In the face of major concerns over Uptown traffic and continued support by many Sonics fans for a competing arena plan in SoDo, Mayor Ed Murray Wednesday made official the city’s preference to partner with Oak View Group to overhaul KeyArena so it may someday host NBA basketball again.
During a ceremony outside the colosseum, Murray said he wants a memorandum of understanding signed by himself, Oak View, and the city council by the time his mayoral term ends at the end of this year. Murray said that timing had nothing to do with concern for his legacy—as has been suggested widely by Sonics fans opposed to the plan—but because it was the right time to make a deal.
“I don’t think this opportunity is one we should let pass,” he said.
Oak View intends to pour more than $560 million into the project, which will dig below the arena to add space without touching the roof. Backers of the plan say the renovation will not only make the arena ready for an NHL or NBA team if one becomes available, but will also turn the Key into a world-class concert venue.
While Murray signaled the city was on board with the plan—which effectively puts Chris Hansen’s SoDo plan on ice—it was Tim Leiweke, CEO of Oak View, who played No. 1 booster at Wednesday’s event. Booming into the mic, Leiweke seemed to not be addressing the media but the online commenters who have savaged the KeyArena plan over traffic concerns since its inception. During an interview, Leiweke said he “reads the forums and comment sections” about the arena “more than I should,” and insisted concerns over traffic are overblown.
“Traffic is not a KeyArena problem. It is a Seattle problem. People act like there won’t be any traffic in SoDo next to the baseball stadium and the football stadium and the port,” he said. He even seemed to imply that Hansen was the primary driver behind the traffic concerns expressed online. “What we got to do is calm everybody down.”
That was not the first time Hansen’s name came up during the day. Once the man who seemed poised to bring back the Sonics, Hansen’s role in the twisting arena saga is now unclear. Leiweke, from the stage, suggested Hansen take “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach.
“We invite Chris to join us. You want an NBA team, we want an NBA team. … We’ll build the arena,” he said. Leiweke argued that had the tight constraints of building an NBA-ready arena while preserving the historic roof of KeyArena not succeeded, he would be fully behind Hansen’s plan. But he says Oak View has figured out how to pull the Key renovation off, making it the clear choice for the city to pursue.
There was ample name dropping during the ceremony. Leiweke announced that famed TV producer (and hockey fanatic) Jerry Bruckheimer had signed as a partner and wants to help get an NHL hockey team to Seattle. Oak View Group already counted as equity partners the concert heavyweight LiveNation and the Madison Square Garden Group, which owns the New York Knicks and brings some NBA juice into the fold.
Joining the mayor and businessmen on stage was former Sonics coach Lenny Wilkens, who in brief remarks said that the arena—in which he lead the Sonics to their one and only championship—provided the best bet for bringing NBA back to the city.
“If ever there was a chance for the Sonics to come back, it’s this opportunity,” he said.
Irving Azoff, an Oak View partner and former CEO of Ticketmaster, said that Pearl Jam expressed interest in being the first band to play in the new arena, underscoring their contention that a renovated arena could become a top-1o concert venue in the country.
For all the fanfare, the deal is far from done. The action on Wednesday made Oak View the city’s “preferred partner” and does not void the MOU the city still has with Hansen (though Murray said that were that plan to be revived, he’d need everyone to come back to the table to get on the same page; that would seem impossible to do on such a short time frame.) Murray also said the city would continue to negotiate terms with Oak View to make sure it penciled out for taxpayers and the neighborhood. This includes Oak View’s traffic mitigation plan, which caught some flack earlier this year for being too reliant on the monorail.
If they can’t solve traffic and parking issues, Murray said, “those are deal killers.” He also reiterated that while Oak View Group may benefit from millions of dollars in city tax offsets for investments made at KeyArena, he would not allow city bonding to be part of the deal. Leiweke also emphasized this point.
“Those who want to spread lies that there is risk to the taxpayers, it’s completely untrue,” he said.
Neither the NBA nor NHL have announced a plan to expand, making it unclear when Seattle would see a team from either league were the arena to be built. But that didn’t stop Leiweke from being bullish on that front.
“We’re going to get you a team, mark it right here. This will be a top-10 concert venue and we’re going to get you at least one team,” he said.