Understanding the Key Arena RFP

This morning, as promised, the City announced a Request for Proposals (RFP) for redevelopment of Key Arena at Seattle Center.

There have been reports that the city has found more than one organization interested in at least discussing renovating the Key Arena as an alternative to Chris Hansen’s plan to build a new arena in the SODO district. This is an attempt by the Mayor to actively and formally explore that option. The RFP asks for proposals to redevelop it into a “world-class civic arena” for music, entertainment and sports events, including possibly an NHL or NBA franchise.

Let’s dig into the details or what the city is looking for — and what constraints they are placing on the project.

The RFP assumes that a proposer will be both the redeveloper of the site and the long-term leaseholder and operator of the new arena. The site is large: it includes not just the arena building itself, but also several support buildings to the south, along with the 1st Avenue N. parking garage and adjacent lot. Everything in the blue border on the map below, including all the purple buildings.

As is typical with many agreements like this, eventually the redeveloped property, including all improvements made by the proposer, all become owned by the City of Seattle  (the SODO Arena had the same requirement). The developer/operator would get to name the facility, and sell sponsorships and advertising  within the site.

But wait, there’s a catch. Actually, there’s a very long list of catches. Fasten your seat belt, because this is going to get complicated fast:

  • First, the RFP observes that the City is bound by its agreement with Chris Hansen’s group on the SODO Arena until December of this year, so nothing in the proposal can ask the city to do anything that would breach that agreement — including related to attracting an NBA or NHL team to Key Arena.
  • The north buildings are occupied ( KEXP, the VERA Project, SIFF Film Center, and Art/Not Terminal Project), and are also designated landmarks. So they can’t be touched and are excluded from the site property — even though the pedestrian areas and Key Arena’s “north tunnel” extend into it. Oh, and KEXP has the right to build an outdoor stage in the courtyard area adjacent to its space. So yeah, the neighbors like playing loud music. 🙂
  • Portions of the exterior pedestrian walkways, landscaping and hardscaping must remain available to the public, preferably including during the construction project.  This isn’t really surprising, it’s just one more constraint they will need to live with.
  • The project and design must conform to the Seattle Center Century 21 Master Plan.
  • The project must also conform to the Uptown Urban Design Framework. Council member Sally Bagshaw, whose district includes Uptown, told me this afternoon she sees this as “a great community opportunity” and was happy to see the Uptown UDF “embedded into the RFP.” No doubt this will include negotiations around parking, an ongoing issue in the Uptown area.
  • Key Arena itself is over fifty years old, and meets all six criteria for landmark designation by the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board.  The city expects the Commission to consider whether to designate it as such this coming spring. If that happens, then suddenly there are a whole new set of constraints on what can be done to the building as part of redeveloping it, and the proposer would need to sign a “Controls and Incentives Agreement” that spells out what it can and can’t do. In fact, the RFP specifies that proposers should assume that Key Arena will receive landmark designation and their proposals should reflect that. On the other hand, the city is also willing to entertain a proposal to tear down and replace Key Arena entirely — but only if that proposal is accompanied by a proposal for redeveloping the site under landmark designation (i.e. you can’t just propose to tear it down).
  • The developer is responsible for 100% of the funding and costs for redevelopment and construction. Also for relocating existing tenants as necessary, of which there is a long list: the Seattle Storm, Pottery Northwest, Seattle University, Northwest Folklife Association, Book-it Repertory Theatre, Seattle Interactive Media Museum, Skate like a Girl, Teen Tix, and ArtsED Washington.  Also for removing and/or relocating any public art on the site as necessary. Also all operation and maintenance costs and utilities.
  • The proposal must comply with the city’s Sustainable Building and Sites Policy, which requires at least LEED Gold certification as well as meeting standards for energy use, water use, construction waste diversion and bicycle facilities.
  • The project must participate in the city’s “1% for Art” program.
  • The project must execute a Community Benefits Agreement with the appropriate community organizations. That might need to include business stabilization funds to assist small businesses affected by the construction project.
  • The proposer will assume responsibility for all contract obligations with the existing tenants of the buildings in the site.
  • The proposer must sign “labor harmony agreements” with unions that intend to organize employees working at the redeveloped site. It must also have a plan for retention of “qualified workers” currently working in Key Arena.
  • The proposer must identify transportation impacts of the project and “multimodal strategies” to address and mitigate them.
  • Some Seattle Center tenants and sponsors have exclusive rights across the entire campus, including Key Arena, and the proposer will need to honor those agreements. For example, KEXP has the exclusive right to operate a radio station broadcast facility at Seattle Center, and Microsoft has the right to advertise as the official provider of Wi-Fi services. Also the Museum of Popular Culture (formerly EMP, now MoPOP) has the right to be the only institution at Seattle Center whose primary focus and use is the programming of exhibition space devoted to music and/or popular culture.
  • The proposer will need to allow the Seattle Storm to continue as a tenant until the end of the team’s agreement with Key Arena, even after the redeveloped arena opens.

Now, many of these items are typical of a public venue agreement, others are simply “business as usual” with the City of Seattle, and the MOU with Chris Hansen includes several of these items as well. But there are also many that are specific to Seattle Center and Key Arena’s history, and the combination makes for a very complicated list. Certainly a requirement list this long will give many potential developers pause, and it will be interesting to see how many decide that it’s worth pitching a proposal.  The city will be doing pre-proposal meetings with interested parties at the end of the month, and that will provide a clearer idea of how many organizations are considering a bid.

Here’s the city’s FAQ on the RFP.