A Seattle City Council vote on Monday is the final local political hurdle to a KeyArena renovation and NHL team. And there's little chance of a surprise rejection similar to one that scuttled a Sodo arena proposal in May 2016.
Inside the NHL
Former Seattle mayor and City Council president Tim Burgess had a front-row seat to the previous vote on finalizing a local arena project.
Actually, scratch that. The now-retired Burgess never truly believed his participation in the May 2016 council vote on selling entrepreneur Chris Hansen part of Occidental Avenue South for his proposed new arena in the city’s Sodo District was finalizing anything.
Not so with Monday’s unanimous council vote on a $700 million KeyArena renovation, which finally ended the political portion of our city’s decade-plus-long arena saga. The biggest difference from the 2016 vote, which saw a stunning 5-4 rejection of Hansen’s Occidental request, is that the affirmative result now removes the final local hurdle to construction beginning and Seattle landing an NHL franchise.
That simply wasn’t the case the last time. Then-council member Burgess and others knew that even if they approved Occidental for Hansen, he still needed additional investors and — most important — an NBA franchise as his five-year arena exclusivity deal with the city and King County required before construction commenced.
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“There was a lot of skepticism over whether that would ever happen,’’ Burgess told me last week.
That skepticism hadn’t preceded this latest council vote, a huge reason a similar arena setback Monday was always highly unlikely.
The Los Angeles-based Oak View Group has financing in place for its private renovation. A team ownership group with local partners has been finalized and meets Oct. 2 with the NHL’s executive committee to discuss approving a Seattle expansion franchise.
Any positive executive committee nod would likely lead to KeyArena construction beginning immediately, followed by formal franchise approval in December by the league’s board of governors.
In contrast, the months preceding the 2016 vote were chaotic and uncertain.
As Burgess mentioned, council members were dubious Hansen could land the NBA team before his exclusivity deal expired in December 2017. They questioned whether part of the deal granting Hansen up to $200 million in public bond funding was truly needed. And they knew the Port of Seattle was threatening litigation if the vote went Hansen’s way.
Council members wondered why they were even having a vote given myriad unresolved issues. They tried to delay it before then-Mayor Ed Murray prodded them into getting it over with.
“There was a lot of sentiment at the time that we shouldn’t vote at all,’’ Burgess said. “That we should just wait and that there was no reason to proceed.’’
Burgess vaguely recalled “a lot of pressure from the mayor’s team’’ that caused a vote to reluctantly be set.
Some local sports fans still believe a Sodo arena would already be built and teams playing there had the vote gone Hansen’s way. But Burgess, who actually voted “Yes” to Hansen’s request, said he and some other council members siding with the developer were under no illusion it would automatically garner an arena.
“We figured it might be meaningless anyway if we do it,’’ he said of approving the Occidental sale. “He still had to produce a team before the (Occidental) vacation could take effect.’’
So Burgess voted “Yes” as a “good faith gesture” and figured he’d see in 19 months whether an NBA team materialized in time. But other council members weren’t as generous: Some were still upset about Murray’s intervention and having heard NBA commissioner Adam Silver warn an imminent franchise was unlikely.
Hansen and supporters steadfastly maintained that by obtaining Occidental, their project would be “shovel ready” and more attractive to investors and the NBA.
But Silver wasn’t helping Hansen at all. Just 11 days before the vote, I asked Silver whether a “shovel ready’’ Sodo plan could hasten NBA expansion.
“Whether or not the arena in Seattle is shovel ready is not a factor that we are considering in terms of whether or not we expand at this point,’’ Silver replied.
Talk about a deal-killer.
Silver knew the council vote was looming and that politicians doubted the NBA would give Hansen a team by December 2017. But instead of hedging his reply, Silver’s blunt answer hurt Hansen’s credibility.
Then, when I asked about a KeyArena renovation, Silver likely buried the Sodo project.
“For me, it’s a fresh start,’’ Silver said of renovating KeyArena. “Nothing’s a closed deal. Especially with what an arena renovation looks like these days compared to the old days. It’s very different. And so, when somebody talks about renovating KeyArena — depending on how much was invested — it could look just like a new arena, frankly.
“And so, the devil is in the details there.’’
Three of the five council members rejecting Hansen’s plan would mention Silver’s comments in explaining their decision. Burgess admitted that, given all the pre-vote skepticism: “I thought it could go either way.’’
After the Occidental rejection, Hansen’s project stalled. Murray used the opportunity to lure potential KeyArena investors — lurking since 2015 — and a renovation agreement was struck last December as Hansen’s prior exclusivity deal expired without his securing the NBA team.
Burgess had gotten the ball rolling on KeyArena in mid-2014, when he and council member Jean Godden helped commission the AECOM report on its future.
AECOM ultimately determined, despite longstanding conventional wisdom, that KeyArena could be remodeled for NBA and NHL without impacting a roof destined for historical protection.
Burgess views the KeyArena renovation as “a really great deal” and the current council apparently agrees. Back in April 2016, only four council members — one shy of a quorum — attended a committee meeting in which the Sodo vote was supposed to be scheduled.
Only once council member Sally Bagshaw arrived late could the Sodo vote even be scheduled by a 4-1 margin — with her opposing it.
Contrast that with the recent Sept. 14 final meeting of the Select Committee on Civic Arenas, when seven of nine council members attended and unanimously set Monday’s vote.
They knew their decision this time would mean something. And that’s why, after Monday’s vote, their decision was very different.