Seattle councilmembers rip Times' reporting on arena studies

 SEATTLE - Two senior Seattle City Councilmembers, in an unusual move Monday, accused Seattle's largest newspaper of "factual errors" and "muddled understanding" of the SoDo Arena proposal.

Councilmember Tim Burgess introduced the 5-page memorandum in the afternoon council hearing, as a sharp rebuke of a recent series of articles by the Seattle Times.

One of the articles suggested the city ignored a study about a renovated Key Arena, and was the basis of a Sunday Times editorial about whether the city should approve a street vacation for the SoDo Arena.

Burgess said the article on February 13 and the February 21 editorial contained "factual errors" that resulted in "misleading and inaccurate conclusions".  Burgess said the Times has "a premise, about secrecy and conspiracy to hide documents, that is not supported by the facts."

Burgess pointed to the memo, prepared by council staff, to tear apart the Times. He was backed in his statement by Council President Bruce Harrell.

That memo, claims the articles focused on an AECOM study of Key Arena, and the Environment Impact Statement for the SoDo project, which had already been previously reported on by multiple outlets.

However, the memo points out that the reports were developed for distinctly different purposes, with the AECOM study done to analyze options for maintaining Key Arena, and the EIS to disclose the impacts of the SoDo Arena.

The memo reads, and references the author, Geoff Baker:

Mr. Baker's article conflates the purposes of the AECOM Study and the EIS. Mr. Baker writes that the AECOM Study contradicts a decision somehow made through the EIS process to "discard" a KeyArena rebuild.

"The report contradicted an earlier Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) last May on a $490 million Sodo District arena project pitched by entrepreneur Chris Hansen. State law required that the EIS study explore alternative sites, yet it discarded a KeyArena remodel as unworkable and reviewed only the option of a demolition and rebuild to add space for an NHL ice surface and seating."

Mr. Baker suggests that a KeyArena remodel alternative was "discarded" in order to avoid choosing this alternative. However, the purpose of the EIS is to disclose environmental effects and to assist decision-makers in evaluating the impacts of a range of options against the preferred alternative.

Before the EIS was begun, ArenaCo had declared that they would not be interested in participating in a remodel of Key Arena. A remodel of Key Arena would not have been a reasonable alternative to ArenaCo's project, even if it were a reasonable alternative for the City to consider. 

The EIS will have served its purpose if it fully evaluates the potential effects for a full range of reasonable alternatives, and it does so. On the other hand, the purpose of the September 2014 AECOM Study scope changes was to inform the City about its own options for redeveloping KeyArena.

Alternatives for the EIS were identified in 2012. Mr. Baker's article is factually incorrect in stating that the EIS Study was "discarded." Consistent with the 2012 list of alternatives, the Final EIS fully evaluated the potential environmental impacts of building a new arena on the existing KeyArena site. 

The EIS Study did not specifically evaluate a remodel of the existing KeyArena facility, but it seems reasonable to assume that demolition and construction of a new arena at the KeyArena site would have at least as many environmental effects as a remodel alternative.

Mr. Baker implies that the existence of the AECOM study was concealed from EIS planners.
"As to why AECOM's discoveries weren't incorporated, EIS planners say they never saw the information and that a 45-day public comment period ahead of the Sodo study's preparation expired Sept. 30, 2013. John Shaw, a senior transportation planner who coordinated the EIS for the city, said it would have been unusual to accept new information after that date."

On September 30, 2013, the solicitation for the contract that would ultimately be awarded to AECOM was three months away from being issued. There were no "discoveries" to incorporate; there was no study. 

The sensitivity on the issue, is due to the fact that the Council is about to take up a perhaps, last key vote on the SoDo Arena.  The Seattle City Council approved a Memorandum of Understanding for the project back in 2012, and is set to start discussions next month about vacating a two-block portion of Occidental to allow for investor Chris Hansen to build the NBA and NHL Arena.

The author of the Seattle Times articles, Geoff Baker, told KING 5: "We stand by the story as written."

Follow Chris Daniels on Twitter: @ChrisDaniels5


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