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Originally published October 26, 2012 at 9:43 PM | Page modified October 26, 2012 at 10:22 PM

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Seattle Center in arena review — but Sodo still gets the arena

The agreement to build a basketball and hockey arena in Sodo calls for a full environmental analysis of the area and at least one other analysis, but supporters and opponents both acknowledge the arena will be built in Sodo or not at all.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Public can weigh in on environmental review

The Seattle Department of Planning and Land Use will hold two public meetings to determine the scope of the environmental review for the proposed Sodo sports and entertainment arena.

Nov. 8: 6 p.m. Bertha Knight Landes Room, Seattle City Hall, 600 Fourth Ave.

Nov. 14: 6 p.m. Fidalgo Room, Seattle Center.

Source: Seattle Department

of Planning and Development

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The agreement to build a basketball and hockey arena in Sodo calls for a full environmental analysis of the impacts of an 18,000-seat, state-of-the-art entertainment venue on investor Chris Hansen's land.

It also will look at the impacts of a new arena at Seattle Center, and a no-build option.

But supporters and opponents both acknowledge the arena will be built in Sodo or not at all, and the environmental review is not about where to put it, but about identifying and mitigating its impacts.

Opponents have argued in a lawsuit that because up to $200 million in public money is being used, a variety of sites should have been studied before the agreement was finalized. They say the city already has made up its mind on the Sodo site and the planned environmental review will be a sham.

Arena backers say that because a private investor proposed the project, the city and county are appropriately giving preference to Hansen's site. Hansen has agreed to contribute at least $290 million to build the arena and $500 million or so to buy a National Basketball Association team to play there.

"This is not the city proposing to build an arena on their own dime. This is a public/private partnership, where we've offered the majority of the contribution and we need to come with a proposed site. That's just the way it works," Hansen said after Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and King County Executive Dow Constantine signed the Memorandum of Understanding to go forward with the project.

City Attorney Pete Holmes said the agreement signed with Hansen does not bind the city to the Sodo site and that a final decision won't be made until the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) review is completed.

But that doesn't mean if the study says there would be fewer environmental impacts at Seattle Center that Hansen would build there instead.

The environmental-review process doesn't compel any result, nor do Hansen or the city have to choose the site with the least environmental impacts, say land-use attorneys not involved in the lawsuit. Attorneys for the Longshore workers union, which is challenging the agreement over the arena's potential threat to marine-cargo operations in Sodo, say they are deeply skeptical of the planned environmental review because the city will oversee it and already has deemed Hansen's land the project site.

Peter Goldman, who represents the union, said a public purpose should have been formulated first, and then sites identified to fit the purpose.

For example, when the Seattle Mariners wanted to build a new stadium in 1996, officials considered 13 possible sites in the region before selecting three near the Kingdome for more detailed environmental review.

Goldman said he's troubled a previously unknown investor can decide where to build what will become a major, publicly owned facility. He compares Hansen to the "Music Man," the charming con artist who promises to turn all the youngsters of a small town into budding John Philip Sousas.

"Can a stranger come to town and dictate where a public project will be built?" Goldman asked.

Deal caveats

The Seattle and King County councils strengthened the original agreement with Hansen to include requirements the environmental review analyze traffic impacts, freight mobility and Port of Seattle terminal operations.

It directs the analysis to identify possible improvements to transportation corridors and pedestrian access from Pioneer Square and the Chinatown International District. And it says Hansen must pay to mitigate the impacts.

City and county officials wrote into the agreement that they won't sign off on the deal — or issue the construction bonds — unless they're satisfied the transportation corridors to the Port of Seattle will remain open.

They also created a $40 million transportation fund to address freight mobility at Sodo, an acknowledgment the mitigation the city requires from Hansen might not address all the traffic impacts from a new arena.

The Seattle Department of Planning and Development will direct the environmental review. A private consultant will do the work.

The resulting report — and it likely will be thicker than a big-city phone book — can include the potential impacts to geology and topography, air and water quality, noise, the movement of people and goods, wildlife-migration routes, parking, police, firefighters and schools.

But it won't recommend a site.

"At the end of the day, when the EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) is finished, it's up to the department to make a decision whether the merits of the proposal outweigh the environmental impacts and whether the impacts can be sufficiently mitigated," said Cliff Portman, the city's principal land-use planner.

"It's in our interest to get as good a document as possible."

The city plans to hold two public meetings in November to determine the scope of the review, which can include alternate sites and the extent to which they're analyzed.

The city notes that a draft EIS will be available for public comment and the final document is subject to legal challenge.

The city's environmental review will go forward while the Longshore workers lawsuit is pending.

"Reasonable alternatives"

The state environmental rules require governments to look at "reasonable alternatives" to a proposed site, but they don't specify the number or location, said Elaine Spencer, a Seattle land-use attorney who represented waterfront businesses in the fight over whether a tunnel should replace the Highway 99 viaduct.

Seattle Center will be looked at because it's required in the agreement with Hansen and because there's a lot of public interest in why the existing KeyArena isn't being renovated, she said.

"We have an arena. Why is that not good enough? That deserves an answer. There may be compelling answers, but we're entitled to know what those are," Spencer said.

Seattle land-use attorney Dave Bricklin, who is not involved in the lawsuit, said that when a private entity proposes to build something, the range of options in an environmental-impact statement "doesn't include building somewhere else."

But in a public project, he said "the agency may have a choice."

And a completed environmental review should shed light on the advantages and disadvantages of the options.

"If the city creates an EIS that actually analyzes alternatives, it's difficult for decision makers to ignore," Bricklin said. "They may find themselves making a different decision in the end than they thought they would."

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @lthompsontimes.

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