In thinking about the future of KeyArena relative to Chris Hansen’s Sodo arena proposal, I’m reminded of author Larry McMurtry’s wonderful Western tale Lonesome Dove, book and TV mini-series, in which lead character Gus McCrae remarks about the fashion sense of his pal, Woodrow McCall: “He ain’t one to quit on a garment just ’cause it’s gotta a little age.”
KeyArena is a Seattle garment that has a little age. At 53, it’s hardly the oldest suit in town, and still functional. But some people are eager to be buried in it.
A page-one story in the Seattle Times Sunday discussed yet another proposal for revivifying the Key for the NBA/NHL, as an alternative to Chris Hansen’s $500 million project in Sodo, now in year four of a five-year gestation.
Consultants from AECOM, a global architectural and engineering firm, were hired in 2014 by the City Council for $150,000 to look at whether a remodel — not a teardown — of the Key would be sufficient to host either or both winter pro sports.
For a relatively modest $285 million, the firm said it could be done. But the report was never given a public forum and played no part in the environmental impact statement released in May that said Hansen’s $500 million project was a better choice than a Key teardown/buildout.
Part of the problem was that the study was completed and made available to council members in November 2014, 14 months after the EIS’s public-comment period on the project was closed, according to the same Times story. The report was disclosed only after media requests were made for public documents.
The implication by the Times was that the council deliberately kept the report quiet, worried about contradicting the likely outcome of the EIS. But none of the council members quoted offered any evidence of a hush-up. And it is a public document, not hidden among Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Whether the report was pigeon-holed, I don’t know. Because I haven’t read the AECOM report, I don’t know whether it offers a plausible alternative.
What I do know is that there is one major player in the arena deal with serious skin in the game, and that is Hansen. Not the the city of Seattle. Not King County. Not Los Angeles businessman and hockey advocate Victor Coleman. Not Tukwila arena proponent and Connecticut investment banker Ray Bartoszek.
Only Hansen is considerably invested in the project. And Hansen doesn’t want a remodeled Key. Nor does he want anything to do with Seattle Center, except as a potential temporary home for an NHL team, should a partner surface who is willing to buy an NHL team and share in the private expense to build the Sodo arena.
An NHL partner could surface if Hansen’s project gets green-lighted by vacating two blocks of a street upon which the arena will squat. That requires a City Council vote that could come as soon as April 25.
If approved, two things likely will happen: The city will issue a master use permit to begin the project, and arena opponents will challenge the project in court.
But in no case will the city’s financial commitment to Hansen, as outlined in a memorandum of understanding between him, the city and county in 2012, begin until he gets an NBA team secured. Failing that, he has to ask the council for a rewrite of the MOU to bring the NHL first, for which he needs a team owner.
Until then, until all of that, chill with the Key as an alternative.
In fact, put it in the deep freeze permanently.
The problem Hansen has with the Key is the problem any developer would have: It’s a public building in what amounts to a public park. Never before had an NBA arena been in a public park, nor will one ever again.
The only way the Key gets redeveloped at all is through a philanthropic donation or a public vote among Seattle taxpayers. Good freaking luck to either idea.
All along, Hansen has said an important aspect of the project is an entertainment district surrounding the arena, which he would own and for which he has purchased the land. The reason is that an arena that is mostly privately funded is going to need more than 100-plus event dates from a combined NBA/NHL venue as well as concerts, conventions, flat shows, etc. To service construction debt, it needs revenues from night clubs, hotels, bars, etc., that operate most of 365 days.
Can you imagine slapping in a couple night clubs adjacent to a remodeled Key at Seattle Center? The thousand constituencies that use Seattle Center for its current purposes would set City Hall on fire. They would be joined by all lower Queen Anne businesses who perceive the threat of revenue loss.
The only way around the objections of Hansen or any other sane person with a lot of money is for the city to deed over the needed portion of the Center grounds for a private arena development. That would certainly raise some needed cash for the city, as it would, say, if your father sold the living room of your home for rock-band rehearsals.
But a similar deed has been done in Seattle. The elegant spire that has become the city’s global icon is a private building. It sits on private land, given over by the city in the late 1950s to private developers who had this big notion about a world’s fair putting Seattle on the map.
The Space Needle turned out just about perfect for public users and private owners.
But the times and circumstances are far different. The city’s politics are all about protecting public land, not selling it off to developers. And the city has proven to be an inept manager of an entertainment venue, or did you think that it was a good idea giving the Sonics a 15-year lease when the construction-bond retirement schedule for the 1995 Key remodel was 20 years?
It would be safer to give a toddler a fork near an electrical outlet than to put the city in charge of a 21st century sports palace.
This is not to suggest that Hansen’s project has it nailed, nor will even survive the obstacles known and unknown.
But it is to say it’s the only thing going. And until it lives or dies, everything else is street-rat crazy.
Considering the general idea of spiffing up the tattered Key for big-time sports, regardless of who said what when, let us return to Lonesome Dove, where Eddie Suggs is puzzling over why brother Dan needs to hang two men he’s already shot:
“Shot ’em, gonna hang ’em, then gonna burn ’em!” said Dan. “Damn sodbusters. Can’t ever be too dead to suit me.”