Seattle knew a Sodo arena study differed with a consultant’s work on whether a KeyArena remodel was feasible, but delayed AECOM’s report and declined to add new facts.
Six weeks before the city of Seattle’s release last May of an environmental study on the proposed Sodo District arena, the woman preparing it received a telephone call.
The man phoning URS Corp. Vice President Katy Chaney was Ryan Sickman, a project manager with AECOM preparing a different report for the City Council on KeyArena’s future. Public records released to The Seattle Times indicate Sickman and Chaney discussed how their reports differed on whether KeyArena could be modified for NBA and NHL use without demolishing its unique roof.
They knew the city planned on releasing the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and a draft of AECOM’s report within days of each other and worried about how contradicting KeyArena conclusions might look.
The final EIS prepared by Chaney was required to examine alternatives to the Sodo site and dismissed a KeyArena remodel as unfeasible based on information from studies years earlier. But AECOM had just determined a KeyArena remodel was possible, so Chaney sent Sickman wording in hopes of incorporating the newer findings.
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“Let me know if you have suggestions on whether to, and how to, revise either the EIS text or the response so that we don’t appear inconsistent between the two documents,’’ she emailed Sickman on March 25, 2015.
Sickman two weeks later suggested a 221-word revision stating: “There are now studies in front of the city that show how the KeyArena could be reconfigured and redesigned within the building’s existing structure to accommodate both NBA and NHL franchises based upon the now accepted Sacramento Kings design model for NBA seating distribution.’’
Records show that city staff were also aware that the conflicting reports might be a problem but declined to add the new information. The details come to light as an important vote nears next month on vacating a street near the proposed Sodo arena.
After the suggested changes bounced around privately between Seattle city staffers and politicians, the AECOM report’s scheduled early May rollout was postponed. The explanation given, records show, was that the city wanted additional details about KeyArena’s future potential as a low-cost housing site — a request that left at least one senior AECOM official perplexed.
The Sodo EIS, meanwhile, was released on schedule May 7 and hailed as a “major milestone” by Mayor Ed Murray. But the 627-page document contained none of the KeyArena language revisions.
Instead, it continued to declare a KeyArena remodel unfeasible. The media didn’t learn of the delayed AECOM report until late September via public-records requests.
Aware of contradictory reports
A Seattle Times story in February revealed city officials knew as far back as November 2014 that AECOM had discovered a way to remodel KeyArena, but failed to update EIS language by May 2015 to reflect that option.
John Shaw, a senior city transportation department official coordinating the EIS, said in the story he wasn’t told of AECOM’s findings. Shaw added it would have been unusual to incorporate new EIS information after a 2013 public scoping period.
But the latest public records — many from the email account of former city policy analyst Sara Belz, who coordinated the AECOM study — show that adding new KeyArena info to the EIS is exactly what author Chaney tried to do. They also show city staffers and Chaney were aware the contradictory reports might pose a problem.
Belz and council Communications Director Dana Robinson Slote planned to individually brief council members about AECOM’s report before the EIS release so they’d be prepared for media questions about the differing opinions. Then, even after the AECOM rollout was delayed, Slote prepared a document the day before the EIS release with a list of anticipated media questions. She asked Belz for help responding to possible queries about a KeyArena remodel.
Belz’s advice was to say the city had hired AECOM to study KeyArena and expects “to receive AECOM’s final report within the next several weeks.’’
But AECOM’s report remained largely secret from the public for nearly five more months.
With a City Council vote expected next month on giving up part of Occidental Avenue South for the Sodo District arena project proposed by entrepreneur Chris Hansen, the AECOM report is a hot topic. Opponents of a Sodo arena — including the Port of Seattle, maritime unions and the Seattle Mariners — are demanding that the city consider a KeyArena renovation.
A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) among Hansen, the city and King County provides up to $200 million in public bond funding for a Sodo arena.
Opponents insist the city is supposed to be exploring whether Hansen’s $490 million project is what’s best for taxpayers. That can’t happen, they say, if AECOM’s estimated $285 million KeyArena remodel option goes ignored.
Sodo project backers dismiss AECOM’s report as irrelevant, saying nobody has offered to pay the $285 million KeyArena remodel cost. They say past studies suggest a remodel would leave KeyArena too small for the NBA or NHL.
