How the Seattle Center arena rose from the SoDo ashes
How the Seattle Center arena rose from the SoDo ashes
Author: Chris Daniels
Published: 2:50 PM PST December 13, 2017
Updated: 2:50 PM PST December 13, 2017
ARENA 3 Articles

Editor's note: Story and video clips include graphic language that some may consider offensive

If viewing in the app, click here for additional content.

You could use the word irony.

It is the city’s female elected leaders and staffers who will deliver an arena to Seattle.

They are the same leaders who endured a violent, misogynistic, onslaught over a vote on another arena across town. They are the same leaders, who spent countless hours on weekends, and behind closed doors studying the proposal.

Councilmember Debora Juarez tries to downplay the word "irony," as she sits in her council office now, saying the past several months have also been about something else.

"I’m about delivering and getting shit done," Juarez said.

The latter was a common colloquialism as the straight-shooting council member talked about the last 18 months at City Hall and what could be her defining piece of legislation.

In a nearly hour-long, blunt, on-the-record conversation, Juarez talked about how the city was first approached and got serious about a KeyArena renovation again. She also talked about what she perceived as shortcomings in the SoDo arena effort and how investors failed to speak up when council members were threatened over their vote last year.


How the Seattle Center arena rose from the SoDo ashes

Chapter 1

'It shoulda been called a hate crime'

Juarez, a first-term councilmember, is a former public defender and King County Superior Court judge. She has quickly developed a reputation at City Hall also as a researcher, and someone who isn’t afraid to drop an F-bomb to make a point.

“You don’t even know, motherfucker, what I’ve done,” Juarez said, talking indirectly about the fans who criticized her vote last year, who hadn’t see the research she did before the SoDo arena street vacation vote. It is a phrase reflexively prompted by the incredible, and unprecedented, backlash towards council members after a majority voted to reject a street vacation petition on May 2, 2016. That vote would have cleared the way for Chris Hansen’s investment group to build a new arena in SoDo. Juarez had been working on the issue since her initial days in office.

The vote was 5-4. The five female council members voted no. The four male council members voted yes. Liberal Seattle got an earful that some people in this city believe is only reserved in rural, conservative America.

“It shoulda been called a hate crime,” Juarez said, “It was, 'You’re a cunt. You’re a whore. You’re a dumb bitch,'” She says, in detail, there were calls to her office saying they knew where she lived and, according to Juarez, there were social media threats to her children and Seattle Police were forced to come to her house.

“It wasn’t backlash,” she said, “It was violent.”

Juarez acknowledges she was disappointed in Seattle, and the local media in particular.

“(They) were personal threats at us – that’s OK? Because it has to do with the Sonics?" she said. "That was wrong and you guys should be held accountable for that."

She said, asking a rhetorical question, “What if that happened to your young daughter?”

“Would you say, 'Honey. That’s just how men are? They just really want a Sonics team. That’s OK they want to rape you.'” She continued, “The hypocrisy of sexism – it was OK for Mr. Hansen and his band of merry followers including the press and the knuckleheads on the radio,” she said. “He should have immediately said, "This is wrong.'”

Hansen’s team did release a statement within 48 hours of the vote, condemning the threats.

But the damage may have already been done. The local political landscape was seismically changed.

“I was slapped upside the head for being a woman, and having an opinion about a sport,” Juarez said.

The backlash, which Juarez said is too kind of a description, became a story picked up by The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Samantha Bee’s late night comedy show.

The SoDo Arena effort was torched, even if Hansen and his friends had nothing to do with it.

Juarez acknowledges she was skeptical KeyArena would ever be discussed as a potential location for a new arena. She said as much in the days after the vote. The infamous, and often quoted, AECOM report, which claimed KeyArena could be rebuilt for $285 million, had its flaws. But it was cited by proponents as a reason why the area needed examination.

Hansen, perhaps mistakenly, told then-Seattle Mayor Ed Murray he could look at the Seattle Center site and see if he could find an investor.

There were many people at City Hall, who believed Murray already had AEG on Line 1. The arena conglomerate had its hands in the operations of KeyArena. It hired PR guru, and the mayor’s friend, Roger Nyhus to lead the communications effort.

Chapter 2

Doing her homework

Tim Leiweke and his upstart Oak View Group (OVG) reached out in August, according to email records. OVG had only been in business since November of the previous year, but Leiweke had legitimate friends and business chops. Juarez says it was by Thanksgiving 2016 when the talks got real.

“I immediately did my homework,” she said, “Many weekends bringing a lot of stuff home. I really attacked this project as a trial lawyer and helped draft the RFP (Request For Proposal).”

Again, she repeats, “I wanted to get shit done.”

On Sunday afternoon, she was still working and eager to show off the amount of material she’s collected and studied. Her second-floor office includes multiple binders and notes on the SoDo Arena proposal and KeyArena. It dwarfs any other topic in the city for her.

A combination of timing and tenacity put her in this position.

Juarez was already the chair of the Seattle Center committee for the Seattle Council, and any talk of the renovation of KeyArena would fall under her jurisdiction. She worked out a deal with Council President Bruce Harrell to co-chair a “Select Committee on Civic Arenas.” Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, whose district includes Seattle Center and is a former Seattle Center committee chair, would always be within ear range.

Juarez credits another woman -- Seattle City Council Central Staff Chair Kirstan Arestad -- with doing a lot of the work to investigate whether the city could feasibly go down the KeyArena road again. The central staff often work long hours with little praise. They give general presentations at council meetings, but don’t live under the same spotlight.

“She needs some major props here. She was the glue that held us together,” says Juarez of Arestad. Bagshaw attended numerous after-work hours community meetings, to gauge the city’s viability.

There have been a lot of skeptics.

