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Sodo Legal Maneuvers Derail Campaign Reboot

By all accounts, Chris Hansen's last trip to Seattle seemed to be very effective.

While Hansen's presence on the scene always serves to energize his fan base, this particular iteration seemed a little more substantive than recent attempts.

We've all gotten used to the drill. The Sodo arena champion blows into town with a "game changing" tweet, generates a flurry of media from friendly sources at KING 5 and KJR 950, and leaves the scene with the ball ostensibly in the city’s court.

This time, he seemed to expand the playbook a little bit, speaking publicly in council chambers and arranging private meetings with influential stakeholders. His team utilized local music influencer Ben London very effectively in Council chambers and followed with a direct pitch to The Stranger's audience, offering the potential for London to become a more frequent proxy for the Sodo campaign.

Perhaps the most surprising move of all was a decision to sit down with the Seattle Times editorial staff after years of conflict with the paper. This move, combined with his council testimonial, seemed like an announcement that Hansen was back in the game personally and ready to take the fight directly to the people in a way that he has not done since his first successful campaign in 2012.

Initial results seemed promising. The Times' Matt Calkins published a solid support piece titled "This much is clear: Chris Hansen's Sodo arena group deserves one last listen.” London's Stranger Op-Ed provided a rallying cry to the music and nightlife industry. An unforced error by longtime Hansen antagonist Geoff Baker opened the way for new scrutiny of the SDOT street vacation process.

For a moment, things seemed different. It finally seemed possible to envision a new campaign with a lesser, but more realistic, goal. We all got a taste of hope that, while Hansen had abandoned efforts to block the Oak View Group's renovation of Key Arena, he had successfully opened the door to a renewed push for street vacation. The concept of a two arena solution appeared possible.

Then came this report of direct legal intervention by the Sodo team:

Hansen’s land-use lawyer, Jack McCullough, has submitted a letter to the city arguing that KeyArena renovation should be considered a “public” and not “private” process.

That’s huge, because if the renovation is deemed “public” then the environmental study would have to examine alternative sites for the project. Such a move would prolong the EIS and likely delay the KeyArena renovation to the point it misses its targeted October 2020 opening.

The letter can be found on the city’s website, in a public portal listing all comments received on the KeyArena project.

If this sounds familiar as a strategy, it should: The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local No. 19 used the same public-vs.-private and “alternative sites” argument in its attempts to thwart Hansen’s project in Sodo four years ago. The union has been a key ally to the Port of Seattle in its battle to limit sports sprawl in Sodo, with both arguing that Hansen’s planned arena and surrounding ancillary development would hamper neighborhood traffic.

While Hansen spoke to council about it not being his business to tell the city what to do with their asset, not interfering with Oak View Group, and waiting patiently in case his Sodo facility was needed to bring the NBA to Seattle, the actions of his legal team reveal a substantially different plan. One in which he does everything possible to derail Seattle Center progress, blocking the NHL from arriving in order to buy additional time for his team to get their act together and make another run.

If successful, Hansen’s legal attack would cost the city its current opportunity to acquire an NHL franchise for the 2020 season. In a best case scenario, it leaves the city’s primary arena and entertainment venue in its current state of disrepair for another 5 or more years. At worst, because Hansen’s entire project is conditional on acquisition of an NBA team, the region could be left starting over with an outdated Key Arena having sat on hold for a decade if he ultimately proves unsuccessful in acquiring a team.

Within City Hall, this apparent contradiction between his spoken intent and legal actions has been very poorly received. Unfavorable comparisons are being drawn to Hansen's decision to secretly fund Sacramento arena opposition after a failed acquisition of the Kings. Then, as now, Hansen had steadfastly refused to be drawn into direct conflict, only to take questionable last-minute actions as failure became more certain and desperation set in.

Despite being years in the past, those Sacramento payments remain a critical stumbling point for the Sodo project. While there have been private admissions of clarifying details and repeated assurances by Hansen and his team that the incident did not damage his standing with the NBA it did sow seeds of doubt about Hansen's character that have, over time, grown into more substantive concerns. Attacks on his reputation through the years, carefully cultivated by the Port of Seattle and other opponents, have gone unanswered, allowing council members and other city officials to increasingly question whether Hansen can be taken at his word when describing his ability to acquire partners for the NBA or NHL, fund the project, or establish a clear path to franchise ownership.

