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Originally published January 21, 2013 at 8:52 PM | Page modified January 21, 2013 at 9:03 PM

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Legal fights loom for Sodo arena

Construction on a new arena in Sodo likely won’t begin until two lawsuits are resolved, but the city in the meantime will prepare KeyArena to be a temporary home for the return of the Sonics.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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While Sonics’ fans celebrate the promised return of professional basketball to the city, two legal challenges threaten construction of a new $490 million arena proposed for Sodo.

KeyArena, which the National Basketball Association declared inadequate five years ago, also must be renovated in time for the 2013-14 season. And potentially conflicting schedules with current Key tenants, including the Seattle University Redhawks and the Rat City Roller Girls, have to be worked out.

One pending lawsuit says the deal reached in October with investor Chris Hansen, the city of Seattle and King County to build the new arena with $200 million in public money violates the terms of Initiative 91, which requires the city to make a profit on any investment in a sports facility.

A second asks the court to void the agreement because a state-required environmental-impact statement wasn’t completed before an agreement to move forward on the arena was signed. That case will be heard Feb. 22 in King County Superior Court.

Meanwhile, the city is moving ahead with the environmental review and an area-wide freight-mobility study.

Seattle attorney Peter Goldman, who is representing longshore workers who load cargo on the Seattle waterfront just blocks from the proposed arena site, said his clients share the excitement about the return of professional basketball, just not in Sodo.

“The union feels strongly that any celebration about moving into a Sodo arena is premature. The NBA doesn’t have the right to run over our land-use law,” Goldman said. The union argues that the environmental review will be a sham because the deal with Hansen specifies a Sodo location.

City Councilmember Tim Burgess, who spearheaded efforts that provided enhancements to the deal Mayor Mike McGinn reached with Hansen, said the planned environmental review would analyze a Seattle Center site, a no-build option, the Sodo location at First Avenue South and South Massachusetts Street and possibly another site.

“Obviously we don’t think it’s a sham,” he said, adding that he thinks the city is in a strong position to defend against the lawsuits.

Burgess also noted that the deal now directs $40 million in tax revenue to create a transportation-improvement fund in Sodo to preserve freight mobility. He said that money could be matched by additional state and federal transportation dollars, providing additional return on the public investment.

King County Executive Dow Constantine, who was in Washington, D.C., Monday for President Obama’s inauguration, said city and county lawyers thoroughly vetted the arena deal in light of both state environmental law and I-91.

“Everyone was satisfied that this more than made the public whole,” he said.

Even if the legal challenges are quickly rectified, the new venue, which is still being designed, wouldn’t open for several years. That leaves Hansen and city officials to ready the aging KeyArena for professional basketball.

Burgess, who is running for mayor to unseat McGinn, said design work for KeyArena is under way and that Hansen is prepared to spend $15 million on enhancements to the lower bowl including a new scoreboard and electronics.

The city’s investment will be “very little,” Burgess added.

The new team will also have to compete for dates at the Key.

The Sonics’ old home court is booked about three nights a week with moneymaking concerts and other sporting events.

The Seattle University men’s basketball team has a contract with KeyArena to play home games there until 2016. The Storm’s contract runs through the end of 2018, though they play in the summer. And the city has already blocked out the Rat City Rollergirls 2013 and 2014 seasons.

Plus, KeyArena has committed to hosting the PAC-12 women’s college basketball tournament in March for the next two years, and an NCAA men’s volleyball tournament in December.

“Obviously it’s great to have the NBA back in the building ... but KeyArena is one of the most active venues in the whole region,” said Deborah Daoust, spokeswoman for Seattle Center.

If the Kings had played their 2012-13 schedule at KeyArena this year, their home games would have conflicted with at least four Seattle University games and a Rihanna concert, among other events.

Despite all the potential conflicts, County Executive Constantine said all big projects face challenges.

“We have counseled patience all along, but we have more reason today than ever to be excited,’’ he said.

Seattle Times reporters Bob Condotta and Steve Miletich contributed to this report. Lynn Thompson: lthompson@seattletimes.com or 206-464-8305 On Twitter:@lthompsontimes

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