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Last Call?

As the RFP process nears its conclusion, integrity of process should be a top priority

Rendering of Key Arena Plaza provided by the Oak View Group.

As the city of Seattle's Office of Economic Development (OED) enters the final month of its KeyArena Request for Proposal (RFP), the infamous Seattle process seems to be working in reverse. Rather than grinding to a halt, the bid process - which was expected to return a decision no later than June 30th - has been widely reported to be ahead of schedule, with a decision reportedly to come as early as June 5th and probably not later than mid-month.

It seems like just yesterday (but actually was April 12) that the Oak View Group (OVG) and AEG-backed Seattle Partners (SP) submitted bids for arena renovations that the city hopes will re-invent and revitalize the Seattle Center, improving a valuable city amenity within walking distance of Amazon's South Lake Union Campus, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Belltown, and the "about to boom" section of Interbay that surrounds a planned Expedia Campus.

On initial review, these plans appeared quite similar, as would be expected when 2 groups are spending roughly the same amount of money to repurpose the same building for the same intended purpose. However, after having taken some time to review them, the plans prove to actually be quite different, featuring unique physical characteristics, financing, and transit planning.

Neither plan features a single silver bullet to address the area's well documented transportation issues. Instead, both rely on a patchwork approach featuring an improved monorail, utilization of ride share, emerging technologies, and existing local parking to diffuse drive-around traffic in the area. A key difference within these plans has been the inclusion of an 800-stall parking garage by OVG, a feature called out by some as an unnecessary public subsidy and choke point for traffic locally.

That changed early this week when OVG, citing community feedback, removed the planned parking garage from their proposal.

“In our proposal we provided the garage as an option to the City of Seattle. In our dialogue with the City and the surrounding neighbors - we have listened and learned – it is crucial that we make the NASC part of an open environment for all visitors to the Seattle Center campus,” said Lance Lopes, Oak View Group’s Seattle-based Director of Special Projects. “With great partnership and participation from local voices, OVG has decided to remove the above-grade parking structure located to the south of the NASC.

The city has made clear that they considered the April 12th bids to be "opening offers" and that OED specifically intended to continue its negotiation with the two bidders, using the starting point of their RFP proposals and potentially taking some of the best attributes of each proposal to craft the best possible deal for the city.

Now that these "re-negotations" are beginning to materialize, they have the potential to trigger questions from the public regarding fairness and transparency of the process, a critical issue given public distrust in a process that many (in particular Chris Hansen and his Sodo team) have questioned. The public should question whether modifications like this one are best negotiated behind closed doors or if perhaps Brian Surratt and his team should consider a "last call," offering both bidders the opportunity to make their best and final offer after receiving feedback from city staffers and the general public.

In my conversation with city staff and others, I have heavily emphasized that the city can restore the confidence of distrustful fans who feel slighted by previous city efforts if they prioritize a fair and transparent process. Essentially, each of these offers can and should be boiled down to a clear bundle of public benefits and (of course) obligations, which can be weighed against each other to select the plan that most clearly meets the public interest. At the conclusion of the RFP process, this may open the door for the a subsequent comparison of public benefits between the recommended KeyArena renovation and those of Chris Hansen's Sodo arena project. Having this type of fact-based and measurable process will go a long way towards removing the extraneous drama and historical baggage associated with Seattle's decade-long arena process.

Ending the RFP process in a way that is above critique and earns the confidence of the public will substantially increase either plan's ability to survive what is expected to be a more intensive council review. In addition to reviewing final offers, OED should review, and place great weight on, both bidders' plans for post-RFP community engagement and coalition building strategy as council members have demonstrated time and again that they are more heavily influenced by this type of grassroots advocacy than either OED or the Mayor's office. It is important to remember that any plan that graduates from the RFP process but lacks appeal in council chambers may prove worthless in the end.

Even greater weight should be placed on the ability of each proposal and potential investment group's ability to attract both NBA and NHL franchises. This process means nothing to me if, at the end of the day, it does not result in the return of the Sonics and the first puck drop of the modern NHL in our city. I look forward to hearing more from both Seattle Partners and the Oak View Group about their ability to do so.