BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 07/08/2016

Sodo’s Lander St. gets funds; a Hansen opening?

The feds came through Wednesday with $45 million, giving the Lander St. bridge project $100 million of its $140 million cost. Can Chris Hansen make up part of the difference to revive his arena?

Lander Street looking east from First Avenue South — a slow way out of SoDo, over nine rail tracks. / City of Seattle

In the fight over Chris Hansen’s proposed arena in Sodo, a major issue for the Port of Seattle was its belief that vacating Occidental Avenue on behalf of another pro sports venue on its doorstep would be a major impediment to freight mobility, hastening the container port’s economic demise.

The port characterized the development as another shiv in the ribs from a city eager to abandon its maritime heritage, and all its middle-class jobs, for gentrification.

The City Council, by a 5-4 vote, bought the argument and all but killed Hansen’s project. Now, the news gets even better for the port.

Wednesday the U.S. Department of Transportation, elbowed by Sen. Maria Cantwell, awarded $45 million to the Lander Street overpass project, a bridge that is a twin of the Edgar Martinez Drive flyover next to Safeco Field that helps relieve congestion and improve safety at one of the more dangerous intersections in town.

That doesn’t mean the Lander project is a done deal, but it pushes the total of funds committed to $100 million of the estimated $140 million cost.

If funding is completed soon, the Seattle Department of Transportation believes the project could break ground in spring 2018, or nearly 20 years after the city formally determined that the nine sets of rail lines crossing Lander and relentlessly stopping traffic each day was a bad idea.

What does a bad idea look like there?

SDOT research shows the gates close to allow train traffic about 100 times a day, stopping vehicle traffic for 4.5 hours. SDOT’s Lander project leader, Jessica Murphy, told me that Lander is in the top half of the worst one percent of car/train intersections for accidents in the U.S. Over the past five years, 85 accidents have been recorded, including three fatalities, one on April 30.

So the Lander Street project isn’t just about big trucks or big hoops.

“We’re very excited,” Cantwell told KING 5. “This will help us maintain the competitiveness of our ports. All of this freight moves up and down I-5. But the last mile can mean four hours of delay.”

After the announcement, Port Commissioner Tom Albro issued a statement saying the port was drafting an agreement with the city to kick in $5 million too, the first such contribution by the entity likely to benefit the most from the Lander bridge.

For any citizen/resident/taxpayer/port worker, the progress represents good news. For basketball fans, the question is: How much closer would the project be if it had up to another $20 million or so in private money?

That’s what Hansen was said to be ready to contribute to Lander if his arena was granted a master use permit for construction, which would have allowed him to better pursue an NBA or NHL team.

The exact amount remains unclear, but in the 2012 memorandum of understanding between him, the city and county on building the Sodo arena, a Sodo Transportation Infrastructure Fund of $40 million was created.

The money, including a big share from Hansen, gives, according to Section 11a, “first priority to projects protecting the operations of the Port of Seattle, such as those involving Terminal 46, and improving freight mobility, including projects that improve pedestrian safety, enhance transit service and connectivity and overall traffic management in the Sodo area.”

If that doesn’t sound like the Lander bridge project, I’ll eat my yellow hard hat.

Whether all of that $40 million could go to Lander, or must be shared among other Hansen commitments to infrastructure such as a parking garage and pedestrian overpass, is unclear.

What is clear is that a large gift of private money for a public transportation project is rare, part of a series of sweeteners totaling more than $100 million Hansen added to his original proposal in 2012. But the council vote had the effect of rejecting the gift.

Some might say Hansen was trying to bribe his way into the council’s hearts. But it’s not a bribe if it’s visible and benefits all. The commitment shows how much Hansen wanted the deal, since he was offering big cash up front for improved public benefits to the arena site in exchange for the right to access the city’s cheaper interest rates on 30-year construction loans.

A receipt of public benefits that can be argued as a sufficient reason to justify a public contribution.

