For a man whose political career was abruptly scuttled by scandal, Ed Murray was beaming three weeks ago when the competing bids for remodeling KeyArena were unveiled at a public open house. The Seattle mayor answered questions, shook hands and seemed to take on an air of prideful ownership.
“It’s a legacy project,” he said when I asked him about his enthusiasm. Over his shoulder, through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the KEXP studios on the Seattle Center grounds, loomed the dowager of lower Queen Anne, a swoopy-roofline Norma Desmond, ready for her close-up from Mr. DeMille.
What wasn’t clear from Murray was whether he was talking about his legacy or the building’s legacy. Considering the old Coliseum already has been a legacy for the 55 years since the World’s Fair, I’m going to guess he was talking about his legacy.
Politicians love big, tangible things that last beyond their terms. Bridges, parks, theaters, arenas, stadiums . . . after policies change and words fade, the edifice complex endures.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing. But in this odd case of competing bids for one site and a third bidder for another site, Chris Hansen’s project in Sodo, a fair question arises:
Can a lame-duck mayor and an administration emotionally invested in a legacy outcome make an impartial call on the winning bid — or no bid at all?
It’s obvious to all that Murray, and likely most of the city staff, are understandably eager for a large private investment to revive the arena and Seattle Center. But Monday, a curious thing happened.
Regarding Oak View Group’s plan to build an 850-car garage near the Center to help fix the congestion problems anticipated with many more sold-out events, the Uptown community group — the residents and businesses nearest the Center — told the OVG garage to drop dead.
So it did.
“The neighborhood doesn’t want a lot of cement buildings added on,” Oak View CEO Tim Leiweke told the Seattle Times Tuesday. “So we came along and re-designed it . . . with a focus on the neighborhood.”
Leiweke told the Times that instead, 400 parking spaces would be added underground, without changing the building design or impacting the new, improved loading docks. More important, OVG said it will privately fund the underground parking –not a cheap solution — and dropped its idea of seeking a contribution from the Port of Seattle to help fund the original structure.
The potential contribution from the port — a spokesman denied recently that the port had discussions with either bidder — was an object of controversy because not only is the port actively opposing the Hansen plan, its funds would be a kind of public contribution the city sought to nix in its request for proposals.
The Hansen group estimated the garage would cost $30 million, the rival Seattle Partners said more like $47 million. Whatever the cost would have been, it wasn’t in OVG’s original bid of $564 million.
Kudos to OVG for being flexible, but the decision means whatever the new cost is for underground parking, it’s an add-on to the original budget, perhaps pushing it close to $600 million.
A spokesman for OVG said a statement was being worked on, but nothing developed Tuesday night.
So that begs another question: How much more financial risk does OVG take on? There has to be a debt load beyond which a developer cannot go, especially for a project in which it owns neither land nor building, unless civic philanthropy is added to the company’s mission statement.
We have yet to hear of other changes the city or the neighborhood may demand. Brian Surratt, director of the city’s office of economic development and point man on the arena, said at the open house he retains “the red pencil” to mark up both bidders’ plans.
And since a neighborhood, not Murray’s administration, won the first push-back, it’s fair to wonder how the administration will represent a neighborhood’s interests if they conflict with the city’s advocacy of the winning bidder.
The city has fast-tracked the arena bid decision, seeking to make a call by the first or second week of June. If the study of both complex bids is going so smoothly, perhaps time could be found to make a plan for what happens when the winning developer says costs have grown sufficiently steep to require give-backs or re-direction of revenue streams to the private side instead of the public side.
At the open house, OVG director of special projects Lance Lopes suggested he may be in the hunt for wiggle room.
“They’ve asked us to fund it privately, which we think we’ve done,” he said. “Again, we will look to capture some incremental, marginal benefits we create to reinvest back in the project (for maintenance and upgrades). But we certainly heard the city loud and clear when they said that they were not interested in helping us fund this project, and we think we’ve answered that question.”
Indeed, they answered it by backing off the garage and its curious funding. But it’s unlikely that will be the last change proposed that will cost the developers (perhaps they hope Jeff Bezos has a spare $100 million for naming rights to Amazonia Arena).
Give-and-take negotiations between municipal governments and private developers happen a lot. But Murray’s eagerness for a legacy building has the potential to put the city in a deal it may regret long after his term expires Dec. 31.