SODO Arena street vacation jumps a hurdle but is far from done

This afternoon the City Council’s Sustainability and Transportation Committee passed an amended version of the bill granting a street vacation to Chris Hansen for Occidental Avenue. But it wasn’t easy, and the next part is even harder.

If you haven’t read my post from yesterday previewing today’s meeting, go read it now.

Thanks for coming back! Five Council members showed up today: O’Brien, Burgess, Johnson, Bagshaw and Harrell. All nine amendments that had been proposed by Burgess or O’Brien were adopted; only one of them was controversial, and that was #2: the tightening up of scheduling requirements in cooperation with Safeco Field, CenturyLink Field, the Seahawks, Mariners and Sounders. The amendment says:

No Arena event on any non-holiday weekday or weeknight  may be scheduled to begin or end within one hour of the scheduled start or end time of any event at Safeco Field or CenturyLink Field, or both, if 1) the reasonably anticipated attendance at the Arena and one or more of those fields is more than 45,000 attendees, or 2) there would otherwise be three scheduled events starting or ending within an hour of each other at the Arena, Safeco Field or CenturyLink Field.

Now in the original bill most of that language is there; the amendment simply turns it from “principles” into “requirements.” But Harrell has a big issue with the 1-hour separation, arguing that it simply enough for traffic to dissipate from one event before the next event’s traffic starts arriving. Harrell said that this is “almost a deal-breaker” for him.

Burgess and O’Brien explained that the Safeco Field and CenturyLink Field authorities had approached them with their concerns about this language as well, and with some encouragement they are now negotiating with the stadium and sports team representatives on replacement text to govern scheduling — and the reports are that the negotiations are almost complete. If that is true, that language could be incorporated in before the full Council votes on the final version. But Harrell was not satisfied, since if that didn’t happen the current language  would be “bad policy.” O’Brien agreed and committed to working with Harrell to fix that if the negotiations don’t succeed. In the end, Harrell voted against this amendment, though it still passed without his support.

Bagshaw was a much tougher audience. She wants to see the street vacation conditional upon Hansen actually securing an NBA team; today by the strict terms of the MOU, the only thing that is conditional upon an NBA team is the use of public financing for the project. If Hansen could find a way to finance the project without public bonding, the Arena project could still go forward. she proposed an amendment that would do that, but found no support with the other four Council members present and her proposal died a quick death. Once that happened, Bagshaw joined the opposition camp: she abstained from the votes on all nine amendments, and she voted against passing the amended bill out of committee. “I cannot fathom why we are offering up the street vacation at this point,” she said. She noted that it would be “terrific” to have the Sonics back, and she thinks Hansen’s plans for the Arena are “beautiful.” But as to the likelihood of an NBA team showing up in Seattle, she said “there is absolutely no evidence the NBA Commissioner will allow it, and there is ample evidence to the contrary,” since no team is for sale, and expansion is not under consideration. She also noted her belief that the traffic problems are real and are not mitigated by the plan; she also reiterated her support for the freight industry in the SODO District, and that she wanted to look deeper into what could be done with Key Arena. Admitting that Seattle Center is in her district (Harrell accuses her of having a “Key Arena” tattoo). But Bagshaw claims that for her the bottom line is that “we’re putting a lot of jobs at risk for an NBA team that doesn’t exist.”

O’Brien, Burgess, Johnson and Harrell all voted in favor of the amended bill, but of course not without some speechifying first to note their concerns. Harrell stated that he wants the Sonics back but reiterated that the scheduling issue concerns him greatly and is “almost a deal-breaker;” he doesn’t see how the 1-hour requirements “gets past the giggle test.” “I want the Sonics back,” he said, “but I also want the Port jobs and I want to mitigate the impact on the Port jobs.” He also gave a shout-out to the port workers: “We hear the Port and the longshoremen. These concerns are not falling on deaf ears.”

Johnson pointed out that 30% of the city’s landmass is paved over for roadways, and argued that there are things that they can work with the Port of Seattle on to improve freight mobility other than simply preserving existing paved roadways. He also said that he wants to bring an amendment forward that would require Hansen to create a community liaison position for the project. And he ended by admitting to his inner Sonics fan, saying that with the Oklahoma Thunder in the NBA playoffs “it breaks my heart” to hear Oklahoma refer to the “legacy of the Supersonics” when Seattle should be getting the credit.

Burgess had made his case for the street vacation earlier in the meeting before presenting his amendments. Pointing out that street vacations are a regular occurrence in Seattle, he handed out two maps: one showing all the street vacations in the SODO area, and another with the 42 (!) street vacations that the Port of Seattle — the chief opponent of the Arena street vacation — has requested over the years.  Burgess reiterated a point he makes often: the City isn’t giving anything away. hey are selling the street section to Hansen, and he will pay market price for it; a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation in the meeting pegged it at around $18 million, which thanks to one of Burgess’s amendments would all go into a fund for SODO area transportation infrastructure improvements. Burgess had also noted earlier that the stadium representatives had asked for an explicit easement for the access road on the east edge of the Arena property; he believes that both that issue and the scheduling issue will get resolved.

O’Brien got the last word: he said that he has been approaching the issue as “one of tradeoffs. If an NBA team comes and the arena gets built, will the city be better off for this?” He also noted that the objectors have legitimate concerns: for freight mobility and for industrial and maritime activities.

So here’s how it stands: the amended street vacation bill moved out of committee with a recommendation that the full Council approve it. But with Bagshaw’s “no” vote it becomes a divided report, and that means the bill must wait an extra week before the Council can take its final vote. When it does finally arrive on May 2, the Council members will have another opportunity to amend it further, and we know from today’s discussion to expect at least three more amendments:

  • incorporating (hopefully) consensus language on how the two stadiums, the arena, and the sports teams they host will coordinate their schedules to minimize traffic impacts;
  • granting an explicit easement to Safeco Field for use of the access road on the east edge of the Arena property for traffic to and from the Safeco Field garage;
  • requiring Hansen to create a community liaison position for the Arena project.

In addition, Bagshaw may take another shot at tying the street vacation to Hansen actually obtaining an NBA franchise.

Assuming the scheduling issue is resolved, we know that four of the nine Council members will support it when the full Council votes: O’Brien, Burgess, Johnson and Harrell. We also know Bagshaw will vote “no.” The bill needs five votes to pass, so at least one of Sawant, Herbold, Juarez and Gonzalez will need to be recruited to support it. The rumor on the street is that Herbold will vote “no;” she voted no on the Pronto bailout, which is a strong signal that she will vote the same way here in favor of spending the city’s limited financial assets on more pressing social issues. Sawant has not spoken publicly on the issue, but I find it difficult to believe that she will support it as her supporters would view it as a sell-out to rich corporate interests. That leaves Gonzalez and Juarez, and neither have gone on the record on how they will vote.

The street vacation bill passed over a major hurdle today, but it’s not even close to being done. Harrell’s “yes” vote needs to get locked down, at least three amendments need to be handled, and one more “yes” vote needs to be found. Sonics fans, keep your champagne on ice — and if you live in District 5, call Council member Juarez and urge her to vote “yes” because her vote might make the difference.

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3 thoughts on “SODO Arena street vacation jumps a hurdle but is far from done”

  1. Great coverage! If I read the council members comments correctly, it appears that the Stadium folks have finally come to the table to talk about a working schedule. The hour is too small a window but it appears that it is a starting point to an agreement with the other stadiums. Harrell of course shifted the leverage from the Arena folks back to the stadium folks by saying it is “almost a deal breaker.”

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