BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 03/29/2017

Leiweke’s arena dream has dirt, drones, Monorail

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.

Dig deep, and Tim Leiweke sees a great future for a recycled KeyArena. /

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.

Oak View Group sees a new arena under the old roof as a music-first facility.

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.

Part 1: Oak View Group chief Tod Leiweke says he “does nothing” without the blessing or approval of the NBA/NHL. So his plans for KeyArena are to make it a concert hall first.



  • Gary

    First – thanks for this Art.

    Good grief. So the answer to the transportation issue is drones, the monorail, and convincing people that Mercer is a reverse commute and it really isn’t that big of a deal and is no worse than SODO?

    On the Arena itself, I remain skeptical that they can come up with something that is acceptable to the NBA and NHL and this is just a ruse to build a facility for concerts. The Mayor and SCC can always just say “we built it and they didn’t come.” And even if they did, with the Key Arena being remodeled where would a team play for the next 3 to 4 years (I bet at least 5)? This probably works for the NBA but certainly not the NHL, who would come tomorrow with an arena and an owner. Speaking of which, who would own the teams? Not as attractive a proposition with an Arena in a public park.

    Finally, his mentor is David Stern? The move of the Kings to Seattle was “not going to happen.” It had to be done in the right way? I wish you would have asked him if Clay Bennett did it the “right way?” I’m not sure if he was involved with the Raptors in 2008 but his hero Stern sure was. Would be fascinated to hear his thoughts.

    This whole thing is nauseating. When the Mayor and SCC finish this charade and chose between the Key options I hope Hansen sells his property to a nuclear waste facility and sues the City for violating the MOU, their own Zoning, and generally being petulant, incompetent Asshats.

    • bugzapper

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  • Guy K. Browne

    Monorail…. Drones….. Uber, oh my. I love the monorail as a symbol of the Seattle I grew up in, but any serious discussion of transportation solutions would be wise to never mention this mode. It’s not just a “2 minute ride”. It’s 5-10 minutes up the stairs/escalator/elevator from the transit tunnel, and then potentially waiting another 10 – 15 minutes to get on board. Any way you cut it, you’re adding another 30 or so minutes to get from downtown back to Seattle Center.

    As for the footprint, I’m no construction expert but most stadiums/arenas are built like a funnel, wide at the top of the seating, narrowing as it goes down. The current footprint is already too small for an NHL rink, how is going down deeper going to make that work?

  • Utter nonsense from Mr. Leiweke. Honestly, him talking about the monorail, uber (which may leave Seattle due to the union legislation pending) and wait for it….human-carrying drones make him sound like someone who is about to propose building a wall on our northern border and suggesting that Putin is a cuddly puddy-tat.
    The reality is that the Key location and it’s lack of parking, regardless of the questions about its size or suitability make it a loser for a sports team. Lower Queen Anne is a residential neighborhood which also houses many small businesses. Amazon continues to pile into the SLU area at an astounding rate. Think that’s going to slow down over the next few years? Heck, the traffic/parking was a mess when the Sonics played at the Key and that was a few hundred K area residents ago and before Amazon set up its HQ in SODO.
    This is pure politics by Mayor Murray.
    We have two arenas in SODO that work very well. Adding a third is doable and would not negatively impact a residential neighborhood. The Port of Seattle’s BS objections would been more than addressed by the new traffic mitigation concessions. There’s no public money involved and they don’t break ground until they get a team.
    Sorry, but I’ll place my bet and support on Hansen, the Nordstroms and Danger Russ.

  • Steed

    Drones flying people to the arena? Ridiculous. Self driving cars are years away from widespread use. Flying people in drones will be many years behind that. And this is coming from the guy everybody thinks is serious expert in the arena business?

    The monorail? Are people going to drive into downtown and take the monorail to games? I guess a few will.

    I’m not impressed by Leiweke so far.

  • Keith Reich

    Drones will not be carrying humans over populated areas anytime soon. If
    Tim thinks that the FAA who controls ALL U.S. AIRSPACE is going to
    release it to the general population to fly Human Carrying Drones overhead of populated cities then he really doesn’t know that agency very well.

    Tim has stated this fantasy more that once and lists companies like Amazon who are
    developing this technology. Problem is it all needs FAA Approval and so
    far they have shut them down in the USA. Yes, Amazon is performing tests
    in Australia but that is for remote areas where it makes sense. The
    general population will be concerned about this as well as things do go
    wrong and would you want one falling on you? The FAA is all about
    Safety and this would allow just about anyone with a wallet and half a
    brain to get airborne. Not going to happen period!

