On Wednesday, a city-guided tour of KeyArena provided media and potential developers a close look at the former Sonics home. But it’s fair to wonder if traffic, parking and site questions can be solved.
There was a stroll through the kitchen, a stop in the green room, and a view of the court from a suite. There were some history lessons, some architectural musings, and a walk past the buildings nearby.
For nearly two hours Wednesday, a City of Seattle-guided tour of KeyArena provided media a detailed look at every nook and cranny of the Sonics’ former home. But it didn’t provide answers as to how the site could work as a modern-day NBA and NHL venue.
And you have to wonder if those answers will ever come.
Two weeks ago, Mayor Ed Murray and the City of Seattle issued a Request For Proposals (RFP) to renovate KeyArena, and as part of the process, gave potential bidders a formal tour. As a result, representatives from The Oak View Group and Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) were on the Seattle Center site with media in tow.
However, given that an overhaul to the facility would be a nine-figure investment, it’s safe to say this wasn’t the first time members from either group had taken a detailed look at the building and its peripheral structures. These developers have seen KeyArena before, but the question is — what do they see in KeyArena?
No, I am not trying to dismiss the project with that query. When grand-slam hitters such as AEG and Oak View are involved, completely writing off the viability of a renovation would be as arrogant as it would be irresponsible. An AECOM report in June of 2015 suggested KeyArena could be modernized for $285 million. But that report hasn’t done much to quell criticism of the renovation — and those critics’ questions are valid.
For instance: How would the revitalized arena accommodate parking? Garages that surrounded the Key during the Sonics days have since been replaced by housing and other businesses. Just going to a Storm or Seattle University basketball game these days can be a challenge for non-pedestrians, and those events typically draw, at best, less than half of what an NBA or NHL team would.
There also isn’t a light rail stop or freeway exit within a mile of the arena, and as most of us know, Mercer Street traffic is nightmarish whether there is an event at KeyArena or not. So how does one solve the transportation woes?
“In our RFP, we’ve been very clear that we expect innovative proposals from potential bidders on the transportation,” said Brian Surratt, director of Seattle’s Office of Economic Development.
Translation: Let those guys figure it out.
There are other questions, too. Can a building that’s more than 200,000 square feet smaller than the smallest arena in the NBA be renovated to meet modern standards?
If the NBA does eventually expand, is there an ownership group that would bring a team to KeyArena? And given that nobody knows if or when the KeyArena roof will be declared a historic landmark, can a definitive proposal be written?
As of now, the city asks that potential developers present a Plan A and Plan B based on whether the roof will be preserved, but considering that could mean the difference between tearing the building down or not, it’s sort of like writing a song not knowing if it’s going to be for Adele or Eminem. That’s a lot of uncertainty.
What is certain is this: 1) It’s in our local government’s best interest to preserve KeyArena — a city-owned property — and find a way to make it relevant. 2) The proposal from Chris Hansen — who’s partnered with Wally Walker, Peter and Erik Nordstrom and Russell Wilson — to privately fund a Sodo arena is likely putting pressure on the city to act quickly.
Does that mean KeyArena can’t work? No, it doesn’t mean that. As I said earlier, some of the biggest names in sports entertainment are looking hard at this project, and they wouldn’t be wasting their time if they didn’t see potential. But there are still myriad questions about KeyArena that haven’t been answered. There are still doubts that haven’t been mitigated.
Who knows — perhaps any concerns about the viability of this renovation will disappear by April 12, the due date for proposals. Maybe previous skepticism will seem silly when an ingenious plan comes to light.
But after the city gave a tour of present-day KeyArena Wednesday, it’s perfectly fair to wonder whether it will ever give a tour of a renovated one.