This past Monday, the Seattle city council narrowly voted down a street vacation request that would have paved the way for the issuance of a master use permit to build a new multi-purpose facility in the city’s SoDo district. Had the vacation of a little-used section of Occidental Avenue been approved, the project would have effectively been shovel ready, potentially allowing for negotiations with the NHL to re-open the expansion process or for a team to relocate to the Emerald City.
Instead, investor Chris Hansen is virtually at square one again, trapped in the same Kobayashi Maru situation (if you’ll recall Star Trek II: Wrath of Kahn, that’s a no-win scenario) he has been in since losing out on acquiring both the Sacramento Kings and the then-Phoenix Coyotes back in 2013.
What went wrong?
The vote was 5-4 against vacation of stretch of Occidental Avenue South between Massachusetts & Holgate avenues. The Port of Seattle — a loud, powerful anti-arena voice — proclaimed the section to be “vital” to their growth and lobbied furiously against approval.
KING 5’s Chris Daniels tested that theory. Per Curbed Seattle:
Daniels took a look at traffic on the stretch of Occidental during three different days and times. Not only did he see minimal truck traffic, he watched as surrounding roads saw plenty more freight traffic. No only that, traffic in general was light the entire time. All told, they saw a total of three trucks during their three hours spent watching the road.
The Seattle Mariners represent another opponent of the new arena. New CEO John Stanton recently called it “a big, ugly house right at the end of your driveway.”
A third loud voice against Hansen’s arena has been the Seattle Times editorial board. Days before the vote, the board penned a misleading editorial which incorrectly claimed that the NHL had poured “cold water” on the project (admittedly, they were right about the NBA) and that rejecting the vacation would actually speed up to process of luring teams to the city.
Pipe Dream Arena Alternatives
The Port, the Mariners and other intransigent voices insist that somehow, Key Arena can be remodeled to work for the NHL and NBA. That position was undoubtedly bolstered by an AECOM study claiming it could be remodeled for $285 million — roughly 60% of Hansen’s arena estimate.
Art Thiel of Sportspress NW shoots down that idea in his pull-no-punches response:
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.
Leagues do not want to be in public parks or suburbs. SoDo is zoned as an arena district. The white noise of the opposition notwithstanding, there is only one place for an arena to be built that makes sense, and it’s exactly where Hansen has proposed.
The most significant reason why the council voted down vacating a virtually unused block of Occidental was that it lacked the courage to ignore the baseless claims of the Port, the Mariners and other opponents and the ability to envision how a revitalized entertainment district could benefit the city. To be fair, not all its members suffer from that affliction, as Bruce Harrell, Tim Burgess, Rob Johnson, and Mike O’Brien voted in favor. The votes against were Sally Bagshaw, Lisa Herbold, Kshama Sawant, Debora Juarez, and Lorena González.
Let’s look at their justifications.
Sally Bagshaw: Bagshaw’s rationale for voting against the street vacation despite being an early supporter of the project was, to be charitable, factually challenged. An excerpt:
When we signed the MOU in 2012 the deal was Mr. Hansen would provide an NBA team and possibly an NHL team. We hoped that the Sacramento Kings would be sold to Mr. Hansen and that the SuperSonics would be back in Seattle. We were wrong.
Under the terms of the proposed street vacation, we council members are being asked to give away a 65’ wide street forever. The traffic has not been mitigated under the terms of this street vacation. It will only get worse if this new arena is sited there without functional replacement of transportation space on Occidental Way. Buses, freight, and perhaps a street car will compete for space. Not one extra foot of capacity has been added… Under the current vacation proposal, we have not addressed the functional replacement of Occidental.
Sonicsgate points out the misleading and/or incorrect aspects of these statements. The timeline doesn’t work for the first statement, as the Sacramento Kings weren’t identified as a target until four months after the MOU was signed. As for the latter, Hansen would be contributing $40 million worth of traffic mitigation, along with other efforts to ensure traffic is not adversely impacted. Hansen would also have paid an estimated $18-20 million for the section of Occidental.
Lisa Herbold: In large part, Herbold used the exact same challenged logic Bagshaw did in deciding against street vacation.
My vote was decided in favor of protecting industrial and maritime jobs that we have now so that we can maintain the diversified economy that has kept our region strong in good economic times as well as the downturns. Further, the legitimate traffic concerns of commuters and small business owners in West Seattle and South Park played prominently in my decision.
In her full statement, she indicated she was not on the Council when the MOU was signed and would not likely have supported it if she were. She repeats the same, impossible Kobayashi Maru logic that has kept the project from moving forward for the past 3 1/2 years.
Kshama Sawant: Sawant has not released a statement explaining her vote, but as Seattle’s first elected socialist in a century, it’s not hard to imagine she shares presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ dislike of those with wealth. Power brokers of professional sports — not to mention the athletes themselves — come from that class.
Deborah Juarez: Juarez claimed to “want a basketball team in this town”, but employed not-in-my-backyard rhetoric as her justification for voting no:
I went to Sonics games. I want a shiny new arena in this town, I just don’t believe it belongs in SoDo. The Sonics came here in 1967 and then left in 2008, and I was here and alive when the Sonics came, and here and alive when the Sonics left. And people think this [was] a vote about the Sonics and it wasn’t. It was a zoning vote.
That would be neat and tidy reasoning, assuming there was a viable alternative to choose instead. There isn’t.
Lorena González: González apparently flipped-flopped on her vote, having reportedly decided in favor of the proposal just minutes before the meeting started. She changed her mind when it came time for her to cast the deciding vote, falling in line with the leap of logic that somehow $40 million (or more) of traffic mitigation would not overcome the loss of one block of a rarely used section of Occidental.
Over the past six months, I have received probably more than a thousand messages, and that doesn’t include the social media posts that I’ve been getting while sitting on the dais and otherwise about this land use decision. I must also be decisive. I’ve really struggled with this decision a lot. I don’t believe the traffic issues have been well dealt with.
In the end, the nays outweighed the yeas 5-4 and the proposal failed. The bigger failure was a lack of both vision and courage within Seattle politics, an unfortunate consistency that created this mess in the first place. Some things never change.