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If Sonics are the goal, city should grant SoDo street vacation

Availing ourselves of both arena options provides our best opportunity


If the return of the SuperSonics to Seattle and the NBA is a primary goal of the arena project, as stated by the city, then the city council should grant the Occidental Avenue street vacation for the SoDo arena project.

On Thursday, our friend Art Thiel of Sportspress NW called for the city to give investor Chris Hansen and his SoDo team a shot at pursuing potential NBA expansion by granting the one-block vacation. I echo this call, as do many fans.

This comes in the wake of NBA commissioner Adam Silver's subtle but noticeable softening of language regarding the possibilities of expansion while talking with the Portland Trail Blazers' C.J. McCollum for The Players’ Tribune.

In a fun confluence and coincidence of words, the city should hedge its bets by betting on the hedge fund manager from San Francisco who grew up in our fair city.

Yes, that term "hedge fund manager" has been disturbingly thrown around like a vile epithet, but it speaks to someone who understands risk and reward and has success as evidence. Hansen has six years in on this project and the methodical approvals to show for it.

That's not to take away from the success and record of Oak VIew Group and its team. The group's leadership arguably has a better shot at acquiring clubs for both the NBA and the NHL given their relationships with both leagues, as well as with the pool of ownership investors that regularly float around these opportunities.

And here is where I disagree with Thiel's interpretation of Tim Leiweke's up-to-now dour viewpoint on the NBA. Thiel writes:

Leiweke likely will say that Silver’s remarks conform to what he’s been saying: The NBA will expand, and the remodeled Key, with $564 million in renovations from his company’s funds, will be ready when it does.

But what that contention fails to describe is Silver’s motivation. His job is drive up the price of scarce objects, expansion franchises, that are provided only by the NBA’s monopoly operations. As part of the strategy, Silver tells an audience what he thinks it most wants to hear, not to fit a Leiweke strategy.

It's well documented that Lewieke keeps in regular contact with the league offices and various owners. He was recently brought on by New York Knicks owner James Dolan to advise the team as they transition and search for a new president of basketball operations following the firing of Phil Jackson.

His comments on expansion or relocation not being imminent perfectly mirrored exactly what the NBA has publicly been saying for years. The league couldn’t have scripted a better message.

Some would argue he was undermining Hansen's comments on team availability. Others would argue he was trying to set fair expectations of the process. Leiweke called it not getting ahead of commissioners. This approach isn’t in a vacuum or coming from nowhere.

The NBA's company line has only publicly shifted in the last couple of weeks. We have yet to hear from Leiweke on it since Silver's comments.

A strong argument could be made that OVG positions itself better by holding the NBA up as a distant prospect that the SoDo project is too reliant upon. Yet, I would not be surprised to see Leiweke’s position soften as well. It’s quite possible we might even see movement on identifying a basketball ownership group to complement the Bonderman-Bruckheimer NHL joint.

Still, even with a solid, demonstrable timeline, OVG has a significant amount of political and governmental process to get through. Just within the last few days, the landmark process evaluating KeyArena and other buildings in the proposed redevelopment site threw a potential shot block in project designs.

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, the adage says. As we've seen with SoDo, this should be an expectation rather than mere concern.

Speaking of concerns, as we've mentioned numerous times, the street vacation process has backstops built into it to preserve this lowly strip of asphalt for the city for as long as necessary.

The SoDo group has agreed not to build the arena until a team is acquired. If they can't do this within five years, the conditional vacation approval evaporates and the street remains with the city. Fans burnishing this point like a torch shouldn't obscure the fact that it's true.

If Hansen’s group needs the vacation to attract the necessary investors for both an NHL ownership group and a majority NBA ownership group, then lets take the reins as chicken and see if Hansen can produce the egg. If he can’t, what’s lost?

As Thiel puts well:

But Sodo needs to be considered on a parallel track, free of mythology.

A hearing on the Hansen bid, free of its earlier request for public bonds, is in the city’s best interests.

Why have we yet to hear from the Seattle Department of Transportation on the renewed SoDo street vacation request? What is the hold-up on providing a recommendation and report on the vacation to the city council?

Last time through, the Seattle Design Commission unanimously approved the urban merit of the SoDo project in May 2015, then unanimously approved the public benefits pacakge in exchange for the vacation in September 2015. By the end of November 2015, Mayor Murray and SDOT submitted their positive recommendation and report to the council.

This past April, the SDC again approved both the urban merit and revised public benefits package in a single meeting, having used the work done previously to effectively expedite the process. Other projects to review and all, SDOT could lean on its past work to expedite as well, but they appear to be taking their sweet time here.

Let's get this into the hands of the council, introduce legislation, and get a public hearing and a vote on the books.

The fact of the matter is we have two strong and capable proposals and would be best served by unhindering both to allow them to accomplish our goal as Seattle of getting the Sonics back. Each of us at Sonics Rising has different opinions and preferences on the two projects, but as a whole our ultimate goals have been an arena and our team on the court.

Grant the vacation and let both play out the way they should and will.