Numerous, boisterous and passionate as were the supporters of the proposed SoDo arena Thursday night at City Hall, I don’t think the needle was moved by the public’s last, best chance to weigh in on the project.
The highly unusual combined meeting of city and county councils – the first in at least 40 years, according to King County Council member Larry Gossett – drew such a big crowd that many had to watch the proecedings on TV from an overflow room upstairs.
In the mandatory maximum one-minute turns at the microphone, sports fans held the majority opinion. Armed with sentiment from Sonics history, anger from the scoundrel-hood of Howard Schultz and Clay Bennett, and using data and rationale supplied by arena developer Chris Hansen – not to mention leveraging the most cash ever promised to a Seattle sports project by private investors – green and gold had the better stats.
Are they winning the game? Don’t know. But opponents aren’t going away. Judging by the emotions on both sides Thursday, neither is the split in the community. Unfortunately for all parties, Hansen’s choice of site has become an either-or proposition. It’s hard to see at the moment a compromise that will satisfy all parties so that lawsuits can be avoided.
The proposition to provide up to $200 million in public bonding capacity for a lease-purchase of the arena requires majority approval of both councils. The county is likely a yes vote, mostly because it has relatively little skin in the game. The city is another matter.
Multiple city administrations and councils have been negotiating with the Port of Seattle for years over traffic and infrastructure issues that have plagued SoDo. Not only have city commitments to the port such as the Lander Street overpass been abandoned, the port received no heads-up from the mayor’s office until news of the project broke in February. The port has been on defense ever since, and is more hapless at it than ex-Sonic Vladimir Radmanovic.
Taking the lead for numerous other SoDo constituencies, including the almost-invisible Mariners, the port has struggled to counter-punch a jab repeatedly made by critics who say the concerns aren’t as dire as the port makes them.
The jab was landed again Thursday by longtime Sonics advocate Brian Robinson.
“Bring statistics and facts to match the rhetoric,” he demanded.
The port’s answer? A shrug. Port CEO Tay Yoshitani said it again Thursday as the evening’s first public speaker:
"Right now," he said, "we just don’t know."
But if the port were more precise, what should say is: It can’t know. Because the port is being asked to prove a negative.
The potential job losses associated with traffic and gentrification are a supposition that can’t be sorted from the threats to jobs from market competition and other non-arena factors that existed before anyone in Seattle heard of Chris Hansen. But his project’s arrival is an opportunity for the port to use the arena attention to leverage long-standing grievances.
That’s OK. The port’s commissioners would be idiots if they didn’t seize the moment.
They are seizing the moment. More significant this week than the public hearing Thursday was Yoshitani’s letter to city and county officials urging that an environmental impact study be done before the memorandum of understanding is voted upon next month.
“The limited transportation study conducted recently on behalf of the arena proponent did not fully analyze our seaport operational issues and incorrectly described terminal operations,” Yoshitani wrote. “The Port urges the City to exercise its discretionary SEPA (State Environmental Policy Act) authority, in a phased approach to environmental review, before making any affirmative commitment of public resources allowing the arena project to proceed.”
What that means is the port wants an independent analysis before the MOU is signed, because it would give the port, and the public, some of the facts demanded by Robinson and others.
The MOU commits the city to a SEPA review and states clearly that public funds will not commence until after it is completed. But the port thinks that once the MOU is signed, little will stop the project's momentum.
Knowing a little bit about human and political nature, the port is probably right. And having been hosed by the city in previous commitments, the skepticism is warranted.
Yoshitani makes no threats to sue in his letter, but that would be pointless. The longshoremen's union would be among several likely candidates to file suit challenging the city's position. On the council, there could be five votes to keep, as Yoshitani said, "the horse ahead of the cart."
Two council members said after the meeting that an EIS before an MOU vote "isn't going to happen." And if the city council insisted, Hansen could well see it as a deal-breaker, because the first phase of an EIS requires comparing his site with comparables. His group vetted multiple sites privately, and reasonably would loathe the public push-pull of three or four sites competing to win him over to something he's already rejected.
The city tried a compromise, sending a letter to the port Monday listing 20 possible mitigations of traffic that could constitute a compromise. Turns out, according to two sources familiar with the list, that most of the offerings had been subjects of years of conversation between the sides and offered little new.
So unless someone has a better idea soon, the city council will have the choice of telling the port no, which invites a lawsuit, or Hansen no, which invites a farewell.
Would have been so much easier, even pleasant, four years ago, to tell Clay Bennett to drop dead.