Tim Leiweke, leader of a company bidding to transform KeyArena, imagines a space partly underground and serviced by old-school Monorail and new-school drones carrying Sonics fans.
Second of two parts
Great mystery attends the attempt to re-make KeyArena into a world-class entertainment/sports venue at Seattle Center. Compared to Chris Hansen’s Sodo project, heavily scrutinized for years and transparent, the bids by Los Angeles-based AEG and Oak View Group are being made on the fly and kept secret for competitive reasons until the April 12 deadline set by the city of Seattle for submissions.
Tim Leiweke, founder of Oak View Group and chief evangelist for his company’s audacious proposal to fund privately a world-class arena in a public park out of what was the NBA’s oldest, smallest arena, did offer up one commitment.
“I promised (Mayor Ed Murray) and told Chris, ‘If this doesn’t work, I’ll get behind Sodo,'” said Leiweke during 90-minute interview in a Seattle visit March 16. “In turn, if I were him, I’d do the same thing” for his project.
If that sounds like he’s hedging his bet, Leiweke also said his working team, which includes, “I promise, the smartest guys in the business on this,” had “a breakthrough in the last 30 days.”
Asked whether the breakthrough was regarding design, finances or transportation, Leiweke demurred, saying, “We’re working on it, we’re not there yet. We’ll see by the 12th. The only way we’ll do this is if we know it’s a perfect building for NBA/NHL.”
As we talked, Leiweke did offer up hints about parts of project.
Regarding design, since it is likely the KeyArena roof will be designated a historical landmark — see KING5’s Chris Daniels’ update on the city’s preservation plans — which would preclude the option of a teardown, Leiweke indicated the plan is to go down, not up, to increase the footprint.
“One of the ways you can expand the square footage beyond the dripline (of the roof) is the that there is no restriction on going straight down,” he said. Does that mean an exploitation of the building’s subterranean tunnels and workspaces?
“What you have here, and part of why we’re respectful of 1962 (the year of the Seattle World’s Fair when the original building opened), is you have great dirt,” he said, smiling.
Excavation of solid ground is something unavailable to Hansen’s project, because the water table in Sodo is about two feet below grade throughout that area. But that was no impediment to the nearby baseball and football stadiums. As every Seattle-area homeowner knows, drainage is everything.
From a business standpoint, Leiweke seems thrilled to be in the same town with the world headquarters of Amazon, the retail giant that has disrupted numerous industries with its innovations.
“Within the world of sports/entertainment/facilities, there is no company more mysterious or important than Amazon,” he said. “Whether it’s ticketing, or Amazon Go, or other technologies, they fascinate us in the sports business. We’ve spent a fair amount of time now looking at and learning where they’re going.”
Leiweke’s company specializes in sponsorships and naming rights for arenas. Oak View has an alliance of 26 arenas nationally. But he offered no specifics about any relationship with Amazon.
Moving from business, there is a messier problem.
Even if Oak View and AEG come up with designs that work for concerts and sports, and find revenues sufficient pay down the construction debt for a project that is likely well north of $400 million, the biggest obstacle seen by many is transportation and parking for 160-plus arena-event days in the the urban village surrounding Seattle Center.
The lower Queen Anne neighborhood has seen significant growth since the 2008 departure of the Sonics. Many apartments and businesses have been developed upon surface parking lots now gone. The city poured millions into upgrades for the major thoroughfare of Mercer Street, only to see population and traffic outstrip the gains.
The city anticipates traffic improvements with the 2019 opening of the SR 99 tunnel that will replace the Alaskan Way viaduct. The tunnel’s north-end exit allows for three east-west streets — John, Republican and Harrison — that now dead-end into the 99 roadway to cross over.
But the tunnel has no downtown exits. That means Center visitors will need to join the surface-street tangle sooner.
Leiweke said the current KeyArena already has about 120 events, and the Center draws more than 10 million visitors annually, making it one of the top drawing visitor campuses in the country. So a premier arena with an anchor sports tenant is not a huge percentage increase, he said.
Leiweke deferred on transportation to Lance Lopes, a longtime sports executive with the Seahawks and University of Washington whom OVG hired to work with community groups regarding impacts.
“People need to wait and listen, then react,” Lopes said. “It’s grossly unfair to say this place is a mess, it doesn’t work, it doesn’t have enough infrastructure. There’s a perception issue.
“For example, (complaints about) Mercer are from a lot of people trying to go east to go home. It’s not about coming to the arena in the evening. If you look at the westbound traffic after 6 p.m., it’s fine. Now if the arena has an event, it’s full, but we’re not adding gridlock on top of it.”
Another criticism of the proposed arena site: Rapid transit is not in the city’s plans for the Center for almost 20 years.
Leiweke countered with with a novel, if dated, response — the Monorail. The two-minute ride from Westlake Center downtown to the Center is seen by many as a quaint relic of the World’s Fair. But he thinks a spruced-up ride, incorporated with the game ticket, could be an overlooked opportunity to get thousands of people to and from the arena conveniently, particularly after a sheltered walkway between the Center station and the arena is built.
“I’m a big Monorail fan,” he said. “If we do a good job communicating with people three to four years from now (after the arena is open), the impact on the Monorail could be another $1 million in revenues a year.”
That certainly is good news for the private operator, Seattle Monorail Services, which has run the system since 1994. But awkwardness erupted Friday when it was disclosed that the company is owned by Tom Albro, president of the Port of Seattle Commission, the most vigorous opponent of Hansen’s arena because of its location next to the port.
Albro has owned the business since 2005 and became a commissioner in 2010, well before a KeyArena remodel emerged as a potential alternative to Hansen’s idea. Albro said he has always identified the business as a potential conflict of interest. But once the Monorail became included in Leiweke’s public discussion of his plans, Albro two months ago recused himself from any discussion involving the Monorail, according to the Seattle Times.
Two days after the story, Albro announced he would not seek a third term as port commissioner.
Although Albro claimed the conflict was not a secret, the issue was not widely known. Leiweke made no mention of Albro’s role during the interview, in which he discussed the Monorail at some length.
Leiweke also mentioned other options for transportation, including ride-share companies such as Uber snd Lyft, and synchronizing Seattle’s notoriously random traffic lights. He also suggested a much more modern conveyance, although he offered this disclaimer: “I’m going to shock you, and you’ll go, ‘Holy crap.'”
Drones, he said. Carrying people to the arena.
“Drones will be part of the transportation mode in the early part of this building,” he said. I really believe that.”
Perhaps that is what he found so intriguing about Amazon.
Regardless of whether he can span the modern history of transportation with one arena, Leiweke said he understood the gravity of the traffic problem pinching the waist of Seattle’s hour-glass topographical figure.
“Bulletin: Downtown Seattle has traffic problems everywhere,” he said sarcastically. “I counted two roads into the baseball and football stadiums. It’s an island. I get it; it’s tough everywhere.
“This is a huge risk we’re taking. If I can’t figure out how to make people get (to the arena), why would I make this investment? I’d get killed.”
He’s certainly not the first one in the community to ask that question. A good answer will be a breakthrough for which the community has long awaited.