Thiel: County's arena vote won't solve much


by Art Thiel


Posted on July 30, 2012 at 9:14 AM

Updated Tuesday, Jul 31 at 7:30 AM

One of the most compelling virtues of sports is resolution.

A fan studies information before the event to create expectations, spends two or three hours (except in cricket) spectating, then always gets a win or a loss (except in soccer and hockey) against which to judge one's expectations. Almost nothing else in life, at least fully clothed, can provide such definitive satisfaction.

But fast resolution is not going to to happen with the proposed NBA/NHL arena in SoDo. Please, arena proponents, holster your confetti, as well as your hard-wired desire for a tidy outcome.

The King County Council, perhaps partly because of the Aug. 7 primary election, has pushed itself to a possible vote Monday on the memorandum of understanding with developer Chris Hansen. Even if there is a vote, and it passes, it is not the end of anything, except perhaps the end of the beginning of this drama. The end is nowhere in sight.

It's possible the county won't take a vote. Council members,  staff and Hansen's group have worked through the weekend to negotiate a "striking amendment" that changes parts of the MOU, mostly at the request of the county. Proposed changes include an independent economic analysis, securing the SuperSonics brand and history, improvements to pedestrian access near the arena and strengthened language around the obligations to do a serious environmental review (SEPA) that would follow MOU passage.

Whether the changed MOU will satisfy a five-member majority of the council, as well as  being acceptable to Hansen, isn't known. But presuming the revised deal passes -- the county is the lesser invested party, so its risk is smaller -- intrepid followers of this saga know that the City Council must also vote on the MOU.

A city council majority may or may not like the amended MOU, and/or will propose its own changes, which may require county approval. Perhaps you begin to see the cricket analogy.

The city council has been more resistant to the project, for varying reasons, at least one of which is some members' dislike of anything Mayor Mike McGinn advocates. The city also has broken previous commitments to the Port of Seattle, the most prominent opponent of the arena besides the editorial board of the Seattle Times, which appears to represent the interests of the Mariners.

Yet there lurks a potentially more significant impediment.

To little fanfare Friday,  the Seattle Planning Commission released a 17-page report that concluded an arena inside the city's manufacturing and industrial center "holds a strong likelihood of displacing living wage jobs and nearby businesses and disrupting container port operations and freight mobility."

The commission is a panel of 16 citizen volunteers (no politicians) appointed by the mayor and council that is advisory, with no statutory authority. But they are in some shared view with city government, or they wouldn't have been appointed.  The commission's conclusion, based in part on an ongoing two-year study of Seattle's industrial lands, is perhaps strong enough to give council members the stones to stand up to arena proponents, or at least postpone the vote until after SEPA is done and the county's request for a thorough economic analysis is completed.

"We believe these risks are inherent with a spectator sport facility at this location," the commission wrote. "The Commission recommends that the City not take actions that further place this proven economic asset at risk. At the very least the Commission believes more review and analysis should be conducted before the City takes further action."

The bold face was the commission's typography.

The mayor's office quickly tut-tutted, saying an arena is an approved use of the land, which the commission did not dispute, and also claimed that transportation issues will be mitigated with the completion of transportation fixes already underway. However the findings are parsed and refuted, it is bad news for the mayor's advocacy of the arena.

Said one government official, who didn't want to be quoted because of the sensitivity of the issue, "I was blown away. I didn't anticipate that. This pales in comparison to all the other objectors."

Council member Tim Burgess indicated he was listening to the commission.

"They're basically pointing to the cumulative impact of activities that pose a threat, if you will, to our maritime industrial jobs," he told the Seattle Times.  "That is a very significant concern for the council."

That impact of that recommendation will likely weigh more heavily than another development Friday -- the abrupt public appearance of Chicago businessman Don Levin, who was all over Seattle-area TV, radio and newspapers claiming that he has been working for 25 months on an NHL hockey arena for Bellevue.

Besides the facts that Levin refused to identify the site or local backers or the nature of the deal with Bellevue, the timing was curious. Not only did the news get buried on the day of one of the biggest events on the sports calendar, the Opening Ceremony of the Summer Olympics, Levin decided to thump the tub three days before the county council vote.

In all interviews, Levin claimed ignorance of the county council's Monday vote. Just as Rupert Murdoch was shocked, shocked to find out hacking was going on in his empire.

While Levin's interest in NHL hockey and Bellevue had been reported months ago, his decision to throw it loudly upon the civic doorstep Friday was so clumsy that few will think it credible.

The only logic to it is political: The commonly discussed potential sites in Bellevue would be a potential business boost to many constituents in the Eastside districts of Council members Jane Hague, Kathy Lambert and Reagan Dunn. If any of the three are thinking about approving the MOU Monday, some of their boosters and backers may have believed they found a way, however obvious, to make their disapproval known. The stunt was only slightly less ham-fisted than Mariners president Chuck Armstrong's February statement that Hansen would "rue the day" he tried to put his arena in SoDo.

By the day, however, the arena deal gets more complicated -- not because of the money offered or the financing proposed, but for the site chosen. The stakes in SoDo are more layered than Hansen envisioned, as are the civic politics of McGinn vs. City Council, Seattle vs. Bellevue and even Port vs. Itself.

And thanks to previous sports-building fiascoes in this town, the politics come wrapped in scar tissue so thick that $290 million in private cash has yet to cut through it.

If you're a sports fan, think of of it this way -- everyone likes a little overtime, right?

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