The AECOM report addresses the size issue, saying the planned Golden 1 Center in Sacramento provides a modern template for a smaller-scale, high-end arena approved by the NBA.
As for cost, AECOM identified several profitable options for KeyArena — both with a new Sodo arena and without — but most involved a city outlay of at least $100 million.
Public records show the NBA/NHL remodel for KeyArena was the only option where city officials believed a private partner — future team owners — could subsidize most costs in return for keeping most revenues. The city would make small yearly profits and KeyArena would remain Seattle Center’s prime anchor.
Interest expressed in August
Records show Los Angeles real-estate magnate Victor Coleman, who hopes to bring the NHL to Seattle, expressed interest last August in AECOM’s remodel option.
But after seeking legal advice, the city declared it could not explore NBA/NHL remodel offers without breaching its understanding with Hansen. That will expire in November 2017 unless Hansen lands an NBA team to secure public money.
Records indicate AECOM gave a preliminary presentation to council member Jean Godden — who spearheaded the study — in November 2014, showing how twisting KeyArena’s hockey-rink alignment and reworking seating angles could increase seating capacity.
Subsequent notes by former Godden aide Monica Ghosh show she’d reviewed AECOM’s findings with council members Tim Burgess, Sally Bagshaw, Tom Rasmussen and Sally Clark and members of Bruce Harrell’s staff. She wrote that council members were pleased KeyArena “could potentially be redesigned to serve as an NHL/NBA facility for half the price of a new arena in Sodo.’’
A January 2015 email from Ghosh indicated AECOM’s preliminary KeyArena findings were being kept confidential, shared only with Seattle Center executives, council members, the city’s budget office and the mayor’s office.
In an interview for February’s story, Godden said the decision to delay AECOM’s report last May occurred after consultations among her, analyst Belz, the budget office and the mayor’s office. Murray’s spokesman, Viet Shelton, denied the mayor was involved in the timing of the report’s release.
Godden downplayed the delay, saying the NBA/NHL remodel conclusions were not of “great urgency.’’
Records show that by May 4, AECOM was told the city was delaying the report’s release because it wanted estimates of how many low-cost housing units could be built on KeyArena’s site if that option was pursued. The delay meant the draft wasn’t resubmitted until May 19.
The city did not publicize the draft or AECOM’s final June 19 report.
Godden insists the report was immediately posted on the council’s website, but searches have yet to corroborate that.
In fact, in an email July 17, Belz told council member Burgess the report had not “yet been publicly unveiled in any way” and she knew of no media members having it.
AECOM project lead David Stone emailed Belz on Aug. 6 to ask if the report could be shared with outsiders, saying: “I know it’s technically a public document but hasn’t been officially released.’’
Belz, who in September became a senior policy adviser to Mayor Murray, told Stone he could share it.
What became of AECOM manager Sickman’s suggested EIS revisions on KeyArena back in April 2015? Records indicate Belz was shown the changes a month before that report’s release. Belz emailed the suggestions to Godden’s aide Tom Van Bronkhorst and council communications director Slote.
“AECOM/URS is proposing to include some language in the Hansen EIS that refers to our KeyArena study and its conclusion that the Key could be renovated to accommodate NBA and NHL teams,’’ Belz wrote. She asked: “Does any of this give you heartburn?’’
Of potentially melding information from two ongoing reports, Van Bronkhorst replied: “So much for avoiding a conflict of interest.’’
Van Bronkhorst told Belz he’d run the changes by Godden. Slote had “reservations” and suggested a conference call with AECOM.
A month later, the EIS was released without changes.
AECOM project lead Stone by then was still tweaking his own delayed report and asked Belz on May 15 about mentioning the EIS — given extensive media coverage of its release and continued NHL possibilities in Seattle.
Belz took three days to reply, saying she’d checked with colleagues and “we don’t think you need to devote space in your report to the EIS or NHL stuff. Our thought is just that it might create confusion regarding the scope of your contract and analysis.’’
The next day, the AECOM draft was quietly submitted to the city without addressing the EIS and its opposing view on KeyArena’s remodel potential.