Reflections on the SODO Arena Vote

So….  that happened. Let’s discuss.

In case you’ve been observing a local-media blackout, the Seattle City Council had a moment of high drama and suspense this afternoon, culminating in a vote to reject the vacation of one block of Occidental Avenue to make room for the proposed SODO Arena.

Going in, there were four clear “yes” votes: Council members Burgess, Johnson, Harrell and O’Brien. There were also two clear “no” votes: Council members Bagshaw and Herbold. That left three Council members who were still, at least publicly, undecided: Juarez, Sawant and Gonzalez.

Council member Bagshaw speaks during consideration of the Occidental Avenue street vacation
Council member Bagshaw speaks during consideration of the Occidental Avenue street vacation

They began their deliberations by considering seven amendments. The first three, put forth by Burgess,  we about further tightening restrictions and conditions on the street vacation: formally imposing the scheduling restrictions negotiated between the sports franchises last week; adding an easement on the access road on the east side of the arena so that the Safeco Field garage would be assured the continued ability to use that road; and ensuring that S. Massachusetts St. cannot be closed during construction or operation of the Arena. All three passed unanimously

Herbold also proposed three amendments, of which the first was the only significant one: it would have prevented the street vacation from taking place until Chris Hansen actually acquired the ownership rights to an NBA franchise. To understand the significance of this, you need to put it in the context of the 2012 MOU between Hansen and the city. The MOU, which expires in November 2017, allows Hansen to use $200 million of public bonding authority to raise some of the funds to construct the arena — but only if  Hansen has acquired rights to an NBA franchise before the MOU expires. Now the flip side is that Hansen could still build the arena without having an NBA franchise secured — a “build it and they will come” approach — but would have to raise all the necessary funds privately since the public financing would not be available. Herbold’s amendment would prohibit that second option; the street vacation would be conditional on an NBA franchise. There were two arguments for giving Hansen the option to go it alone: he could potentially line up an NHL franchise first (he wants both eventually), and it would make a bunch of people happier if he didn’t use public financing at all. But the chances of Hansen acquiring an NBA franchise without an arena built is next to zero, and everyone knows that, so adopting Herbold’s amendment effectively kills the deal. When it came time to vote, the amendment failed by a vote of 3-6, with Herbold, Bagshaw and Juarez as the three “yes” votes. (and yes, Juarez tipped her hand by voting yes)

Gonzalez offered up an amendment to protect public access and free speech rights in the public plaza of the arena, using the same language that was applied to the “Amazon Alley” alley vacation earlier this year. In that matter Gonzalez was also sitting on the fence but the free-speech protections in the amended version were enough to convince her to vote “yes.” Today as well, Gonzalez’s amendment passed unanimously.

So then it came down to final consideration and vote on the amended bill to grant the street vacation. And since this is a high-profile, controversial issue, all nine Council members felt compelled to deliver speeches on why they were voting yes or no.  By this time it was already clear how seven of the nine were planning to vote, with only Sawant and Gonzalez left undeclared; and one of them needed to vote “yes” in order to pass. When Sawant’s turn came (in the middle of the pack, she gave a drawn-out speech filled with tirades about how evil the Port of Seattle (the main opponent of the Arena) is, saying “I would never make a decision based on the claims of the Port of Seattle.” She claimed that she was torn, and she and her staff had to “dig deep” to sort out the issues, as unions were also split on whether the Arena should be built. Finally, she got to the point and declared that she couldn’t support anything that “threatens our working waterfront” and declared her opposition to the street vacation.

In a true “reality show” moment, with the vote apparently tied 4-4, Gonzalez was the last to speak. Her speech was high-minded at times, speaking to the need to be “thoughtful, but decisive” and declaring that pitting some union jobs vs. other union jobs is a “false dichotomy.” Likewise she said that making this an issue of “loving the Sonics” vs. “loving the Port of Seattle” was unfair and unhelpful. She spoke at great length about all the reasons she had to vote yes, and all the reasons she had to vote no, never hinting in which direction she was leaning. Finally, in a made-for-TV moment and despite her earlier introduction of an amendment to improve the bill, she announced that she was voting no.

So the final vote was 4-5.

The most likely scenario going forward is that Chris Hansen will spend the next 18 months unsuccessfully trying to land an NBA franchise, at which point the MOU will expire and everyone will go their separate ways. No doubt Sonics fans are drowning their sorrows in their beers tonight, as hopes for bringing the team back anytime in the next several years have been dashed.

