Seattle’s Hoop Dreams Grow Again, Raising More Arena Questions

By Knute Berger


October 31, 2016

Last week was a good one for those who hope NBA basketball will one day return to Seattle. For one thing, Chris Hansen, hedge fund manager behind the proposed SoDo Arena, announced that he will no longer seek public funds to help him build a new basketball-and-hockey arena. This frees him from a scenario, locked-in by agreement with the city, to get a franchise before he constructs the new venue. It’s also a win for city taxpayers who do not want to fund sports facilities for millionaires and billionaires, such as loaning $200 million in public credit.

On the heels of that announcement, Mayor Ed Murray said the city will be seeking proposals in January for the rehabbing or redevelopment of KeyArena at Seattle Center for a possible arena that could be NBA-worthy. A consultant’s report (AECOM) has suggested such a re-hab is feasible, and the city has received interest from some major groups with lots of experience in such things. The resurrection of this possibility comes after the city sat on the report for nearly a year fearing it would derail the agreement with Hansen. Now the city has a chance to consider multiple arena possibilities from multiple groups. In the long run, that can be a good thing.

Still, Seattle can’t accept good news without kvetching.

Hansen proponents feel threatened by the city’s putting KeyArena back in play. How can their SoSo arena get through the city council, etc. without the mayor’s single-minded backing? There are hurdles. The Port of Seattle has said that Hansen’s change of heart doesn’t address the transportation issues that will interfere with their operations. Hansen has removed a major public objection, but not the key one for the Port, railroad and the maritime industries and unions: location. Still, the mayor has said in the past that the SoDo transport issues are mitigate-able—meaning workarounds can be found. Sonics Rising still prefers the Hansen plan, and refers to the new development as triggering “An Arena Arms Race.” One hopes the race produces a competition that produces a viable winner.

The KeyArena concepts remain to be seen, but the 2015 AECOM report laid out ways in which the Key could be remodeled and configured to accommodate basketball and hockey. It also outlined other options—a specialized entertainment or tech hub, or even replacing it with affordable housing. Historic preservationists would have a problem with any plan that would demolish the former world’s fair pavilion’s iconic exterior, but that isn’t off the table. The interior has already been so altered it’s not a concern.

Basketball fans are understandably impatient to get a franchise back in Seattle, but barriers to that include the NBA’s own timetable for expansion. Hansen also alienated some in the league during his effort to obtain Sacramento’s team for Seattle, violating California laws in doing so. He might not be the league’s first choice for a local owner should they decide to expand. The proliferation of viable alternatives is a good thing, and Hansen’s new approach is an improvement over the old.

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