Seattle has a tremendous opportunity to redevelop KeyArena as a premier sports and entertainment venue. It must do so in a way that’s transparent and provides the best deal possible for the public.
SEATTLE is in a remarkable position with multiple proposals to create a stellar new sports and entertainment venue.
Instead of groveling for someone to build an arena, and possibly bring back the Seattle Sonics, Seattle gets to choose between three legitimate consortiums vying to build a landmark sports facility.
Seattle should use its strong negotiating position to secure an arena deal that sets new standards for protecting the public’s interest and transparency.
The city is rightly focusing on redeveloping KeyArena, instead of pursuing Chris Hansen’s proposal for an arena south of downtown.
Hansen’s proposal would jeopardize an essential maritime-industrial corridor. His chances of securing an NBA team have also dimmed, particularly since his former ally Steve Ballmer bought the Los Angeles Clippers.
The City Council bravely took a stand against Hansen’s project last May, rejecting the vacation of a street through his arena site.
City Hall initially kept quiet a consultant report saying the arena remains a viable option for the NBA and NHL.
But that report piqued the interest of entertainment industry behemoth Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) and Oak View Group, a newer company led by an AEG veteran.
In April, they submitted offers to redevelop the arena. They propose spending $520 million to $564 million to renovate and enlarge the facility and control its operation for up to 85 years.
Seattle should treat these as opening offers and push for a better deal. Although outgoing Mayor Ed Murray is fast-tracking this project potentially to burnish his legacy, the City Council should take the time necessary for a thorough review of this once-in-a-generation opportunity.
Here are principles the city should consider as it moves forward.
Transparency: Murray initially said arena developers must provide “100 percent” of the project funding. The request for proposals said the facility must be built and operated “with minimal city financial participation.”
Yet the developers both call for substantial public funds, including financing and diversion of revenue streams such as ticket taxes and naming rights. AEG proposed $250 million of city financing and Oak View included Port of Seattle financing.
Some public investment is reasonable in such a project.
But Murray and the City Council must clearly explain what current and potential city revenue is being contributed. Independent experts may be needed to analyze the cost and benefits.
Protect taxpayers: The arena lately generated more than $1 million in yearly profit. A city that pleads poverty, saying it can’t afford parks and libraries without levies, must not easily give up such revenue. The deal should provide at least as much direct revenue, not just theoretical economic benefits.
Rent and other proceeds must escalate with inflation. The city should not lease its premier facility for nearly a century at a fixed rate.
Privatization: The city should not allow the developer to sell naming rights and premium seating across the rest of Seattle Center, as AEG proposed. It’s a public park, not a theme park.
Transportation: The success of the arena and center depends on visitors from around the region. Transit, bicycling and walking are not options for the majority of them.
AEG and Oak View coddle City Hall fantasies of a nonmotorized utopia, waxing on about bikes, sustainability and ride-sharing. But they also explicitly say that most patrons will continue driving, even after mass transit expands.
Hansen offered around $20 million to address traffic in Sodo. The city should receive at least that much from the arena developer.
Substantial new parking is needed since nearby surface lots are mostly developed.
Both proposals lean on the Monorail to address traffic concerns. Increasing Monorail usage is a nice goal but an unrealistic solution to the large-scale congestion arena events create.
The city has a tremendous opportunity to partner with a reputable operator and lure the NBA and NHL to Seattle.
This must be done right — carefully and realistically — to build lasting support across the city and region, and ensure the venue succeeds for everyone.