But as I reflect on the afternoon’s debate and vote, I see four clear messages that the Council sent — intentionally or not.

  1. District-based politics, and allegiances, run deep. It is hard to overstate the extent to which district elections have fundamentally changed the nature of this Council. Arguably the largest impacts of the Arena would be to West Seattle and downtown with increased peak traffic, so it is no surprise that Herbold (West Seattle) and Bagshaw (downtown) were solidly in the “no” camp. Further, the Seattle Center is also in Bagshaw’s district and she was crystal clear that would like to see Key Arena remodeled for use by NBA and NHL franchises. And while Gonzalez holds a city-wide position, she lives in West Seattle, and spoke this afternoon to the earful she got from her neighbors about the potential traffic impacts of the Arena plan. If the Council was still comprised of nine city-wide positions, the street vacation probably would have passed.  This is a diverse city, with neighborhoods that have different issues and priorities.  Which brings us to…
  2. There are no permanent voting blocs in this Council. Those different priorities are going to play out over and over again in Council Chamber through the voices of their elected representatives. Today we saw O’Brien and Sawant, the two farthest left Council members, split. Recently Herbold, who many see as the third far-left Council member, joined with Burgess to oppose the Pronto bike-share bailout. The “Amazon Alley” vacation was also a controversial issue with an uncharacteristic split vote. The lesson here, for anyone bringing an issue before the Council, is that you will need to sell it nine times, with nine customized pitches.
  3. You can’t build a stadium in the Stadium District. It was argued by many that the Arena was one more attempt to gentrify the SODO industrial district and piece-by-piece erode the city’s industrial and manufacturing base. As Johnson pointed out today, the land that the Arena was proposed for is not zoned for industrial uses; it’s part of the Stadium District. In almost every way, the SODO Arena was the ideal proposal: smaller than Safeco Field and CenturyLink Field, supportive of public transit as well as contributing millions of dollars to local transportation infrastructure improvements, an owner who is low-key and prefers quiet, cooperative negotiations over flamboyancy and grandstanding (and who keeps his word), and target sports(basketball and hockey) that are perfect and natural scheduling complements to football, soccer and baseball. And it failed to get approval. If this proposal can’t get approved, there is no stadium or arena deal that can get approved in the Stadium District.  We have two stadiums there, and that is all there ever will be. If an NBA and/or NHL franchise come to Seattle, they will be at Key Arena or somewhere outside the city limits. At its heart, this wasn’t about a block of Occidental Avenue; this was a referendum on whether Seattle wants a third sports facility in SODO, and today the Council said “no.” Which leads to the fourth and last message the council delivered today:
  4. A deal with the City of Seattle expires when the elected officials who approved it leave office.  The MOU was first negotiated by Mayor Mike McGinn, then renegotiated and approved in 2012 by the City Council. Hansen has not tried any bait-and-switch tactics here; he’s kept to his word. The worst thing you can say is that he hasn’t yet managed to land an NBA (or NHL) franchise, but it’s not for lack of trying, or money, or pressure on the NBA and NHL; he’s acting in good faith.  Hansen’s group has been very generous with public benefits, and “green” features, and investments in pedestrian, bike and transit infrastructure. Moreover, there was nothing in the arena plan voted on today that wasn’t anticipated in the MOU: same size, features and location. Yes, the Environmental Impact Statement was done, and it showed traffic impacts, but not at a level that any reasonable person couldn’t have anticipated from the arena plan described in the MOU. There have been no surprises in the architectural planning for the arena. And yet, today the Council said “no” to an Arena that conformed to the terms of the 20120 MOU. To be blunt: this Council just repudiated the deal that a former Council made with Hansen. That is a dangerous precedent that will loom large in the eyes of anyone considering entering into a long-term agreement with the City of Seattle: you can’t count on the City Council to hold to the deals that its predecessors made. Forget about long-term public-private partnerships; a private organization would be insane to enter any deal with the City of Seattle that can’t be fully executed in two years. Ironically, the organization that should be most frightened by that precedent is the one who engineered it today: the Port of Seattle. The Port is completely dependent on the city for long-term investments in infrastructure, utilities, transportation, and other support; today it proved that it can’t depend on the City, its closest partner, to keep its word. Congratulations to the Port of Seattle; you’ve created a monster.

For the record: I despise NBA Basketball, and I have no vested interest in either side of this fight. But the implications of what happened today are huge for a City Council still finding its footing with new members and a new district model. I’m sure the Council members had many lonely moments as they decided how to vote today; but as a result of today’s vote it’s going to get even lonelier for them.

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