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Public comment challenges Seattle Center arena redevelopment review, could delay project

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Potential for delay could put Seattle NHL expansion at risk

A land-use attorney representing owners of two Queen Anne apartment complexes near Seattle Center has challenged the adequacy and validity of the environmental review process for the arena redevelopment project. Such a challenge opens the possibility for an appeal of the review and a significant delay to the project.

With a tight project timeline, a delay would jeopardize Seattle’s chance to be awarded an expansion National Hockey League franchise to start play in the 2020-21 season. It could have the potential to cost the NHL franchise altogether.

Submitted on the final day of the extended 45-day public comment period on the required draft environmental impact statement, a 17-page letter from attorney Courtney Kaylor contends that the EIS is “replete with incomplete and inconsistent statements.” She addresses issues directly related to the apartment complexes but also general concerns about the project at the Seattle Center location.

Kaylor’s letter goes in-depth into concerns about construction noise, vibration impacts and traffic and parking issues that could adversely affect nearby tenants. But the letter also touches on more general issues that have little to do with the individual buildings — things like affordable housing, relocation of Seattle Center nonprofits and arts groups, Monorail plans, the future of music festivals like Bumbershoot, and the city’s goals regarding landing an NBA franchise.

Public or private?

Kaylor states that, as the soon-to-be former KeyArena is owned by the city and the project was initiated by the city, it should have been considered a “public” project for the purposes of environmental review. Among the requirements of a public project review is that one or more alternative sites be considered and studied. The Seattle Center Arena project has been reviewed as a “private” project, which only requires one or more alternative projects at the same site.

The city holds that the project is private under state environmental law because the city is leasing the public land to a private developer and the private developer is shouldering the entire cost and management of the project.

A draft EIS provides a substantive, though incomplete, status check on findings in a review to allow the public to ask clarifying questions. A final EIS must address questions and concerns raised during comments on the draft.

As Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times points out, the tone and scope of Kaylor’s letter appear to lay groundwork to appeal the results of the final EIS. She states the draft EIS should be “revised and republished and subject to additional public comment.”

State environmental law does allow for an addendum to a final EIS to be commissioned and published if further information is needed. But if the EIS is “inadequate on its face” due to the classification as a private project, as Kaylor’s letter asserts, an appeal seems far more likely.

Could delay cost the NHL?

Baker contacted Bryan Stevens, spokesperson for the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections, who offered that an appeal hearing “could add at least four months to the schedule and would not allow construction permits to be issued until resolved.”

With the final EIS targeted for the end of August, the city council is expected to vote to approve the project and transaction documents in mid-to-late September. The city would then turn over KeyArena to Oak View Group, the project’s private developer, in mid-October to begin demolition of the interior. Construction of the new arena is currently expected to start in January 2019 with an eye towards opening the arena in October 2020.

An expansion application for the NHL’s 32nd franchise was submitted in February with the intention that the new arena would allow the team to take the ice in October 2020.

A delay of four months, if not longer, would sacrifice the 2020-21 season. That begs the question if the NHL would be open to a potential new club joining a year later, or if they would pass on Seattle expansion because the city is not ready.

Hansen involved?

Add another odd wrinkle to this years-long arena story. Baker draws attention to a curious fact: Courtney Kaylor is an attorney with the firm McCullough Hill Leary.

If the firm sounds familiar, it’s because it has represented investor Chris Hansen in his dealings with the city regarding his proposal for an arena in the SoDo district. Hansen’s project was dealt a significant blow in May 2016 when the city council voted against a street vacation necessary to build the arena. A memorandum of understanding between the city, Hansen, and King County to explore that arena project expired after 5 years in December 2017, clearing the way for the city to move forward on the OVG project.

Hansen has subsequently submitted a second street vacation request with a revised arena proposal that has been inexplicably stuck in review with the Seattle Department of Transportation for more than a year.

Baker reports that the firm submitted comments during the scoping period for the Seattle Center Arena review that mirror a number of the points addressed in Kaylor’s letter. Neither Hansen nor his attorney, firm partner John McCullough, submitted comments on the draft EIS. Baker reached out to Kaylor and McCullough for comment but did not receive responses. Hansen’s spokesperson Rollin Fatland told Baker on Friday that the arena investment group had nothing to do with Kaylor’s filed comment.

For their part, one of the apartment complex owners released a statement saying they weren’t interested in delaying or stopping the review but that they had concerns they didn’t feel were adequately addressed in the draft EIS. Per the statement, they are slated to meet with OVG later this month to discuss concerns further. They also state that they are not involved with Hansen or any of his representatives. Previous comments by those associated with either apartment complex only dealt with limited elements expressed in Kaylor’s letter.

Will the final EIS adequately address all concerns, or is an appeal all but guaranteed?