    The FAA got really freaked about the millions of recreational Drones over the last
    couple of years and has put controls on them, even recreation-ally. First and foremost you cannot fly them within 5 miles of an airport. Boeing field alone would
    kill this option. Could you picture the havoc this will create having
    thousand overhead in the city? The Human Drone delivery service inside
    the city limits is probably a Pipe Dream at best.

  • bugzapper

    Dirt, drones and dope is more like it! Either Leiweke thinks we’re all stuffing our faces with Rush Limbaugh’s leftover oxy stash or he’s been busy huffing uncut paraquat.

    Whoever thought the Mercer Mess would one day be considered a gateway drug?

  • Playhouse

    “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.

    It’s really not, Lance. And I believe any scientific traffic studies will bear that out.

    • Justin Van Eaton

      Well, you know, he went down there on the one sunny day in July when there was nothing going on, so it must be so.

  • Justin Van Eaton

    Art, can Oak View Group actually own a team? Or do they have conflicts of interest like AEG seems to? And if they can’t, what is the incentive for an owner to buy and bring a team here (NHL or NBA) where they can’t control/own parking and concessions? I assume they would supposedly share those revenues in theory. Are there examples of bona fide pro teams doing something like this successfully?

  • Hey Buddy

    Leiweke is going to do the same thing that he did in Kansas City. He said that they would eventually get a team after the Sprint Center was built and then completely changed his tone saying that it is more successful without an anchor tenant. There are limited revenue streams that would allow the venue to be financially viable to a potential team owner and OVG.

    His partner is all about music and he is hoping to add Seattle to the list of the 25 other arenas that they have agreements with. Seattle has already outgrown Key Arena twice when it comes to pro sports and it seems like we are just going to repeat history.

  • Cameric

    Oh, the stupid roof. It’s not that attractive; I see it as an impediment to a really interesting design. Sheesh. Landmark status is not the best thing that could happen to this roof; a meteor is.

    There is absolutely NOTHING they can do to make traffic and parking workable, from any direction. This whole thing is a boondoggle being managed by two groups of out-of-town carpetbaggers who are going to take the money and run once it is built.

  • Tom G.

    I don’t want to make this sound like I think Tim Leiweke is some fraud or political pawn installed by the Mayor and/or Port since he obviously has a lot of experience with building and managing arenas…….but if he and Lance Lopes’ best ideas for traffic mitigation at Seattle Center are to “fix the Monorail, introduce drones and persuade people that the Mercer Mess isn’t really as big of a mess as they think”, then we have a problem here.

    Plus, you just know his project is going to drown in red tape one way or another because this is Seattle government we’re ultimately dealing with here and we know that Seattle government loves its red tape.

    Hence why I still think it’d be a massively dumb idea for the Council and/or Mayor to just give Chris Hansen the middle finger again (Port and Seattle Center be damned).

  • Effzee

    I say the idea that keeps Wally Walker from Seattle basketball is the best idea.

  • WestCoastBias79

    If it’s a music first venue, great. Build both arenas. The loser becomes the Tacoma Dome. Stop trying to pretend that this is viable for NBA and NHL. This has the whiff of a bait and switch. Murray doesn’t give a crap about pro sports, he just cares about making Seattle Center the best it can be, which is laudable, but stop trying to sell this as an NBA/NHL solution. This is a Seattle Center KeyArena solution.

  • StephenBody

    Y’know, I have watched all this stepping on of one’s own Johnson for years, now, and the only solution I can come up with is that Seattle should just get out of the pro sports business, altogether, immediately. Everybody seems hellbent on cramming sports arenas into spaces where even adding a food truck would be a challenge, even to the extent of suggesting that we build a Hobbit warren to accommodate the city’s ravening need to not be wrong about Key Arena. Anybody who has ever stood on the street in Lower Queen Anne and still cannot grasp the concept of “critical urban density” really doesn’t need the distraction of a basketball team, when they have all those remedial physics classses they’ve obviously skipped. Even SODO is a problem, with its existing urban sprawl, but Queen Anne is beyond even that fantasy scenario and is being talked about at all – despite the NBA’s clearly and oft-stated opinion that the site is not and cannot be made to be suitable for NBA basketball – is a testament to how butt-stupid provincial and logic-resistant the Seattle City Council is and how much they clearly feel that being seen as enlightened and SO above it all is more important that bringing jobs and dollars into a part of the city that is doing nothing but existing as a bargaining chip for a Port entity that has become a bolated, pompous bully, drunk on power that it in no way merits. Key Arena, my rosy red ass. Shoehorn an arena into there and just wait and see what a total debacle it becomes for not only the city but the team and the local residents.