Publicly, Hansen has said nothing beyond his website response to the May 2 council vote: “We don’t believe it is the end of the road in our quest to bring the NBA and NHL back to Seattle. We know all the fans who have stood solidly by us these past years share our disappointment but it is important that we all stay focused on our shared goal.  We now need to take a little time to step back and evaluate our options, better understand the council’s concerns and find a path forward.”

Privately, according to a source, conversations are going on, as Hansen’s statement implied. That the city’s application for a $45 million federal grant was accepted has to been seen as good news for renewed ambitions from Hansen. There’s lots of moving parts, but the a gap of “only” $40 million to a Lander solution looks more “bridgeable” than at any time since the problem was diagnosed.

In a statement Wednesday, Mayor Ed Murray said, “We’re now one very significant step closer to building a critical overpass in Sodo that has been greatly needed for improved safety and mobility — particularly for our local maritime and industrial sector — since the 1990s.

“With the arrival of new stadiums and increased transit, rail and commercial activity over the years, the need for the project has only grown. The City will continue to work with our partners, including the state, the Port of Seattle, and those in the private sector to close the remaining gap.”

The “remaining gap” might be an opening for Hansen, who can argue, “If I can help the port get what it has long wanted, I can seek the port’s help to get what I want.”

Imagine: A win-win.


  • Topcatone

    Good luck on this. The vote was all inside politics, with the union vowing to support the council people in their next elections. Instead of the union becoming a partner of a very generous person, Hansen, to work out things so it works for all groups and stakeholders. EVERY OTHER city in the country wanting a team/arena would be all over Hansen. But Seattle can’t resist looking at the Gift Horse.

    • art thiel

      Every political decision has such voter implications. But the potential deal on Lander changes some of the political equation.

  • Playhouse

    From my understanding of the breakdown of the costs of the public benefits for the street vacation presented to the city, the costs of the pedestrian/bike bridge, the parking garage, and other stuff were independent of the $40M infrastructure fund.

    In fact, at one point, the city decided to remove the $40M fund as one of the listed benefits for the vacation because it was considered part of the stipulations for the public funding mechanism for the arena project.

    I’d like clarity on whether the payment for Occidental would’ve counted as Hansen’s contribution to the Lander project, or if it was in addition to the pro rata contribution to Lander that kept being talked about. To me, it sounded like the latter.

    • art thiel

      I’ve heard the fund described as part of, and independent of, the public benefits portion of the the arena funding. That’s why I wrote I was unclear, and will seek clarity.

      My recall of the Occidental payment was that it was independent of the fund, because it was a purchase, not an infrastructure improvement.

      • ChefJoe

        It is the Council’s intent that the Occidental Avenue South vacation fee (ie – the $18-20M Occidental payment)will be fully allocated to the SODO Transportation Infrastructure Fund ($40M per the MOU) to be used to fund transportation improvements in the area south of Downtown Seattle, as provided in the MOU.

        • Playhouse

          That was the one that came out of the committee meeting prior to the full council vote.

          That said, the language stayed the same in the final findings and conditions that were voted on May 2nd. Here’s that document:

          Looking at the presentation of the costs of the public benefits and capital improvements from that April 19th committee meeting, it breaks down like this:

          Public Benefits:
          1) Publicly Accessible Open Space & Living Machine Gardens – $9-12M
          2) S Massachusetts St ROW Improvements & Curbless Street – $800K-1M
          3) 1st Ave S Enhanced ROW Improvements – $900K-1.1M
          4) S Holgate St Enhanced ROW Improvements – $1.4-1.6M
          5) Public Art Plan – $8M Minimum (Budget 1.5% of total project cost)
          6) Bike Facilities – $1.3-1.5M
          7) Off-site Wayfinding – $50-60K

          Capital Improvements:
          1) Construct new south parking garage and incorporate modal options – $45-60M
          2) Install new traffic signal at South Walker Street and 1st Avenue South – $250-450K
          3) Pro rata contribution to Lander Street grade separation project (now Occidental Ave S vacation fee) – $18-20M
          4) Construct new Holgate pedestrian bridge for pedestrians and bicyclists – $15-18M

          • ChefJoe

            Ok, but that line I quoted stayed exactly the same and just moved from being number 19 in my link to 20 in your link.

