BY Art Thiel 07:25PM 01/25/2017

Thiel: City politics at heart of KeyArena tour

City officials offered a backstage tour of KeyArena to let media know what might be possible in a remodel. What is known for sure is that Mayor Ed Murray is up for re-election, and his heart is with Seattle Center.

Media reporters were given a tour Thursday behind the scenes, underground and around KeyArena, which Mayor Ed Murray is considering remodeling. / Matt Mills McKnight, KCTS

In a somewhat intriguing behind-the-scenes look into an old barn we thought we knew, one thing stood out Wednesday from all the HVAC pipes, stored Zambonis and old locker rooms from the days of Wilt Chamberlain and Zelmo Beaty at KeyArena: Mayor Ed Murray really, really wants the former home of the Sonics to be the new home of the Sonics.

He wasn’t there to say so, nor did any of the numerous city staffers on hand indicate such a sentiment was upon his lips. But as a gaggle of media members invited to peer into the notion of remodeling the 54-year-old building began to dissipate, a developer with a long history in sports and other Seattle buildings shook his head.

“I probably have been through a hundred walk-throughs of buildings,” he said, smiling, “but I’ve never seen this much media coverage.”

Reasons are several for that:

  • Seattle is compulsive about recycling to the point of needing clinical help
  • The project is on public land in the middle of the civic living room in the middle of the nation’s fastest-growing city
  • All political leaders are now subject to inquisition over “alternative facts”
  • Murray is up for election in November

So it is incumbent upon Murray to be as transparent as a good therapy session. He is upon a potentially controversial choice to forgo a privately funded arena in Sodo five years in the making, and choose a privately funded remodel over the next five or so years in one of Seattle’s most densely populated neighborhoods.

Murray’s risk is made more worth taking because not one but two private developers are responding to the city’s recent request for proposals to redevelop the Key into a premier arena that can handle more and bigger concerts and events, and also accommodate the NBA and NHL.

The competing groups with national and global arena-building credentials, AEG and Oak View Group, had representatives on the media tour, mostly for appearance’s sake since designers, architects and engineers long have been at work to try to meet the mid-April deadline for submission of proposals. The city will review the proposals and choose a winner by June 30.

Or the city could choose neither, because it’s possible that both firms could say nah.

That’s what Chris Hansen hopes. He wants a chance to re-submit his Sodo proposal to the City Council absent his previous request for a loan of up to $200 million from the city and King County. But since the project is still in the same location opposite the Port of Seattle’s doorstep, port supporter Murray is hoping to avoid further argument by letting Hansen’s five-year memorandum of understanding expire on schedule Dec. 1.

But before that, “we’re trying to get an understanding of what the possibilities are” at the Key, said Brian Surratt, director of the city’s office of economic development.

One of the best arguments in favor of the Key redevelopment is that the would-be developers propose to create a top-flight building without first getting a big-time pro sports anchor tenant that Hansen seeks. That unhooks the city from the whims of the capricious pro-sports monopolists and their gauzy expansion/relocation plans.

One of the best arguments against the Key redevelopment is that the lower Queen Anne and South Lake Union neighborhoods, sites of explosive growth in the eight years since the Sonics left, will be choked by a potential 82 to 100 sold-out NBA/NHL events a year, plus other bookings. As is, the Key in 2016 hosted a record 25 concerts, six more than in 2015.

Event dates are critical, because if a private investor is going to take all the risk in funding a remodel of a minimum of $500 million and likely much more, the building needs many rentals, many sponsorships and many high-priced tickets to cover the annual construction debt. As one of those involved in the bidding said, “My boss keeps reminding me about this: His kids gotta eat.”

But traffic, parking and scaling the house were not in discussion Wednesday.

The tour was about the physical possibilities of the Key. The RFP bidders must make proposals for two outcomes. The mandatory one maintains the current roofline that would retain the giant concrete buttresses on each of the building’s four sides. The optional one: A complete tear-down.

To anyone without a degree in engineering or architecture, it is impossible to know from a walk-through what can be done within the 385,000 square feet under the roof, which when it last served the Sonics was by far the smallest building in the NBA.

But in more than two hours of exploring the back of the house, as well as the tunnels, grottoes, warrens and out-buildings, one impression was strong: The space dedicated to  redevelopment has a significant amount of unused or under-utilized space.

As the accompanying city-supplied map shows, areas on the east and south of the arena have spaces dedicated to buildings that were built at different times for different purposes, offering little coherence. If they are either removed or re-purposed as part of a greater plan that has more efficiency, including the addition of a second loading dock for the bigger, more expensive shows, then plausibility increases.

That suggests that a tear-down has the better chance to max out the available space. But that gets to an immediate order of business: Determining whether the building roof deserves landmark status.

Jill Crary, redevelopment director at the Seattle Center who conducted much of the tour, said city law mandates any building more than 50 years old is subject to a landmarks-commission review before a building permit is granted. Rather that wait for a citizen to make such a request down the road, the city is pursuing a landmark assessment prior to the city’s acceptance of a proposal.

