BY Art Thiel 06:00AM 04/19/2019

Thiel: Arena roof helps send costs through roof

Keeping the roof on the old arena is adding time and money to the Seattle Center venue that seeks to host the NHL in 2021. Or so.

KeyArena is down to bare concrete. The big dig comes soon. / Parker Miles Blohm, KNKX

Amid the welter of metrics, backhoes and rubble that were part of a media tour of the rapidly shrinking KeyArena Thursday, one factoid stood out — 44 million pounds.

That’s the weight of KeyArena arena’s roof. Preserved as a historic civic landmark, it must remain while the new home of Seattle’s 2021 NHL expansion franchise is installed underneath.

That’s a heavy lift. More than the Seahawks lifted to pay Russell Wilson. More than Tiger Woods lifted to get his career back on a champion’s track. More than even the Mariners lifted to win 13 of their first 15 games in a scheduled zombie season.

Less metaphorically, one of the most memorable giant totems of my youth were the Saturn V rockets that the Apollo program used to send astronauts to the moon. Fully loaded with fuel, they weighed 6.5 million pounds.

So imagine seven of those bad boys on the Seattle Center grounds. Then plan to dig underneath them to create a grotto to hold 550 cars and an eight-bay loading dock. And make sure nothing falls over.

If you can get your imagination around that, it will help you deal with the second large number from the tour — $930 million. The latest revised cost estimate for the new arena, disclosed Thursday, is a tad up from the $650 million originally budgeted.

Add in the separate $80 million for the training facility at Northgate, and the arrival of the NHL in Seattle has crossed the $1 billion threshold.  But fear not — all of the money comes from private investors, unlike the ballpark and the football stadium, which combined for about an $800 million hit on the public exchequer.

Remember in 1999, when the Mariners ballpark came in at $517 million? Shock ran thick, deep and wide, but at least it had a cool new retractable roof. The arena will be recycling a 57-year-old topper that will be fixed in place.

At least that’s the plan. If this one retracts, that would be unfortunate.

“It’s been our biggest challenge,” said Oak View Group’s chief construction executive, Ken Johnsen, a veteran of many Seattle contruction projects, including the Mariners’ ballpark. “But we’ll get it done, and we’re confident this will be the best arena in the country.”

It definitely will be unique. Nearly all modern arenas are built from scratch, and none of them are required to preserve 44 million pounds of old stuff. The project even requires keeping the glass windows on the sides, even though they are 25-year-old single panes. Somehow, they were identified as part of the roof.

The roof itself won’t be raised. Temporary vertical steel supports will bear the weight as old walls are removed. But since more than 600,000 cubic yards of dirt must be excavated to make room for the garage and the loading bays, plus all of the back-of-the-house utilities and storage that are typical of concert venues, crews and equipment must work around the temporary posts.

“A lot of people said we couldn’t do that,” said Johnsen, who has helped oversee the upgrades for King Street Station, Pike Place Market, City Hall, Justice Center and the Central Waterfront project with its replacement seawall.

Apparently, if you throw enough money at a project, anything is possible. The degree of difficulty in keeping the roof in place while changing everything below it is probably the single most expensive engineering feat in the project.

It also helps mess with the timeline. Originally, the building was going to open for the NHL season that began in October 2020. But the NHL intervened and said spring of 2021 was more realistic. Now it looks as if June 2021 is more likely, which would displace the start of the WNBA Storm’s season.

“It’s definitely costing more than we thought, and taking a little bit longer,” said Tod Leiweke, CEO of NHL Hockey Partners. “But we’re here to say we’re ready to go. Is it worth it? It is. We’ve solved the Rubik’s cube. There were healthy contingencies built into the budget, should we discover something unforeseen. Some of the increase is because  costs here are well above other markets in terms of construction.

“But it’s evidence of ownership that’s totally committed. We didn’t dial back. We didn’t cut things out. Didn’t cut corners. It’s more money than we all thought. But we’ve all realized how epic this project is.”

A turning point was reached recently when OVG and chief contractor Mortensen agreed on a guaranteed maximum price. The GMP, an industry custom that typically sets the mark beyond which cost overruns become the responsibility of the contractor, was important enough that the city put a hold on demolition of the Key’s concrete bowl until the parties reached an agreement.

Now Leiweke can turn his attention toward schooling the public on how to describe the project.

“Many people think it’s a renovation; it’s not a renovation,” he said. “We are maintaining  the historic roof and creating a brand new building.”

For a billion bucks in private money, it’s the least we could do to call it the Saturn X.



  • ReebHerb

    Dump the roof. It isn’t that iconic. Historic architectural preservation is a club for busy bodies to meddle. Don’t wait until the next remodel to do it right. The arena is not Notre Dame.

