As to be expected, nearing the date for the publication of the Final Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed arena project in Seattle's SoDo district, discussions about what's next and timelines will start heating up, with reports appearing en masse.
To kick things off, we have Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times, sports business writer who long covered the Mariners and, as a native of Canada, has a lifelong interest in hockey. Framing Seattle's admittedly slow arena effort as a roadblock to the NHL's current expansion plans, Baker spoke with Nathan Torgelson, deputy director of the city's Department of Planning and Development.
Baker and Torgelson dropped this little nugget regarding the proceedings:
And here’s the kicker: Approval for the Sodo arena project pitched by entrepreneur Chris Hansen is unlikely to happen before 2016. That’s right. We’re probably a year or more away from Hansen gaining permission to touch the ground with a shovel.
"It’s an ambitious timeline,’’ Torgelson says.
With the FEIS expected some time in late January, Torgelson goes on to explain his expected order and timeline of events once the report is in the city's hands.
FEBRUARY 2015: Occidental Avenue South Street Vacation
As a strip of this road currently bisects the arena project site, and the road is public property, the Seattle City Council must vote to vacate, or give up, that stretch of public infrastructure to the project.
- In February, Seattle Design Commission will study the request
- Design Commission hands that study off to Seattle Department of Transportation; they review and assemble their own report
- SDOT turns its report and a recommendation over to the city council by March 2015
- City council's transportation subcommittee reviews the recommendation from SDOT
FEBRUARY - AUGUST 2015: Potential FEIS Appeal
Opponents of the arena project are expected to file an appeal of the findings of the Final EIS. The appeal would be a challenge to the accuracy and scope of the FEIS.
- Once FEIS is published in late January or early February, arena opponents will take time to review the findings; could take weeks
- Arena opponents are likely to file an appeal of the findings of the FEIS to the city's Hearing Examiner
- Torgelson notes this process could take "four to five months"
AUGUST OR SEPTEMBER 2015: Street Vacation Vote
Once appeals of the FEIS have been resolved, the city council would then have to vote on the recommendation of the transportation subcommittee to vacate Occidental Ave.
- Baker states this could take some time for the subcommittee to vet SDOT's recommendation, starting in the summer. However, there's nothing that would prohibit the subcommittee from vetting the recommendation during any lengthy FEIS appeal process.
- The standard two-week recess for the council in August could push the vote into September or later.
- Further negotation with Hansen on terms of compensation and benefits to the city for the street vacation could also delay a vote
FALL 2015: Master Use Permit Approval and Other Permitting
Baker erroneously noted that Hansen would have to file for a Master Use Permit for the project, but has since corrected the article. Hansen filed for the MUP during the attempt to purchase the Kings, and his application is still active.
- If and when the street vacation vote passes, DPD will have to review and approve Hansen's MUP application
- MUP serves as an umbrella permit for the entire project; additional permits will need to be approved for each stage of arena construction
LATE 2015 OR EARLY 2016: Expected Legal Arena Opposition
With any project, there's an expected level of opposition. With a public-private partnership this large, legal opposition is a certainty, especially as arena opponents already attempted twice to oppose the signed Memorandum of Understanding between the city, King County, and Chris Hansen's arena group. As a reminder, that court challenge and its appeal were both tossed out for being premature.
Legal opposition to the project could potentially take months or years. The worry to many fans is that it could stall the project indefinitely. However, many a project has begun construction while the lawyers wrestle each other in court. Most relevant, Safeco Field broke ground amidst its legal challenge and look how that turned out.
It's the street vacation vote and Master Use Permit that are the most relevant next steps in the process. Keep in mind, these are separate from the city and county voting and entering into an umbrella agreement for the public-private partnership and financial framework designed in the MOU. That portion is still dependent upon Hansen's ownership group obtaining an NBA franchise.
For the NHL-hungry folks, negotiation would still have to occur over an "NHL-first" option. Given Mayor Murray's recent comments holding the city's line, it's difficult to say whether such an option will ever gain ground.
One other interesting aspect to note is that the MOU sets a specific timeline for a vote on the economic impact analysis that was included in this whole EIS process, something that is considered to be one of the main sticking points of the opposition. Requirement of the timeline is that the councils vote on the information provided in that analysis within 45 days of its publication.
To laymen, it's not entirely clear just what they would vote on. Is it a vote on approval of the information provided in the analysis? Is it so ingrained in the financial framework that it effectively means a vote on entering into the umbrella agreement?
The language in the MOU stated that the economic impact analysis needed to be completed within 90 days from when it started. There is common legalese that allows all parties to make amendments to these kinds of timelines, if all parties agree to it. Considering they've blown past that 90 days, it's fair to assume they agreed to alterations. Could they have agreed to an alteration of that 45-day requirement, as well? It remains to be seen just what kind of impact that will have on the overall project timeline.
A couple of caveats to Torgelson's proposed timeline. Whatever your feelings on Geoff Baker and his reporting -- the "iminent sale" of the Mariners and the soon-to-arrive Letter of Intent from the NHL are just two stories that have caused us to stock up on our salt while reading his articles -- the bulk of this is coming from a higher-up at DPD.
Now, we would be remiss to forget a certain recent mix-up in reporting from various outlets regarding DPD and the paperwork that Hansen needed to submit to complete the EIS process. Within a day of quotes from DPD's main spokesman that the department had still not received such paperwork came reports that DPD had, in fact, received the paperwork the week prior and the four-month conclusion period had already begun.
The second caveat is that, with all future timelines, things are subject to change, for better or worse. Baker and Torgelson could be completely right, or end up completely wrong.