If Russell Wilson’s life isn’t sufficiently difficult escaping on autumn Sundays from what he calls “the bears,” now the Seahawks quarterback will have some civic jackals snarling after his hide, following his partnership with Chris Hansen to develop an arena in Sodo.
“For a long time, I have wanted to own a team and be part of that,” Wilson, 28, said Thursday, in his first interview at Seahawks headquarters about wanting to buy in on his favorite childhood basketball team, the Sonics. “It’s a no-brainer to me why we should fight to bring and NBA team back here — an NHL team, too.
“It starts with the arena. It starts with getting the street vacation and doing all that work. It’ll be a quick process.”
That last remark awakened everyone in the room lulled by Wilson’s rhapsody about the community-building virtues of sports and his video-game love for for the mid-90s Sonics of Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp.
As Hansen should have informed him, nothing about the Seattle process is quick. Nothing is assured. And if the mayor’s office and the city council have their unspoken way, Wilson has joined the losing team.
Mayor Ed Murray will issue in January a request for proposals for a remodeled (or new?) KeyArena, the aging doyenne of lower Queen Anne that the past half-dozen mayors have felt obliged to try to trick up at various times.
They sought to make it a city-owned venue of sufficient modernity to host the biggest concerts and pro sports events in order to keep Seattle Center, the city’s unofficial living room, financially viable.
Such a plan would put the Key in direct competition with Hansen’s project, now in its fifth year with neither a shovel nor a team in sight. Wilson’s introduction to the chore can be seen as an attempt by Hansen to give some high-profile fizz to the once-rejected project ahead of an improved re-submission that includes 100 percent privately financed construction, needing from the city only a vacation of two blocks of Occidental Avenue and some breaks in taxes.
What hasn’t changed is the arena location, on the front step of the Port of Seattle, which, like KeyArena, has seen better times. The port’s staunch opposition was successful on May 2 when the council by a 5-4 vote rejected Hansen’s bid for the street vacation, based largely on the unproven contention the proposed arena’s increased traffic would choke the port to death.
Hansen’s willingness to drop his request for up to $200 million in a public contribution to be paid back did not change the port’s opposition. Nor will it change despite the support of Wilson, the “chief football officer” of one of the port’s biggest clients, Alaska Airlines.
Not only are the electeds reluctant to to pick another fight with the port and its allies, the sudden eagerness of the mayor to look at KeyArena again coincides with the expiration in one year of Hansen’s agreement with the city to develop his building, and his own bid for re-election that same November.
Not only that, two arena construction companies from Los Angeles, AEG and the lesser-known Oak View Group, have told the mayor that a remodel is theoretically plausible.
What the developers don’t know, and city officials are eager to find out, is the impacts on on the neighborhood surrounding the center. A quick drive/walk around the the Center will tell even those without a degree in urban planning that the lower Queen Anne neighborhood has undergone massive change in the eight years since the Sonics were hijacked with city permission.
That was among the priority topics at a recent public meeting of the Uptown Alliance, a community group most impacted by Center activities. In one of the first public explainers of Murray’s ambitions with the Key, the meeting hosted four city officials, including Brian Surratt, director of Seattle’s Office of Economic Development (OED) and point man on Murray’s arena idea.
He said that the city’s decision to seek RFPs was not competition with Hansen, but standard procedure prior to considering Hansen’s new proposal, which if approved would have negative impacts on the Center. The Key has been operating in the black annually since Sonics owner Clay Bennett paid off the building’s remaining $45 million in debt.
“If we didn’t look at options for the Key, we would not be doing our jobs,” he said.
Surratt and city officials couldn’t offer specifics — that’s what the bids are for — but they did hear concern from several residents about being potentially overwhelmed by a minimum 84 event dates for NBA/NHL games, plus an unknown number of top-shelf concerts and flat shows that can’t be accommodated now by the Key.
One resident pointed out that since the Sonics departed, at least 50 projects have been or are being built on land that previously held parking lots. Another said that current sellouts trap residents with traffic jams before and after events.
Another posed a bigger question, whether a massive new entertainment center is the best use for what he termed an “urban-resident village” that is already overwhelmed.
No one had answers. But the questions are a big part of a fresh conversation that is only beginning for Center users and residents. And nobody asked the biggest question: Who pays for it?
Two things are known about the Hansen project: A big reason he chose the Sodo site was because it had no private residences that would be displaced, and he now proposes to pay for the whole thing, plus public amenities not part of the arena proper.
We offer some of these factors as a small help to Wilson to understand that there will be no quick process. The city wants options, and Hansen needs a street vacation in order to pursue a team. The goals aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive — unless the city maneuvers to make it so by stalling the process past the expiration of Hansen’s deal with the city.
We also know a couple of things about Wilson: He understands how to maneuver in the most harrowing of circumstances, and he plays though pain that would drop most people.
Both virtues should prove useful in his new endeavor.
Art Thiel is co-founder of Sportspress Northwest.