“We need to get that started while the RFP is underway,” she said. “We’re just following normal development rules.”

Good to know there is something normal about this project. Going in six months from zero to three bidders providing plans for a privately funded arena is abnormal enough to turn a mayor’s head.

But before said head swells, let’s see what happens in the attempt to get a five-pound arena into a slimmed-down, two-pound neighborhood.



  • PokeyPuffy

    “We’re just following normal development rules.” Seriously flippant response. If i were to guess i would say “normal development rules” means they are dual tracking the RFP and the landmarks process to get the EIS up and going. When a team is selected they already have the bulk of the adverse impacts identified, and can fly like the wind.

    I would guess also that the eventual Thomas street vacation, which would no doubt be utilized for the tear down scenario (which will be the winning option), would breeze through council approval.

    • Karencboehm

      Google is paying 97$ per hour! Work for few hours and have longer with friends & family! !mj348d:
      On tuesday I got a great new Land Rover Range Rover from having earned $8752 this last four weeks.. Its the most-financialy rewarding I’ve had.. It sounds unbelievable but you wont forgive yourself if you don’t check it
      ➽➽;➽➽ http://GoogleFinancialJobsCash348MediaInfoGetPay$97Hour ★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★::::::!mj348d:….,……

    • The arena could grow east and south, and not out into a street. See the above story and map.

      • art thiel

        I think the space south of Thomas may be where storage/operations will be housed, no longer within the dripline of the arena roof.

    • art thiel

      I don’t think dual tracking makes for flippance.

      I even asked about a Thomas vacation, and was told no.

      But that was this week.

  • 1coolguy

    Murray. He of Pronto, road diets and trolleys, a wicked combination with one outcome : A one term mayor.

    • Comrade C-attle

      Let me guess, you live in Bellevue.

      • 1coolguy

        Wrong. Again. Capitol Hill over 50 years and Sonic season ticket holder.

        • Comrade C-attle

          you go to Thunder games?

    • art thiel

      His KeyArena ideas may not work, but as mayor of Seattle, he’s obligated to try to make the Seattle Center viable. Been so for every major since 1962..

      • 1coolguy

        Agreed Art – he needs to fight for the city, I understand that, yet SODO will be the Key on steroids and per its’ transportation advantages, serves the voters best. The density and traffic issues, as we all know, are worlds worse than just 10 years ago, in the QA neighborhood.
        The best result would be for the city to carve off that corner of the Center and sell it to a private party. That takes it off city hands (the city should not be “in business” anyway) and places it in an economically more viable future. The perfect example is the Space Needle, which is on private land and is a real success story.

        • art thiel

          I’ve advocated for the Space Needle solution in the past, but I don’t see the many constituencies that use the park agreeing to turn over to private development so big a chunk of public land that would no longer be in public control. Especially after the latest rounds of private development in lower QA.

  • Tian Biao

    I feel sorry for Hansen. he’s willing to do all the work, and pay all the bills, to put an arena in a district that is already zoned for sports, and it’s a much smaller project that the two giant stadiums already there, and the city says ‘no.’ that seems short-sighted to me. If Seattle wants to be a world-class city – and it has pretensions and possibilities – then it needs to step up and get these things done. the Port needs a new overpass? a new road or two? build them! come on, folks.

    Art, you are correct: a rebuild at Key arena is a five-pound burger in a two-pound basket. I’m surprised (actually I’m not, anymore) that traffic, parking, and scaling were not even discussed on the walk-through. those are obviously the big issues. and yes, a rebuilt Key Arena is not at the whims of the NBA and NHL – yet. But sooner or later the NHL is gonna want its half billion expansion fee (or more, maybe, by then), and as for the NBA, it will absolutely love the possibility of an tenant-ready basketball-sized arena. imagine the extortion possibilities! all that taxpayer money just waiting to be plucked in cities throughout the land! so what possible incentive would it even have to put a team in a remodeled Key?

    • art thiel

      Four words about arena size — augmented reality/virtual reality. Google ’em up with sports and you’ll see part of the world in five years.

  • Illuminati Doomsday

    Murray and the Seattle City Council couldn’t organize a birthday party for an eight year old. Unbelievable how greedy government is. The welfarists of Seattle think that those evil capitalists might make a dollar and we can’t have that. The city needs to get in on the action. These are the same dunderheads who gave Seattle a monorail revision that will literally have a head-on collison if both trains run at once. Seattle politicians have been banned from auditions from the next dumb and dumber movie because they are so stupid they are not even funny–just pathetic.

    • art thiel

      It isn’t dumb to find out if one of two experienced arena builders can re-do the Key for minimal tax dollars and an improved Seattle Center. The trick will be whether there’s a market for $250 nosebleed tickets to watch an expansion team.

