Over the last 3 years Chris Hansen and his SonicsArena team have been mostly silent, asking fans to be patient and respectful during a government process that seems unending and tedious to the average sports fan. That changed yesterday when SonicsArena.com delivered an emphatic call to action, declaring it #GameTime and asking fans to support their petition for street vacation by signing an online petition, contacting Seattle City Council via e-mail, and attending a March 15th Public Hearing on the arena at Seattle City Hall.
"This is an important step," they declared in a March 2 statement. "since it will make the Arena "shovel-ready" and send a strong message that our city is ready to welcome back the NBA and NHL."
Indeed, it would seem from this statement that vacating a short stretch of Occidental Avenue South is the final step in a lengthy and costly EIS process. Completing that street vacation changes the building status from "pending permission" to "shovel ready."
What does it mean to have a shovel ready building?
Leigh Steinberg is a longtime agent, NFL power broker, and entertainment mogul, perhaps best known for serving as the inspiration for the 1996 film Jerry McGuire. He recently co-founded Steinberg Ventures, a venture capital initiative which lists stadium development and franchise acquisitions among its core business activities. In a wide ranging conversation with SonicsRising, Mr. Steinberg provided some insight into the process of franchise expansion and relocation:
"Leagues have to deal with an endless stream of solicitations for team relocation and expansion" Steinberg said. "They review endless amounts of planning and hear lots of promises, many of which never come to fruition. There is inherent skepticism of proposals and plans when compared to an executed plan for an arena or stadium."
Steinberg is familiar with the process after starting his career in sports advocacy, leading a successful campaign to save the San Francisco Giants in 1992 and later helping resolve stadium issues for the Oakland Athletics. He also served as co-chairperson of a "Save the Rams" committee and since the team's departure has been closely involved with multiple efforts to bring the National Football League back to Los Angeles.
"I've been through this over and over again." Steinberg said. "It takes a leader willing to put together an actionable venue. Having a state of the art arena that is ready is a game changer."
Steinberg witnessed this firsthand when Los Angeles lost not one, but two National Football League teams in 1995. Following the departure of the Rams and Raiders, the United States' second-largest market was without the country's biggest sport for two decades. Without a viable stadium, the league maintained that LA could neither support nor attract a franchise of their own. Over time fans grew cynical and many abandoned hope that the league would ever return to their city.
For 20 years, various well-funded groups in the area tried to fill the hole left in LA's sports landscape, starting with Ken Behring's failed move of the Seattle Seahawks. At one point the city was actually granted an expansion team, only to have it later re-routed to Houston's Bob McNair when Los Angeles failed to find the money, ownership group, and workable NFL stadium. Los Angeles put together a number of stadium plans after that, including "The Hacienda" (think LA's version of Seattle's floating stadium concept) and AEG's LA Live site.*
Fans and supporters watched these fruitless efforts come and go on for nearly two decades until, according to Steinberg, the situation changed.
"The Los Angeles football situation was settled after 20 years of absence because an owner finally bought a piece of property, put together a stadium design and completed a plan to fund a new stadium. Los Angeles had reviewed endless plans and empty promises but this was the first time there was an owner that had a fully executed, shovel ready plan."
St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke bought land in the LA suburb of Inglewood in early 2014. One year later he presented a compelling stadium development plan which was fully approved by city council only one month later. Suddenly, after 2 decades of hopelessness, Los Angeles was ready for football again. That August, only six months later, NFL owners met to formally review the proposal and 5 months after that not one, but three teams filed to relocate to this rich market.
In short order the NFL had returned to Los Angeles.
Former Microsoft CEO and current LA Clippers owner Steve Ballmer identified the absence of an Arena Solution as the single largest obstacle to franchise acquisition during a 2011 GeekWire interview. "I think the challenges there are real estate challenges, honestly," Ballmer said at the time. "If someone can solve the real estate problem, I am quite sure it would be easy to solve the basketball problem."
If Occidental is vacated and that real estate problem is solved, Steinberg believes that an actionable arena ready to go would represent a significant milestone, giving Seattle a leg up on the process.
"There is a difference between all of these proposals and a viable, shovel ready arena," Steinberg said. "With an actionable arena ready to go, Seattle would have a leg up on the process. I would expect the presence of that facility to change the nature of conversation with the NBA and NHL substantially, and give Seattle an excellent chance of getting a franchise."
Some would argue that our arena is already approved. After all Seattle City Council voted in favor of a Memorandum of Understanding to complete the Arena permitting process by a 7-2 count on October 17, 2012. Despite that agreement our situation with the NBA and NHL remains largely unchanged.
Unfortunately, opponents of this project both at home and in other markets have been able to make a compelling argument that this MOU does not qualify the arena as shovel ready. Final approval, they claim, may be forever bogged down in the infamous "Seattle Process".
These concerns have lingered far longer than they should in large part due opponents such as the Seattle Times and their reporter Geoff Baker have put forward a narrative that the arena has been doomed from the start to die a slow death during the administrative process. The regions largest newspaper was recently chastised for this false narrative by a scathing City Council memo which accused the paper of putting forward "factual errors that result in misleading and inaccurate conclusions but has stood by their accusations that city officials acted inappropriately and brushed over arena alternatives as part of a conspiracy and continue to question whether the arena will ever be built.
League officials, long skeptical of Seattle's political establishment read these reports, leading to questions about whether the MOU will ever be converted to a ready permit. Their concerns have been inflated as a result of unyielding obstructionism from groups like the Port of Seattle, who have identified bottleneck moments like this street vacation as part of their "Sodo Deterrence Strategy," and Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln, who continues to lead arena opposition after once vowing that the arena will be allowed in his backyard "over my dead body."
Some of these same opponents are urging city council to hold off on street vacation until a franchise is secured, but Steinberg warns this is the wrong approach:
"The concept of waiting until there is a promise for a team precludes any chance of ever getting a team. The league wants to know that there is financing, permits, environmental impact reports, etc. that signify that this arena will become a reality."
The arena investment team has been patient and respectful during this long process, spending many millions of dollars getting the arena solution to this point. Like Kroenke in LA they have acquired the land, architects, economic studies, lawyers, traffic engineers and environmental studies needed to complete the job. They have acted in good-faith and done everything asked of them over the past 3 + years.
For more than a decade Seattle NBA supporters have attempted to talk around the absence of a finalized building plan. They have been asked to support a Renton facility that was never really designed, proposals in Bellevue and Tukwilla which have consistently failed to gain momentum and, of course, a red herring option at Key Arena which does not have, and seems very unlikely to ever have, the support of either professional sports league or significant interest from a private owner willing to invest in its renovation.
Now, after being mired in process so slow that even the most ardent supporters have had to question whether the critics were right and council would deny Sodo a building permit Hansen's team has declared the Sodo Arena a single step away from that magical "shovel ready" status. I want to see what happens when Chris Hansen completes the vacation of Occidental Avenue and has the opportunity to go to New York with a building permit in hand. I believe that giving him that simple opportunity could change the game, putting our city in the best place possible to bring an NBA franchise back to Seattle and an opportunity for any NHL investor who wants to bring professional hockey back to Seattle.
Leigh Steinberg agrees.
"My message to the people of Seattle" he says, "is that if you solve the building problem they will come."
Please encourage your friends and family to participate in the SonicsArena petition HERE, and also to e-mail city council at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to seeing you in green and gold at the Public Hearing on March 15th at 5:30pm.
To learn more about how Los Angeles changed from leverage city to a viable franchise destination, examine this timeline: LA_Stadium_Timeline.0.docx