Did Seattle Make the Wrong Arena Decision?

Early on in the process, we were literally swept off our feet.

After being slapped in the face by the Seattle Supersonics’ brutal uprooting and departure to Oklahoma City in 2008, a cynical fan base quickly turned enthusiastic shortly after hedge fund manager Chris Hansen burst upon the scene in 2011.

Vowing to spearhead an arena plan that would bring the NBA and NHL to Seattle within a few years, Hansen’s vision, connections, deep pockets and relentless drive were like a shot of B12 to sports fans across the Puget Sound region. The news that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and two members of the Nordstrom family were involved only added to the likelihood of this being an ultimately successful effort. This was going to happen.

Certainty has been replaced with doubt

Nearly five years later, abject certainty has been replaced by creeping doubt. Despite his best efforts, Hansen’s inability to obtain an anchor NBA tenant have been well-chronicled, and a flirtation with the NHL Coyotes fell tantalizingly short. Meanwhile, the clock of Hansen’s MOU with Seattle and King County — now with less than two years remaining on a five-year arena financing agreement — continues to tick away, with no clear resolution in sight.

Complicating matters further is the requirement that the NBA must come first for the terms of the agreement to be fulfilled. That restriction played a large role in Seattle’s recent failure to land an expansion NHL franchise.

With apologies in advance for the mixed metaphor, did the city back the wrong horse in the battle for hockey and basketball in Seattle?

Reportedly, Key Arena could have been remodeled

The proposed Seattle Arena. Credit: 360 Architecture)

The elephant in the room with respect to arena options in Seattle has always been Key Arena, the longtime home of the Seattle Sonics as well as the WHL’s Seattle Totems, Seattle Thunderbirds and numerous other teams and events. Originally known as the Seattle Center Coliseum, it was completed in 1967 and remodeled in 1995.

Carrying a seating capacity of more than 15,000 for hockey and 17,000 for basketball, Key Arena sits in the heart of the Seattle Center, one of the major cultural and entertainment hubs of the city.

Throughout the twisting process of obtaining final approval for a new multipurpose arena, the notion of remodeling Key Arena has always been considered a non-starter. Not only has it been characterized as “outdated and financially unviable“, but the Final Environmental Impact Statement of the proposed SoDo arena said the following about remodeling Key Arena:

Remodeling the existing KeyArena was considered and eliminated from further consideration as the existing floorplate could not be enlarged enough to allow the placement of a regulation size ice rink of 200 feet by 85 feet with an adequate number of seats for NHL league games.(SonicsRising.com)

That was pretty definitive. But is it true?

The Seattle Times reported that Key Arena could be remodeled

A recent article by the Seattle Times’ Geoff Baker sharply contradicts the claims that Key Arena could not be feasibly remodeled for NHL games. Not only that, but Baker also indicates that city officials were well aware of a consultant’s conclusions and yet “brushed off” the report anyway.

… documents released to The Seattle Times via public-records requests show high-ranking city officials knew nearly six months before the EIS that a KeyArena renovation was possible to meet the needs of professional basketball and hockey.

They show AECOM, hired for $150,000 by the Seattle City Council to explore KeyArena options, prepared a 103-page interim report in November 2014 suggesting additional floor space could be found by shifting the arena’s hockey rink layout and modifying seating angles.

Remodeling Key Arena has never been considered a tenable option, despite possessing an existing foootprint and thus a quicker path toward final approval, all at a substantially cheaper price tag. Reports Baker:

The main argument by opponents of the $285 million KeyArena renovation option is that the NHL doesn’t want it and no developers will pay for it. While it’s true the NHL has opposed Key­Arena as a full-time facility, it previously assumed it would need to be torn down and rebuilt.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told KING-5 TV in December that the league didn’t want KeyArena. But in a subsequent email to The Seattle Times, Daly acknowledged he hadn’t reviewed the AECOM report.

Another elephant for the suddenly-crowded room: had remodeling Key Arena been deemed viable when this process began, Seattle might very well have a completed project today, with an anchor tenant waiting in the wings.

Is it too late?

With final approval of Hansen’s SoDo arena still potentially months away and the MOU expiring in 2017, should the consultant’s report as to the feasibility of Key Arena be taken more seriously?

City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, representing Key Arena’s district, thinks so.

I’m really quite interested in what the AECOM study had to say. It was like the least expensive option to retrofit, as opposed to starting over with a new arena. I think it’s a very interesting conversation to have.

What do you think? Armed with a study that says it’s possible to do for nearly half the cost of Hansen’s slow-moving arena, should Seattle take a hard look at remodeling Key Arena?

Leave your thoughts below, or message me @McLaughlinWalt.