Why the big rush on Chris Hansen's Sodo arena?
Sports-arena investor Chris Hansen said it may take several years before we see an NBA team return to Seattle. So why, asks former Seattle City Council President Peter Steinbrueck, is Hansen in such a hurry to secure public financing for the project?
Special to The Times
SPORTS-arena investor Chris Hansen insists on obtaining formal written agreements by August of this year from City of Seattle and King County to advance public financing of a new sports venue in Sodo, or he will take his generous offer of $290 million for the arena off the table. Hansen has also said it may take several years before we see the return of an NBA team to Seattle, and that he is patient. So why the big rush?
It's called the art of the deal — like a skillful car dealer, you make the pitch and nail down the sale before all the facts are known, then sign on the bottom line so there's no turning back. In this case, the deal is the full faith and credit of the public coffer to finance $200 million for an NBA/NHL arena in the heart of the Duwamish Manufacturing and Industrial Center.
But wait. The Port of Seattle has said locating another professional sports arena in the industrial center "could weaken port/industrial businesses that support 33,000 jobs, provide one-third of Seattle's retail tax revenue and generate $3 billion a year in revenue to the region." Shouldn't we be listening?
The Port is not the only one sounding the alarm. The Duwamish Manufacturing and Industrial Council, in a recent letter to the Seattle City Council, stated, "an entertainment facility envisioned by a private developer should not be allowed to compromise the competitiveness of Seattle's marine cargo sector." Shouldn't we be listening?
Seattle voters have had their say, too, about public financing of professional sports venues. Initiative 91, passed in 2006 by an overwhelming majority (74 percent) of Seattle voters, prohibits public subsidy for professional sports facilities unless it can be shown to produce a fair value return on investment. More recently, pollster H. Stuart Elway says, "Voters in Seattle and King County do not seem to share their elected leaders' enthusiasm for the proposed basketball/hockey arena in Seattle."
Serious questions remain unanswered. Why won't Hansen provide a clear picture of his plans to build not just a new 19,000-seat sports arena in Sodo, but a multiblock "entertainment zone" as he has described it? How much more land does he intend to buy up in the industrial center and convert to commercial and retail uses? And could an independent siting analysis based on established city and countywide growth-management polices produce more compelling determination about the most appropriate place to locate a major regional public facility that will create thousands of new vehicle trips?
There are other sites where a new sports complex could be located in the region; the same is not true for the port's shipping operations, the trains, trucking, jobs and industries. Once industrial lands become gentrified, those high-paying, stable jobs are gone. When the movement of freight is jammed up, the Port can no longer compete in the global market. We are beginning to see these challenges as more international shippers turn to the Port of Tacoma and Vancouver.
A good deal cuts both ways. Before issuing a notice to proceed on this near half-billion dollar public/private investment, city and county officials should first insist on clear and direct answers to these important questions. There needs to be a full and unbiased examination of the true public costs, return on investment, study of alternative sites and potential economic and environmental impacts.
Politicians should not fear recrimination from zealous sports fans wanting the return of an NBA team. This is not about standing in the way of those popular aspirations. It's about the future of Seattle, and what kind of city we want to be. It's about making tough decisions where regional and statewide interests are at stake. And finally, it's about taking the time necessary to make the prudent, long-term decisions that will protect the city's and state's family-wage jobs, and leave room to grow our trade-centered economy.Peter Steinbrueck lives in Seattle, is an architect and former president of the Seattle City Council. He is a consultant for the Port of Seattle.