Most City Council members oppose putting arena on ballot
The idea of sending the proposal to build a $490 million sports arena in Sodo out to a public vote was floated at Metropolitan King County Council and Seattle City Council meetings this week, but a majority of City Council members say the decision is theirs to make.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The idea of a public vote on the proposal to build a $490 million sports arena in Sodo was floated this week, but a majority of Seattle City Council members say the decision is theirs to make.
Council members grilled San Francisco hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen in a two-hour question-and-answer session Wednesday, the day after the Metropolitan King County Council did the same.
Hansen is seeking $200 million in public funding to build an arena and return professional basketball and attract a professional hockey team to Seattle.
He answered nearly identical questions Wednesday, though the city's focus centered more on the fate of KeyArena, where the Sonics played, as well as whether the overall proposal complied with Initiative 91, which requires the city to see a return on any investment in a sports facility.
Only Councilmember Nick Licata asked Hansen if he would support a vote to ensure the public backed the arena plan.
Hansen answered the question the same way he had Tuesday: that the public did vote on I-91, in 2006, and that if every question before lawmakers was put to a vote, nothing would get done.
"Elected officials are supposed to make decisions," Hansen said.
During Tuesday's hearing before the County Council, Republican Pete von Reichbauer called for a public vote on Hansen's proposal. Von Reichbauer said that while Seattle voted on I-91, his constituents in the county did not.
A majority of City Council members later said that rather than taking a public vote, they would continue to analyze Hansen's proposal in light of the overwhelming approval of the initiative.
"The taxpayers said in I-91 that they wanted a return on their investment. That's what we're looking for," Councilmember Jean Godden said after the hearing.
Councilmember Tim Burgess agreed. "I think we're capable of making a decision consistent with what voters said in I-91." He said the decision for the city will come down to "what's the best and wisest use of public money."
Mayor Mike McGinn, who strongly advocated a public vote on the deep-bore tunnel that will replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, says he doesn't support a vote on the arena proposal.
The mayor said that I-91, which he supported, has been a "guiding principle" in his negotiations with Hansen to reach the agreement now before the city and county councils.
A representative from the mayor's office, Ethan Raup, warned the City Council during the hearing that other cities could snatch up the arena deal if Seattle doesn't act.
Efforts by Bellevue to attract an arena, he said, have "quieted down as the strength and credibility of Chris Hansen's proposal has become increasingly clear.
"But the Bellevue option is still out there," Raup continued. "My sense is they're waiting to see if Seattle will trip up or not. If we do, then they will pursue some version of the deal that is before you now."
Councilmember Bruce Harrell objected to Raup's remarks, saying he didn't want to be pressured into a decision.
"Our decision should be based on the merits of this deal, not another jurisdiction," Harrell said.
After the hearing, Council President Sally Clark also said she would rather concentrate on Hansen's proposal. "I don't think it's productive to pit cities against each other," she said.
Hansen told the City Council he considered four other sites in the region, including KeyArena, before deciding that land in the existing stadium district was "the superior site."
He rebutted assertions by former Seattle City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck, made before the County Council on Tuesday, that an 18,000-seat arena wouldn't fit within the existing boundaries of the stadium district and would further encroach on Sodo's industrial lands.
"We're not asking for a zoning change. We're trying to do everything within the existing stadium overlay, and we're confident we can do it," Hansen said.
Hansen said he's also proposed to the city that his ownership group operate KeyArena on a long-term basis to help ensure its profitability.
Under Hansen's proposal, a new NBA team would play at KeyArena while the new facility is built. He would make an estimated $5 million in improvements, and tax revenue generated by the team could be used for additional upgrades, he said.
Hansen asked the city to move forward on his proposal.
"We would like to get started," he said.
"We are not going to get a team here until the arena is shovel-ready. There are franchise opportunities that are likely to arise."
And he warned that if the proposal becomes mired in Seattle process, such as an election, "The project may never happen."
Burgess said the City Council would vote on the proposal in August.
Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @lthompsontimes.