    • DB

      It does seem odd that Seattle HAP Club would designate the Key roof as ‘historic’ given its relative youth. Even if you go all the way back to the ‘62 Worlds Fair you’re talking about something shy of 60 years old. By contrast, they didn’t bat an eye in 2017 when demolition for the new Mercer Arts Arena uncovered the original facade of the 1928 Civic Arena, complete with gargoyles. They were fine with destroying that. I don’t get it.

      • art thiel

        There’s not a lot left of significant Seattle that pre-dates the World’s Fair. The roof apparently met the standards for designation, but it is by definition a subjective judgment.

    • art thiel

      The ship has sailed, Herb.

    • Kevin Lynch

      “The arena is not Notre Dame”. Absolutely classic line, dude. Even without the fire. Which was extremely sad. It shines the light on our relative lack of history here. We have our quarter millennial mark for independence approaching and no one seems to be aware. Perspective.

  • coug73

    I suppose the Rat City Roller Girls will need to find a new venue to skate. As well as, a new practice facility.

    • Husky73

      I suggest White Center.

      • Howard Wells

        back to their birthplace? I hope they find SOMEwhere to lace em up!

    • art thiel

      You a season-ticket holder?

      • coug73

        I confess to being a dilettante, knowing family and students who skate. Jet City Roller Girls rock. Pink Pistols are the best.

        • art thiel

          You go. Nothing wrong with a good elbow to the throat.

  • 1coolguy

    Hansen must be busting a gut – Not only is this arena in a horrible location for all fans not living on Queen Anne or a monorail ride away, it is now a billion dollar baby. Yikes!

    • art thiel

      Some of his claims are being borne out.

      • 1coolguy

        As a Sonics season ticket holder who swore off the terrible commute to the games the final year, I don’t see going to many events here, as the traffic is WORSE now after work than in 2007. If it were in SODO, I would be a season ticket holder no question, as I would travel by light rail then walk the few blocks to Hansen’s arena.

  • coug73

    Save the roof. The memories of the Century 21 Worlds Fair visits and viewing Bill Muncey drive Miss Century 21 to victory on Lake Washington are fond memories. Watching the Sonics and the Rat City Roller Girls skate under the iconic roof are totems of my life. Saving the roof with other investors money is a win win.

    • art thiel

      Lots of folks of a certain vintage are fond of keeping the roof. Others don’t quite get the big deal. I can’t say either are wrong, just happy it’s privatelyu financed.

      • Zeno

        The fans will pay for it all, eventually.

        • art thiel

          ‘Twas always thus.

  • WestCoastBias79

    I’m a bit perplexed. I recall during the 1995 renovation, the only things remaining of the roof were the four big support pillars, the space between were rebuilt. Unless my memory is completely wrong, it was 24 years ago, it seems kind of silly to maintain the actual structure that’s not that old. Why not rebuild it to look the same? Might not leak as much. Then again. Seattle. At least the taxpayers aren’t on the hook for it.

  • Husky73

    If this was a public project, there would be hue and cry from all quarters complaining of the inefficiency and inherent waste of government. “Run it like a business” would be the outrage, and there would be gnashing of teeth and demands for heads to roll at city hall and elsewhere. It’s just another example of lapping at the government trough and ripping off taxpayers! We need someone with business sense to run the government!

    • art thiel

      To state the obvious: Yes. Publicly funded facilities are by definition minimalist, functional and versatile to as many constituencies as possible. See: Kingdome. See Coliseum. Only the private sector can afford to be extravagant.

  • Tom G.

    They clearly should’ve built this in SODO given the obvious problems KeyArena has with location, RISING costs and the uncertainty that it’ll even be appealing to the NBA.

    But…. 🤷🏻‍♂️

    • 1coolguy

      As difficult as it was to watch Hansen’s better location lose out, Seattle government did the right thing, as the result is a Seattle city-owned building is now going to generate funds for the city and thus is not the perennial loser it has been.
      SO better for the government, worse for the fans.

      • art thiel

        A privately owned building would have generated sales AND property taxes. But the city saw the overall biz benefit for the Center. OVG insisted on getting all arena rev streams, including naming rights, to pay down the big debt.

        • 1coolguy

          So the city will never receive any cash flow from the project? Does it get turned back to the city in 30 or 40 years?

  • Kristafarian

    “We are maintaining the historic rood and creating a brand new building.”

    Not to be rood, but …

    • art thiel

      Now you tell me.

  • Joe_Fan

    As I’ve mentioned on this site before regarding similar Key Arena renovation and the new hockey team articles, I just do not see how this whole thing pencils out from a dollars and cents standpoint. How are these investors going to make money on this deal? The investors aren’t doing this out of the kindness of their hearts. In the end, is anything going to come back and bite Seattle in the butt? Are ticket, concession and parking prices going to be through the historical roof?

  • jafabian

    Gotta wonder what Chris Hansen is thinking about all this.