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Originally published Wednesday, December 5, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Opera to lease Mercer Arena; "coup" for city, Seattle Center

Seattle Opera would take over the empty city-owned Mercer Arena as offices and production shops under a deal Mayor Greg Nickels is scheduled...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Seattle Opera would take over the empty city-owned Mercer Arena as offices and production shops under a deal Mayor Greg Nickels is scheduled to announce today.

The proposed long-term lease would allow the Opera — which performs next door at McCaw Hall — to consolidate its offices and costume and scene shops at Seattle Center, instead of being scattered among three sites in Renton and Seattle. The deal also would put the arena, dark for almost five years, back into use while earning the city some money.

Once home to hockey games, high-school graduations and concerts by Elvis Presley and Led Zeppelin, the 80-year-old Mercer Arena needs an estimated $25 million in seismic and safety repairs. The deal would free the city from worrying about what to do with the 5,000-seat venue.

"It's a great coup for the center and the city," Seattle Center Director Robert Nellams said of the deal, which the City Council will consider for approval.

Nellams hopes the Opera will redevelop the arena in a way that enlivens what is now a dead zone along Mercer Street.

"You drive down Mercer and, once you get past McCaw Hall, it's pretty dead. On one side is a garage for two blocks, and on the other is a mothballed building," Nellams said.

Kelly Tweeddale, the Opera's executive director, said the Opera hopes to "remove the brick-fortress wall along Mercer Street and activate the area in any way we can."

The Opera expects to launch a $40 million fundraising effort for the project, Tweeddale said. It hasn't hired architects or begun redesigning Mercer Arena, so the figure is not set.

The Opera would bring at least 70 staff members to the building. When in full production, the Opera staff can swell to 700, Tweeddale said.

But the Opera is not certain it will redevelop Mercer Arena. It owns a parking lot across Mercer Street that it leases to Teatro ZinZanni. The Opera will study the feasibility of developing that lot and the larger arena site.

The Opera couldn't put all its operations at the parking-lot site, however, and Tweeddale said it appears "most efficient" for the Opera to eventually sell the parking lot and use the proceeds to renovate Mercer Arena. But that hasn't been decided, she said.

Moving into Mercer Arena, which shares a wall with McCaw Hall, would provide the Opera another benefit — no more worries about rock concerts at the arena.

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Tweeddale recalled that when soprano Jane Eaglen made her Seattle debut, a rock band was pounding away in the arena and Eaglen could feel the drumbeat as she sang.

The deal would give the Opera an option until July 2009 to lease the arena for 30 years, with a 30-year renewal clause. The Opera would pay $220,000 in annual rent that would increase by up to 10 percent every five years, Nellams said. The city also would get 15 percent of any subleases of the arena to commercial tenants, such as restaurants.

Nellams said "not one city dime" would go into renovating the arena under the deal.

City Council President Nick Licata said the deal "looks pretty good on several levels," but he wants council staff members to look closely at the details.

"My commitment to the Opera is that we'll make a decision in January," he said.

Times music critic Melinda Bargreen contributed to this report.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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