Thiel: Sizzling day in the arena-site argument

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by Art Thiel

SportsPressNorthwest

Posted on June 20, 2012 at 6:30 PM

While the sports world fixates on LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant, the match between Seattle's arena proponents and opponents became a whole lot grittier and more compelling Tuesday.

Back-to-back hearings in King County Council chambers produced a charge from an expert that the site in SoDo for the $490 million project is not big enough, and also would violate land-use laws, which brought a counter-charge from the mayor that the expert is a house honk for (ahem) Bellevue. And arena developer Chris Hansen was challenged: If your deal is so swell, why not put up the project for a county-wide vote?

The fact that Hansen didn't answer well the question made for more drama. Nothing was decided Tuesday, but if someone thought that the boisterous celebration of Sonics pride and Hansen-mania in Occidental Park Tuesday swung the deal, that someone might settle back for a longer ride, and order a double.

Late in the afternoon, Hansen's architectural firm in Kansas City responded to an SPNW story, retorting that Steinbrueck's assumptions were wrong regarding the arena being too small for the seven acres Hansen has purchased so far.

The expert was Peter Steinbrueck, a Seattle City council member from 1997 to 2007 who in 2000 helped create ordinances that he claims confine major developments in SoDo to the existing stadiums, specifically to exclude further encroachment upon the industrial character. See earlier story here.

After his presentation to the council's transportation committee, chaired by Larry Phillips, a site opponent who arranged for Steinbrueck's appearance, the longtime Seattle activist said the space requirements for the arena are more than Hansen has explained and would violate SoDo's land-use ordinances.

A few hours later, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn fired back.

"Siting a new arena in the District is legal and appropriate," his statement read. "In prior statements to the press and in his testimony before the King County Council today . . . Steinbrueck has advocated that an arena should be built in Bellevue, not Seattle. Building an arena in Bellevue would mean a loss of tax revenue, not only from sports but from other major events appropriate for arenas."

Reached by phone and told of the mayor's thoughts, Steinbrueck chuckled.

"I beg to differ with his lordship," Steinbrueck said, adding that he and McGinn are friends -- or at least, were, as of Tuesday morning. McGinn has much on the line: He has put a lot of political capital, and some of the city's bonding capacity, at some risk in the arena project that is unique in Seattle's checkered history with sports stadiums -- a rich guy chose the site first, and let everyone ask questions later.

Bad public policy, said Steinbrueck.

"I don't think people with a lot of money should dictate terms on a project of this size and expense," he said. "This (arena) is a direct assault on the industrial nature of SoDo. The (land-use ordinances in 2000) were written specifically to preserve our industrial lands. Now all of that seems to be forgotten.

"This decision has regional and even national importance (given the business the Port of Seattle does). The arena, and the proponents' stated goals of creating an entertainment district, are not possible within the boundaries of the industrial-zoned area."

As to the charge of being a honk for Bellevue-arena interests, Steinbrueck laughed again.

"I've had no contact with anyone over there," he said. "I'm not taking any money from anyone. Although I am a little surprised that there hasn't been more clamor from the Eastside, because they could use something like this."

Steinbrueck's claim that the lot size was too small was refuted in a written response from Hansen's architectural firm, 360 Architecture of Kansas City, relayed via Hansen's PR firm. Principal architect Anton Foss wrote:

"We can state confidently that based on our 20 years of experience in designing arenas, that the dimensions of the SoDo site will support a modern NBA/NHL facility. In our preliminary studies for the site conducted nearly a year ago, we overlaid several other modern arenas on the project site to verify there is sufficient area and critical dimensions. The site fits such arenas comfortably.

"The site would only be inadequate for one of the 'super-sized' arenas such as Staples Center (Los Angeles) or Amway Center in Orlando. These buildings have 150,000-300,000 extra square feet of office and lobby space that would be totally unnecessary for an arena in the SoDo area of the Seattle market."

Steinbrueck in fact used an overlay of the new, 875,000-square-foot Orlando arena in a rendering of the Hansen site shown Tuesday at the hearing to make his point about site inadequacy. Hansen hasn't said specifically what the dimensions will be other than to say it will seat 18,500 for basketball, and about a thousand less for hockey.

When KeyArena held the Sonics, it was the NBA's smallest arena at 368,000 square feet, a fact often cited by critics for its inability to create revenues to sustain an NBA franchise.

Steinbrueck said while the actual footprint of the arena perhaps could fit, barely, between the Amtrak train tracks on the east and First Avenue South on the west, there would be no room for the "apron" that surrounds all arenas, as well as parking and any amenities.

"You could build a (parking) structure over the railroad tracks," he said. "But if you go south of Holgate with anything that's part of the entertainment district, you violate the principle behind the land-use laws that dictate a transition between sports-recreational use and industrial use."

Foss wrote that the land-use questions were beyond his firm's expertise.

In the afternoon, the full county council met to hear Hansen for the first time in public make case for an arena in which he and his investors, which include Microsoft owner Steve Ballmer and the Nordstrom family, would pay $290 million, while the city and county would bond themselves to supply what amounts to a maximum $200 million, 30-year loan.

Questions from the council's chief site critics, Phillips and Pete von Reichbauer, led to tense, but polite, moments in which Hansen was asked if he'd consider allowing a county-wide vote on the project, something he has said in interviews he would not do.

"The public has already voted -- with I-91," Hansen said of a 2007 Seattle ballot measure that won overwhelming approval, mandating a modest rate of return on any building for pro sports. Von Reichbauer retorted by saying that was a city vote from which county voters -- his district represents south county voters -- were excluded.

"Government would be dysfunctional if every ordinance were required to be voted on," Hansen said, saying council members were elected to represent voters' interests.  Von Reichbauer reminded him that proposals to fund publicly the Mariners stadium (1995) and the Seahawks stadium (1997) came to public votes.

Hansen never said yes or no to the original question, but did say, "we will disagree, and that's your right."

A difference is that the Hansen proposal asks for no new taxes, but a re-direction of tax revenues generated by the project to go to debt retirement. "The money goes into the building construction, which the public will own, and not into our pockets," he said.

Meanwhile, in the first hearing, opponents of the SoDo site, including representatives of the Port of Seattle and the Manufacturing Industrial Council, had the floor to themselves to make again their case that project threatens port jobs and the welfare of industries throughout the district -- all preceded by the same qualifier that they want to see the Sonics return.

Port commissioner Tom Albro said a third stadium would be a "job killer" unless a lot of money is spent mitigating the impact of a new facility. He said all parties had the ability to solve the problem, but questioned whether there is the will to solve it.

"Basketball, good. That siting, without massive mitigation, bad," Albro said. "Siting an arena there is a job killer for us."

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