Juarez says she was also a skeptic, of AEG, which originally bid on the proposal, and of Oak View.

I told them, “Seattle’s sensibilities are different. You will have to engage in the Seattle Process. That’s just required. That’s the cost of doing business here,” she said. But Juarez noted, “They did their homework. It was reflected in the MOU (Memorandum of Understanding), They did talk to Seattle Public Schools, They did talk to the Space Needle, to the Pacific Science Center, talked to KCTS, talked to KEXP and other folks.”

But the bottom line, Juarez said, “I never looked at it like, 'Oh. We’re building an arena so we can have a basketball team.'"

Juarez added, “We were gonna drive this train. My job was to keep it on the tracks.”

Juarez says the entire time she thought about the public park and the chance to revitalize Seattle Center as a whole.

That meant a series of public meetings and hearings. If the discussions truly began in August of 2016, it would take 16 months to get to an MOU. The SoDo plan was done in half that time back in 2012. Juarez says she dove into every detail and looked at the project in its totality at Seattle Center, saying it deserved the scrutiny that city leaders gave the Century 21 project in the 1950s.

“I wanted to take the long view," she said.

She has a binder in her office just on the history of the Seattle Center site and what city planners envisioned for it with the World’s Fair.

Chapter 3

Free pass for Hansen?

Meanwhile, Hansen’s camp offered to tear up its MOU, privately finance their arena project, and pay for the Lander Street overpass. The group also re-applied for a street vacation permit for a one-block stretch of Occidental Avenue. It also used Seahawks Quarterback Russell Wilson to try and sell the deal. It all gained very little traction at City Hall.

Juraez says Hansen was given a free pass by the press through it all.

“The media created this fiction (about him),” she said, “There was no team. There was no arena. They were not shovel ready.

“There were untruths being sold to hype up a base to have a villain in a story in case they didn’t get what they wanted," Juarez continued.

The Hansen camp would later float an offer after the Request for Proposals deadline to subdivide KeyArena as a concert hall. Macklemore, Sir Mix-A-Lot, and other artists signed a letter to lobby for such a plan.

Again, crickets.

Juarez says it didn’t help because Hansen was always missing a vital part of the equation.

“A deal was a deal. Mr. Hansen did not come up with a team. Nobody wants to hold Mr. Hansen to what he was supposed to deliver,” Juarez said “Had Mr. Hansen come forward with a basketball team, that would have been a completely different -– pardon the pun –- ballgame. But he didn’t. It was a failed MOU, and the city did not fail. Mr. Hansen did.”

By contrast, Juarez said that Leiweke, OVG Seattle chair Lance Lopes, and investor David Bonderman all quietly made the rounds in Seattle. Bonderman met with Seattle City Council members. Leiweke, known for being the showy salesman, didn’t seek the stage. Lopes attended multiple community meetings, some sparsely attended, just to show a commitment.

When the OVG bid came in April, minds were changed. Office of Economic Development Director Brian Surratt said the proposals “knocked it out of the park."

Even Council President Bruce Harrell, a SoDo proponent, said he was confident a deal could be signed on the KeyArena site by the end of the year.

It all culminated with a made-for-TV announcement in June, outside KeyArena, with Leiweke and Murray proclaiming the spot was the best to build a new arena and that OVG was the winning bidder. NHL owners were in attendance, including the Vancouver Canucks Francesco Aquilini. Conspicuously absent were any council members. That was by design, more than one has said privately, to show there was no rush to judgment.

Juarez said she talked extensively with Bonderman, both by phone and in person. The University of Washington graduate, who is worth $1.5 billion, is oft-mentioned as a potential NHL owner. He’s a minority investor in the NBA’s Boston Celtics. Bonderman was also on the Uber board until he made a flippant, sexist remark to Arianna Huffington at a staff meeting. It prompted Bonderman to resign.

“Am I satisfied? Yes, we talked about it,” Juarez said, “I asked him point-blank, and he said, 'I said something really stupid and what the press didn’t report was me and Arianna have been friends for 20 years, and you know, I said something stupid. It was something not worth fighting about it, and I said it.'"

In September, the council and the executive’s office agreed to a tentative MOU with OVG to build a privately funded $600 million arena at Seattle Center, with at least $60 million in transportation and community improvements. The news conference to announce it was canceled as Mayor Ed Murray resigned the same day. Leiweke never got to make an announcement as he waited in a KeyArena suite, again away from the stage.

The council made some minor adjustments in committee hearings after that, led by Juarez and Bagshaw, in particular.

Juarez says few know that multiple council members contributed at some point to the process.

“Rob (Johnson) was phenomenal,” she said, bringing up transportation issues that needed to be addressed. She says Kshama Sawant and Lisa Herbold pushed for a document that included mobility and labor harmony. Lorena Gonzalez wanted race and social justice issues involved. Bagshaw attended community meetings because, "That was Sally’s districts and those are her constituents and those are the people she has to answer to, not just business.”

They voted 7-1 to approve the MOU.

OVG had already met with new Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan on two separate occasions and briefed her on their plans.

Juarez says she’s not going to promise an NHL team or NBA team will play in the building because, “It would be hypocritical of me to say that is true,” with a “pretend team in a pretend arena.” She also says she’d still be willing to listen to Hansen if he came back with “real team and a real plan."

But, it is clear the council member -- a three-time cancer survivor -- is empowered by the events of the past 18 months.

“The very people who attacked us, threatened us, slandered us are the same individuals that we are delivering a world-class arena to so they can have a team,” Juarez said, “So you tell me what that means and says about the character of not only me but the other women on council, and men, particularly women. What does that say about us as elected people having integrity, forgiveness, and just doing our jobs?

“I had grit. I’m really proud of, proud of my colleagues, and to some degree a little proud of myself. It was easier than chemo."