organization on the north end of Climate Pledge Arena. Representatives for neighboring KEXP and SIFF Film Center said they understand the toll on Vera, but that they haven’t been impacted as heavily, partially due to the pandemic and remote working. KEXP’s Gathering Space remains closed to the public and a spokesperson for Seattle International Film Festival, which reopened its Film Center for in-person screenings two weeks ago, said that despite employees experiencing similar noise and access issues, the theater is “optimistic about the additional foot traffic and potential exposure” the arena will bring.
KEXP’s morning host and programming director John Richards, whose station is consulting on the Kraken’s in-game music selections (not their only joint venture), only had positive things to say about its relationship with the arena.
“[Vera’s] kind of stuck in a terrible location for this construction,” Richards said. “For us, [Climate Pledge Arena has] been pretty great. They’ve let us know when it’s gonna be loud. … They’ve helped when the mitigation wasn’t working. They’ve been communicative with our team about when things are going on.”
The Vera Project isn’t the first Seattle music venue to take issue with the incoming arena and hockey team. This spring, U District punk/metal den Kraken Bar & Lounge filed a $3.5 million trademark infringement lawsuit against the team after it announced a similarly named restaurant inside its Northgate practice facility, prompting the team to change the name.
As a community arts nonprofit with a DIY ethos, Graboski said The Vera Project doesn’t have the means to pursue legal action against Climate Pledge Arena. But more than financial restitution, Graboski said he wants to make sure the process doesn’t set a “precedent on campus” and give the arena outsize influence, with eyes toward Sound Transit 3 bringing light rail to Seattle Center in the coming years. Another round of mitigation talks for the next major construction project has already begun.
“ST3 has a significant potential to permanently displace us,” Graboski said, noting his general support for the line. “The current plan that we’ve seen looks like it goes directly down Republican Street next to us and underground under our building. … That’s our biggest fear here.”