City Council members initially opposed Monday’s vote on giving up a street for a proposed Sodo arena until Seattle Mayor Ed Murray stepped in, sources say.
Seattle City Council members deciding Monday on whether to give up a street for a proposed multisport arena in Sodo were initially opposed to even holding a vote on the issue.
It was only after what three City Hall sources described as a forceful, last-minute intervention in late January by Mayor Ed Murray and his staff that transportation committee chairman Mike O’Brien and fellow council members reversed their stance.
O’Brien had drafted a letter that the sources say the majority of the council agreed to sign indicating they wanted to defer a vote on vacating part of Occidental Avenue South until after entrepreneur Chris Hansen acquired a master-use permit to build his planned arena.
Such a move would have delayed the project indefinitely, perhaps permanently, and was unusual under city land-use protocols. But the letter, obtained by The Seattle Times on Friday in a public-records request, states the “unique and complex nature of this proposed project” had prompted the council to take the step.
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Three months later, after reversing that stance and setting a vote, the council is expected Monday to approve vacating Occidental and giving Hansen a five-year window to construct the arena. As currently worded, the proposal being voted on would allow Hansen to build without first acquiring a team, a main factor that had caused council members to initially balk at a vote.
Hansen acquiring the street — for which he’d pay market value of $18 million to $20 million plus public benefits like a pedestrian overpass, a park and increased sidewalk space — is the final serious political hurdle to gaining a master-use permit and permission to build his $490 million arena.
But a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Hansen, the city and King County, which expires in November 2017, requires him to first acquire an NBA franchise to trigger up to $200 million in public-bond funding he says is critical to the project’s survival.
O’Brien — who has since emerged as a leading proponent of giving up Occidental — said via text message Saturday that the council initially considered changing the sequence of the street removal to have it come after the permit was issued.
But he said the council “ultimately decided to move forward, and there were a number of factors that went into that decision.’’
He declined to elaborate further.
O’Brien had drafted the letter in late January, addressing it to Nathan Torgelson, city construction and inspections director, telling him the council preferred that his department issue Hansen’s permit before it voted on the Occidental question.
O’Brien then circulated the draft to other council members for review. He’d planned a private executive session meeting for Feb. 1, where the council would further discuss the letter with city lawyers. He then planned to have council members sign it, sources say, and announce no later than Feb. 2 that a vote was being put off.
But just a few days before that, O’Brien told Murray of his plans in a one-on-one meeting. Sources said Murray erupted and threatened to publicly blame him for killing the arena and ruining Seattle’s chances of the NBA returning.
“People will see … ”
In an interview, Murray said he never threatened anyone and merely told O’Brien deferring a vote would change city policy and “for all intents and purposes would kill the arena.’’
Murray added: “What I did say was ‘If the council changed the procedures for this project, breaking city policy, people would see it for what it is.’ Because it would result in the (MOU) thing expiring and the arena never happening. That’s what I said. And saying that ‘People will see what you’re doing’ is hardly a threat.’’
He said he also told O’Brien he wasn’t about to change city policy for a single project.
“I believe that basically what he was trying to do was not to take a vote on the arena,’’ Murray said. “And again, this is a project that he was very supportive of when his good friend Mike McGinn was mayor. And now it’s a project he was trying to backpedal away from.’’
Murray later wrote a signed letter to O’Brien and copies were forwarded to other council members. The letter, obtained by The Times on Friday, told O’Brien his actions “could potentially derail” the project.
It said requiring Hansen to first obtain permitting would delay the project from being approved in time to land an NBA team and promised MOU funding.
Murray wrote that he could not support O’Brien’s planned delay and that Torgelson’s department would not issue permits to Hansen until the Occidental question was settled. “We cannot change our regulatory and decision-making process every time a controversial land-use decision comes up before the city.’’
Murray said O’Brien initiated their meeting. He added he did not personally contact other council members, but was unaware whether his staffers had.
Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who opposes vacating Occidental, said her impression was the council unanimously supported signing O’Brien’s letter and deferring any vote. “My recollection is that we had nine votes,’’ she said, adding the council was concerned about wasting further city time and tying up Occidental indefinitely when Hansen had no prospects for a team.
She said she received a copy of the mayor’s letter to O’Brien several days before the Feb. 1 date marked on it.
“Everything changed when we got the letter from the mayor,’’ she said.
In fact, Herbold said, by the time the council’s Feb. 1 meeting happened, it was moot because there had already been a decision to reverse course and schedule a vote on vacating Occidental.
Herbold said she didn’t know who made that decision. O’Brien announced by late afternoon Feb. 1 that he was setting the vote process in motion.
Opponents — including the Port of Seattle, maritime unions and the Mariners — have argued ceding Occidental is premature and gives de facto arena approval to Hansen before any official city decision that Sodo is the best site.
The Port, assuming the Occidental vote passes, has scheduled a meeting for 9 a.m. Tuesday and intends to announce a lawsuit against the city.
Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, who also opposes ceding Occidental, was vacationing abroad the week O’Brien’s letter was circulated in January and never saw it. But she was under the impression the council would avoid setting a vote.
“Up until then, I didn’t think that this street vacation was going to come to a vote at all until Hansen coughed up an NBA team,’’ Bagshaw said. “So, then, I was displeased when I found out we were going to be voting on it sometime this spring.’’
Bagshaw and Herbold have proposed an amendment to Monday’s vote package that would require Hansen to acquire an NBA team before beginning any construction.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told The Seattle Times on April 21 the league won’t even consider expansion discussions until after a collective-bargaining-agreement extension is finalized between players and owners. Silver also said Hansen having a “shovel ready” arena plan won’t pressure the league into expanding more quickly.
At a transportation committee meeting two weeks ago, council President Bruce Harrell suggested shortening Hansen’s five-year window to build on Occidental so it coincides with the November 2017 deadline of his MOU. Harrell expressed concern Hansen will use the longer Occidental deadline to negotiate an MOU extension next year.
Such an extension, if reset to match the Occidental deadline, would give Hansen 3½ more years to seek a team and still collect public funding.
Extending the MOU’s “NBA first” provisions could also derail any near-term NHL chances for Seattle and leave KeyArena’s future in limbo, since the deal currently reserves it for Hansen as a temporary home for any future NBA squad he lands.
“That’s what is going to happen,’’ Harrell said of an extension request, adding he has no interest in any new negotiation.
Nevertheless, council members Harrell, O’Brien, Tim Burgess and Rob Johnson have come out in support of giving up Occidental. Kshama Sawant, Debora Juarez and M. Lorena González are undecided, but the motion will pass if only one of the three votes in favor.
Herbold shares Harrell’s concerns.
“We are opening ourselves up to be asked for an extension on the MOU next year and potentially revisiting the terms of the MOU,’’ she said. “Including the terms of whether or not he (Hansen) needs a team. I think we’re crazy to open ourselves up to that.’’
Herbold can’t explain how council members against scheduling a vote three months ago now support giving up the street. “You’ll have to ask the other council members,’’ she said. “You know how I’m voting.’’
None except Bagshaw and Herbold — and O’Brien via text — responded to interview requests.