Burgess fires back at Seattle Times over SODO Arena

At the end of the City Council meeting this afternoon, Council member Tim Burgess accused the Seattle Times of shoddy reporting in their recent article and editorial on planning for the proposed SODO Arena and for the future of Key Arena.

In a story posted earlier this month, and repeated in an editorial this past weekend, the Times accused the Mayor’s office and City Council members of delaying a consultant’s report looking at options for Key Arena — one being remodeling it for the potential use of an NBA or NHL franchise — until after the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the proposed SODO Arena became final. The EIS did not consider a Key Arena remodel as an option, whereas the consultant study found that it was a viable option considerably cheaper than building a new SODO arena.

No so, said Burgess, and distributed a memorandum from city staff that backs his claim. But there are several parts of this story to unpack.

According to the memo, the SODO Arena EIS preparation was begun in October 2012. By law, it must present alternatives for the purposes of contextualizing the proposed project’s impact on the environment relative to those other alternatives. The EIS in total evaluated five:

  1. the proposed SODO arena as proposed, with 20,000 seats;
  2. a slightly smaller version with 18,000 seats;
  3. doing nothing;
  4. demolition and replacement of Key Arena with a 20,000 seat arena;
  5. demolition and replacement of Memorial Stadium with a 20,000 seat area.

The Seattle Times is correct in pointing out that the EIS did not evaluate a remodel of Key Arena as an alternative. Why? Because Chris Hansen had made it perfectly clear that he had no interest in a remodeled Key Arena. The EIS is required to evaluate reasonable alternatives, but since that one had zero chance of getting built, it didn’t make the list, says the city. The idea of a Key Arena remodel was indeed discarded, but not by the city as part of the EIS process; it was discarded by Hansen before the EIS process even started.

The draft EIS was published in August 2013, and a 45-day comment period followed. According to the memo, after the comment period closes the people who developed the draft EIS would not normally take new information; their job is simply to address the comments and publish the final version of the EIS. So they claim that by the end of September 2013 the EIS had all the information input it was required to get.

Which brings us to the second report. As part of the MOU the city signed with Hansen,  it says:

During the 12 months following approval of the MOU, the City will lead a planning process to evaluate options for the future of Key Arena or the Key Arena site… The goal of this process will be to identify an option(s) that is financially sustainable and that significantly contributes to the vitality of Seattle Center.

So, assuming the SODO Arena gets built, what should happen to Key Arena? An excellent question to study. The Council issued an RFP  in December 2013 for a contractor to conduct the study, and awarded the RFP in June of 2014.

There’s an important timing point here: the SODO Arena EIS finished its comment period in September 2013, and the City Council didn’t even issue its RFP for the Key Arena study until three months after that.  By normal procedures, there is no way that the Key Arena study should in any way affect the SODO Arena EIS.

In fact, according to the memo, the original version of the Key Arena study assumed that SODO Arena was built and was the home of NHL and NBA franchises, so it only looked at options for Key Arena that didn’t involve hosting an NHL or NBA team.  Instead, it looked at:

  1. Keeping Key Arena in a form where it could continue to host the Seattle Storm and Seattle University’s basketball games, as well as concerts and other events;
  2. Focusing Key Arena solely on entertainment events and getting rid of basketball hosting;
  3. An open-ended alternative for something “consistent with Seattle Center’s purpose statement.”

It wasn’t until September 2014 that the consulting agreement was modified to include consideration of what to do if SODO Arena doesn’t get built: potentially hosting NHL and/or NBA teams, keeping it the way it is, or redeveloping the site as housing.

So the consultant’s study became a broad look at what could and should be done with Key Arena across different scenarios.

In May of 2015, the Key Arena study issued a draft report. The Council asked for some additional work, and the revised and final report was issued in June 2015.

Also in May, the final version of the EIS finally issued. It certainly seems odd, at least on the surface, that the draft took 8 months, and the final version took another 20; I’m trying to find out more information about why. But at least it seems plausible that the timing of final reports is coincidental; and more to the point,  there was never an opportunity (or a desire) for the Key Arena report to influence the SODO Arena EIS. They were separate efforts with independent goals, and even knowing that that Key Arena could be remodeled for significantly less than the cost of building a new arena, it still wouldn’t have been a reasonable alternative in the SODO Arena EIS because Chris Hansen made it clear that he would never fund such a project.

Burgess claimed in the Council meeting today that the Seattle Times had all this information when writing their story and chose to ignore it in favor of accusing the Mayor and City Council members of scandalous behavior. That may be so; there is certainly no love lost between the Council and the Times.

All that aside, the next question before the Council is whether to vacate two blocks of Occidental Avenue so that the SODO Arena could be built. The Seattle Times argues that it should put off the decision until an NBA or NHL team is secured, or at least make the vacation conditional on the team being secured next year. Street vacations such as this one already have a built-in “use it or lose it” expiration date tied to the beginning of construction on the project, so it’s not clear how much good it would do to add an additional constraint — especially if it creates a chicken-and-egg problem where a franchise can’t be secured until there’s a stadium (at least under construction) and there can’t be a stadium until there’s a franchise.  At the same time, it is useful for the City Council to know that it could still host an NBA or NHL franchise in the future even if the SODO Arena doesn’t get built, and the price tag is lower. It would have to be done without Hansen and his syndicate, but not too long ago we thought Steve Ballmer was the one who would bring basketball back to Seattle. If Hansen walks away, someone else will eventually come along.