  • giannisee

    As a Seattle sports fan and world’s fair nerd, I like the idea of razing ye olde Coliseum. The only original bit of that building is the roof. Why not build something with NBA-NHL specs but with a similar aesthetic.

    • art thiel

      Could happen if a teardown is the final outcome.

      • Wade Gustafson

        Art, I really liked your article from 02/15/2016 “Stop With The KeyArena Remodel Talk”. Apparently Murray did not read your article, and just kept talking for the past year.

        • art thiel

          Regardless of his reading list, Murray was virtually obligated to seek a Key solution because of the importance of a vibrant Seattle Center to every mayor.

  • AEG has partnered with the city since the Sonics left to operate KeyArena. Together they did nothing until there was direct competition. Will they meander away next December 2nd back to where they were from 2008 to 2012?
    So, the mayor and those running for the at-large council seats will have to pivot back to SODO if KeyArena is not a realistic possibility in June, structurally or fiscally.
    Walking away from a privately funded arena based on aspirational job numbers at the port has a Greg Nickels “snow plow” feel to it.

    • art thiel

      AEG was hired in 2008 as the arena’s operator, not its developer. But they do understand the building better than Oak View.

  • WestCoastBias79

    Traffic, parking and scaling the house were not part of the meeting on Wednesday, but that IS the most poignant issue. Getting there and parking was awful 10 years ago even before most of the parking turned into the Gates Foundation and a metric poop ton of condos appeared. It doesn’t matter if the building is viable if no one can get to or park there. The Sodo sight has freeways, parking AND the unicorn of transit. Seattle Center has none of these.

    Unless AEG has teleportation technology, discussions on what could be done with Key Arena are pointless.

    • art thiel

      One important factor in future Center transpo: Once the 99 tunnel is working, three more easrt west streets will cross over the current 99 roadbed instead of just Denny. Not saying it’s the total solution, but it does help.

  • Nick C

    In order for a building to be determined for landmark status, the threshold is actually 25 years, not 50, per Seattle Landmarks Preservation Ordinance (SMC 25.12.350)

    • art thiel

      I’m told that a building is eligible after 25, but any proposed changes to a building over 50 requires a mandatory determination of landmark status before a remodel permit is issued.

  • Husky73

    And now, the truth. The NBA ain’t coming back. The entire Seattle Center is badly in need of renovation. The Seattle Center Coliseum/KeyArena was fine for Lenny Wilkens and Slick Watts and for today’s Storm and Redhawks. But for the 21st century NBA and NHL?..neither restoration nor expansion make any sense no matter how hard the bicyclin’ mayor tries to sell it. A complete teardown and re-build without a franchise locked in?– not happenin’.The NHL may be a possibility (the NBA isn’t), but it will be the fifth or sixth ticket in Seattle, currently choked by growth, traffic (the Mercer Mess and Sodo gridlock) and the nefarious tunnel diggers. The best bet for an NHL team is a new Eastside arena. Let Chris Hansen build there. The Bellevue High football crowd could embrace their hockey toy and spend as much as they like above the table.

    • art thiel

      Great final point. What could be done with all that revenue no longer flowing to BHS? Pave over Lake Washington?

  • Tom G.

    All I can is if KeyArena works as a viable alternative, great. I’ll applaud anyone who can get this done and anything that works. But if this signed off on by the Mayor and City Council, it better be a sure bet to work.

    Because you shouldn’t sign off on a project that gets drowned in red tape for 5 years, has too small of a footprint or is in a place where traffic flow, parking and easy access to the highway won’t work that well on Day 1.

    You also shouldn’t pair yourself up with an arena management group that manages the arena in a way that blocks getting the NBA and/or NHL here all because they want to control too much of the money and event dates that’d come into the arena otherwise.

    • art thiel

      Even if a Key answer gets green-lighted June 30, the opening is five years away. If it’s a teardown, there’s no temp home for NBA/NHL. And I guarantee that the project EIS will be litigated by community groups.

      • Tom G.

        In other words, anything can and probably will go wrong (before dirt is moved) once this is green-lit.

        At the very least, they should let Hansen pursue SODO until dirt gets moved at Key if this is truly going to be a 5-year process.

        • art thiel

          Hansen will get another hearing, logically after the city makes a call on KeyArena by June 30. The city is being careful not to piss off Hansen to the point of a lawsuit over undercutting the MOU, which expires Dec. 1 — after the mayoral election.

          • Tom G.

            That’d certainly be an interesting dynamic to approve of some kind of Key remodel on or before June 30 and THEN have a hearing at City Hall with Chris; but again, like I said before, maybe part of the compromise with Chris could be to give him until the moment dirt gets moved at Key to get a team for SODO.

            I certainly think that’d be the most fair compromise between him, the City and the fans who are worried that the NBA and NHL may start granting teams while Key is mired in red tape for at least 2-3 years.

            Would even create some carrot-on-stick incentive for KeyArena developers and the City to get Key approved and finished quickly if they want to make it work there THAT badly.