Reaction to McCullough’s EIS commentary by Seattle leadership was swift and decisive.

"I'll just be candid with you. I supported the Sodo arena, but there was a lot of work I thought they had to do on their part and I think they're falling a little short. The lines are still open, there's still life in that project, but I have to tell you there's a lot of good attention focused on KeyArena and we'll see what happens."

Council President Bruce Harrell via the Seattle Channel


"We're waiting for Mr. Hansen’s group to get additional information to our evaluators at SDOT. Until that's complete, there is nothing to send to the city council…I think the ball is in Mr. Hansen's Court."

Mayor Tim Burgess via the Seattle Channel

Tim Burgess and Bruce Harrell were unquestionably among Hansen’s strongest supporters in city government, spearheading the 2012 MOU effort and voting in favor of street vacation in 2016. Without their support it is hard to imagine a path forward for the Sodo project. That they are willing to make these statements after years of public support and deference to the extremely popular figure is very telling. They, like so many others, see the writing on the wall and are distancing themselves from an effort they see as increasingly futile and erratic.

“After everything we’d been through, it kind of made me sick to my stomach. In a way of, like: ‘Just how did I get myself into this position? This isn’t the way this is supposed to go down.’”

Chris Hansen, via KJR sports radio in 2013, shortly after the Kings relocation was denied

As someone who worked closely with Council members Harrell and Burgess on this project, I remain saddened by this outcome even as I acknowledge the reality of our current situation. I wish more energy had been spent trying to answer the question posed by Chris Hansen in 2013 because he was absolutely right. None of this has been “the way this is supposed to go down.”

Chris Hansen is a good person who entered this adventure with the best of intentions. It is unfortunate that he has not sought out a larger and stronger team of advisers capable of protecting his reputation and withstanding the obstacles that were placed in his way.

Unfortunately, none of us can undo mistakes made in the past. For the moment, it appears that the same group of people are employing the same type of tactics and are likely to see the same results. If Hansen continues to follow their advice and engage in an opposition campaign, it will add to the perception that he cannot be trusted and diminish his chances of ever achieving success within Seattle government. In addition it will certainly earn even greater animosity from the NHL and perhaps the NBA as well.

Leiweke has been described as a “made man” in the NBA by media sources close to the league and has characterized his relationship with NBA commissioner Adam Silver as a strong “friendship” in previous interviews. He described his relationship with the leagues to KIRO 710 earlier this year.

“No one has as good a relationship probably as we do with the NBA and NHL,” he said. “I’ve been part of that family for almost 40 years and we would not be here today if the commissioners of both leagues weren’t exactly on board and aware of what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis. We stay in touch with them on our intentions. We will never get ahead of the commissioners. It is up to them and the board of governors on the NHL and the NBA to decide what happens to their teams and we will follow that lead, but we are consensus builders.” - OVG CEO Tim Lieweke

By actively working to block an ongoing project put forward by the Oak View Group Hansen risks aligning himself against the interests of Silver who issued a strong statement of support for OVG at the companies inception.

"I have worked with both Tim and Irving for many years, and I strongly support their vision of bringing arena owners together to explore new ways to grow their collective businesses. This new venture has enormous potential in the sports industry and beyond, and we expect to be actively involved with them on many fronts." - NBA Commissioner Adam Silver

The Oak View Group, meanwhile, is coming off of a very successful week, having hosted or participated in the North Downtown Mobility Plan kickoff, Belltown Hall, and an arena public input session. At this event, community members were given the opportunity to offer input on everything from seat dimensions and sight lines to exterior courtyard design and mobility access issues. More than 20 representatives of the OVG team, their architectural partner Populous and city staff were made available to discuss progress and interact with interested parties.

It was a great event and the whole day I found myself asking "Why didn't Hansen do something like this leading up to the street vacation vote?" It seems so easy and obvious in hindsight.