          • Playhouse

            That would also require a desire on the port’s part to do such a thing. Not that isn’t a large chunk of money, but only contributing $5M to a $140M project that primarily benefits their business leads me to believe the port is trying to offer the bare minimum to get this done. They might use it as a last resort if Hansen becomes a player in it.

            Of course, their max allowable tax levy for 2016 is $96.4M and they’ve currently levied $72M for the year. If they levied the rest of the amount for the project, it will still come up short. So, they’d have to do like the tunnel project and issue bonds, using the tax levy to pay the debt service on the bonds. I wonder if they’d be willing to do that. I have a feeling no, or this might have been solved already.

  • jafabian

    Hansen needs to get someone like Cantwell to champion him the way Slade Gorton did for the M’s or else he will always run into obstacles. Maybe then Silver will quit playing games and be serious about having the NBA return to Seattle. Or not.

    • art thiel

      Until Silver decides he’s done using Seattle to extort other municipalities, it won’t happen. The NHL has no such plan.

      • jafabian

        IMO Silver is a David Stern loyalist and the NBA returning here won’t happen until he’s out. However because of his loyalties the owners might eventually push him out since he was placed in the commissioners chair by Sterno himself. Owners like Ballmer might balk at that arrangement since that happened before school me of hem entered the league.

        • art thiel

          Silver is making them boatloads of money. He’s in no danger. But he’s bright enough to not let an old Stern grudge against Seattle stop him if it meant making the league more money. But right now, he sees no need to expand. Why would he want to slice the pie thinner?

          • LarryLurex70

            I know it seems slim-and-none at the moment, but, I’ve felt for years that MLB, NHL and NBA will all eventually expand to 32 teams to keep pace with the NFL. 2 more expansion teams – and the requisite entry fees, of course – equals a bigger slice of that thinning pie. The money is out there, Art. Just look at what Guggenheim paid for the Dodgers, and what Ballmer shelled out for the Clippers. Notice the spike in stories about the value of professional sports franchises that followed? Next thing we know, Las Vegas gets an NHL expansion franchise. Now, of the 4 leagues, if there’s 1 among them that really has no business adding teams (in fact, one could argue the NHL should perhaps give serious thought to SUBTRACTING 1 or 2 instead) it’s the National Hockey League. I’m thinking Silver and Manfred are going to keep a VERY watchful eye on Gary Bettman’s Vegas Adventure, with thoughts of eventually putting their own expansion ideas into action. Again, not necessarily because expansion is NEEDED, but more because of the money in entry fees it will bring in.

            No sense letting logic spoil the party when there are checks to deposit.

          • art thiel

            As long as some teams either lose money or make little, any league will resist expanding. The NHL is taking chunky risk on Vegas for $500M divided by 30 teams. 32 is nice, but not a priority,

          • Mike Tavares

            On June 30th Mark Cuban was on a Bill Simmons podcast & 10 plus minutes into it said the NBA was not looking to expand.

            Simmons asked what if Seattle had $2.5B for an expansion team. Cuban said he’d vote against it.

  • Tom G.

    Well written, Art. Certainly makes sense to me, at least.

    I just hope the City Council would be smart enough to take an offer of Hansen filling whatever financial gap that exists for Lander in exchange for vacating the street.

    If that’s the 1 thing the maritime people have truly WANTED in SODO over the last 20 years, then offer it to them and hopefully they’ll be happy. And if they’re still not happy after that, then they may as well cut their own nose off to spite their face.

