SEATTLE — Tod Leiweke, clad in a white hard hat, stood before a cluster of media members dressed in fluorescent-yellow vests. His background was the shell of what used to be KeyArena, the interior stripped down to its dusty-grey concrete base while idle construction vehicles sat nearby ready to restart the demolition process.
The message relayed by Leiweke, the CEO of Seattle Hockey Partners, was clear: While the construction costs for the new Seattle Center Arena will be greater than originally anticipated, the final product is expected be one of the finest entertainment venues in the nation.
Media members were given their first look at the progress being made on the new arena, which will be the home of the NHL’s newest expansion hockey team beginning in 2021, during a tour of the site Thursday afternoon. And Leiweke and the others involved in the project were eager to share the details of the process and the vision of what it will be once completed.
“We’re really proud of how this has turned out and our ability to tell the story,” Leiweke said. “Many people still believe this is a renovation, this is an absolutely brand-new building, 100-percent privately financed, it’s going to be one of the finest buildings in the country and it’s time for us to get the megaphone out and start telling that story.”
Ground was first broken on the new arena in December following a years-long process of choosing a site, getting civic sign-off and securing an anchor tenant. Thursday’s tour revealed a building that remains a structure, but is in the process of being gutted in anticipation of a complete tear down.
The primary news revealed Thursday was two-fold. First, the arena’s cost is significantly greater than the original price tag. When the project was first approved the anticipated cost was $650 million. Since then there’s been gradual increases, and on Thursday Leiweke said the price is now in the $900-930 million range, though Leiweke emphasized the public won’t be asked to foot any of that bill.
“Some of that cost represents this market index is well above other markets in the U.S. in construction costs,” Leiweke said. “But it’s really evidence that ownership is totally committed. We didn’t value-engineer this project, we didn’t cut things out and they didn’t ultimately cut corners. This is definitely more money than we all thought. But I think as time’s marched on we’ve all realized how epic this project is. To be leading a project like this in this community at this time, with a dream of not only NHL hockey but world-class music events and some day the NBA, it’s worth it.”
The second piece of news is that the construction schedule remains on track to be ready in time for the start of the 2021-22 NHL season, which is likely to begin in early October of 2021. While Leiweke admitted the schedule has slipped a bit, he said the goal was to have the building completed by early summer of 2021. That way it would be available to the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, which will also be housed by the arena and is spending two seasons playing home games at temporary locations, including five games this season at Everett’s Angel of the Winds Arena. An early summer completion would also allow the arena to host the Seattle NHL team’s expansion draft and possibly be the site of the 2021 NHL draft, both of which are expected to take place in late June of 2021.
“Between now and early next year we’re doing the base work,” said Ken Johnson, the construction executive who’s overseeing the project for OVG-Seattle. “We’re going down, putting underground utilities in, putting in support for the roof. Then we’re starting to come back up, and in any type of project of this size or complexity it’s coming back up when you have a bit more schedule uncertainty. So I think this time next year we’ll be able to say, ‘All right, this is the target.’ But like everything else on this project it’s important that we do it right, it’s important that we do it safe, and the schedule we have now I think is a good one.”
The arena’s roof, which has historic landmark status, is being retained. Therefore, a temporary structure will be erected to keep the roof in place while the rest of the old building is demolished and the new building is constructed underneath.
The arena will be subterranean, meaning construction workers will dig approximately 50 feet below the current ground level for the new arena, and seating will be at a steep angle to create an intimate setting. The arena will also be built to have both the hockey arena and basketball court centered, unlike KeyArena, which had the hockey surface off center and required the removal of seats in one end zone.
The seat count for the arena is set to be approximately 17,300 for hockey, which would put its capacity in the middle of the pack among NHL venues. Naming rights for both the building and for seats are beginning to go on the market, though none have been sold yet.