    • art thiel

      Not sure if Lander is THE thing, but it’s been on the city’s to-do list since early in the century. Then transpo funds were diverted to the Mercer Mess. And with the accident/fatality rate, it should be a big deal. Whether it gets to the $140M is the immediate hurdle.

      • Tom G.

        Sure. But if they can’t find that extra $35-40 million from other private sources, it just seems so obvious how you could fill in that gap.

        At least it is to me.

        From there, the next question would be if you had Lander done, how much would that help solve/mitigate clogged traffic in that neighborhood?

        • art thiel

          As I wrote, 100 gate drops a day, more than four hours of stopped traffic. I think you can guess it would be a big deal.

        • Barbara Schroeder

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  • Mr Baker, I just live here.

    Without the rest of the funding the project is dead.

    • art thiel

      Now there’s a fine statement of the obvious. Thanks for moving along the discussion.

      • Mr Baker, I just live here.

        Just pointing this out if the city council reads this. They’re not so good with spotting the obvious.

        • art thiel

          Again, not advancing anything.

          • Mr Baker, I just live here.

            You have your methods, I have mine.

  • Boris S Wart

    Thx Art.

    Color me hopelessly optimistic but one read on Hansen’s silence is they are talking behind the scenes, as you allude to.

    I keep hoping that Schultz will develop a soul and contribute to making the project 100% private. Perhaps Ballmer, being a partner in the acquisition of Hansen’s property project will dig into his pocket as well? Of course, even if my little fantasy were to come true it would still likely be quashed by our cerebral SCC, some of whom apparently don’t want the arena built even if it were 100% private. More fun to be a symbol of girl power on Samantha Bee.

    • art thiel

      Schultz will never be part of pro sports again. Too rough for him.

      The council members made a political decision — more of their constituents care more about things other than sports. I think that’s an accurate assessment.

      • Boris S Wart

        I agree with respect to Schultz and I’m sure all of us will agree we don’t want him involved. I guess my pipe dream is that he contribute to the arena as sort of an apology for selling the Sonics to Bennett. He did show some remorse by trying to stop Bennett from moving but I suppose that was a PR stunt. Laughable hope I know.

        As for the SCC, I’m sure it was a political move laced with union contributions. A cynical, poorly reasoned political move IMHO but no use in re-opening that can of worms.

      • LarryLurex70

        Schultzie is in the rear view mirror, and rightly so. But, surely you caught the recent report (at Sonics Rising, I believe) that Ackerley’s sons are quietly jockeying for position behind the scenes, no?

    • LarryLurex70

      I haven’t read it for awhile, but, isn’t it actually written into the language of the MOU that the SoDo proposal is specifically and strictly prohibited from being 100% privately funded? If so, that right there gives a blinding indicator of exactly what sort of mentality Chris Hansen has been dealing with.

  • Chris P

    Art. Is there any chance that this was the council’s end game all along? To extort more money from Hansen and other developers? The decision being a foregone conclusion which is why Hansen had no representation at the hearing?

    • AFF

      You’re giving the council way too much credit. They have no end game other than thumbing their noses at the local sports radio ranters.

  • Mr Baker, I just live here.

    You should also add in the proceeds from the sale of Occidental that were to be directed to freight mobility per Tim Burgess’ amendment.
    Between that and Hansen’s direct contribution and they are just about there.

  • Mr Baker, I just live here.

    Fine, Art shamed me into contributing to the conversation.
    In 2013 candidate Murray Msaid this to Crosscut:
    Murray reiterated that he supports the arena in SoDo and doesn’t think an arena need be incompatible with industry. Still, he says he sensitive to the challenges of making it work.

  • Get ‘em dawgies

    I like what you’re cookin’ there, Art

  • AFF

    The NBA is an antitrust lawsuit waiting to happen. Owners are making record profits extracting arenas from cities and limiting the numbers of players who can compete in the league. It only needs a group willing to bring the lawsuit. NBA players can’t because they represent current players, not the ones who aren’t able to play because of the limited number of teams. A fan group or a potential owner are the best options.