It was a summerlong secret: A consultant’s report showed Seattle’s KeyArena could become NHL and NBA compatible without demolishing and rebuilding it.
The prevailing wisdom had been that the 17,000-seat arena’s floor space needed expansion, which required razing the site – a political nonstarter because historical landmark status would be sought to protect the venue’s Paul Thiry-designed roof.
Then came last summer’s report by the AECOM global architectural and engineering firm, suggesting the arena could be retrofitted far more cheaply without being torn down.
The report contradicted an earlier Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) last May on a $490 million Sodo District arena project pitched by entrepreneur Chris Hansen. State law required that the EIS study explore alternative sites, yet it discarded a KeyArena remodel as unworkable and reviewed only the option of a demolition and rebuild to add space for an NHL ice surface and seating.
But documents released to the Seattle Times via public-records requests show high-ranking city officials knew nearly six months before the EIS that a KeyArena renovation was possible to meet the needs of professional basketball and hockey.
They show AECOM, hired for $150,000 by the Seattle City Council to explore KeyArena options, prepared a 103-page interim report in November 2014 suggesting additional floor space could be found by shifting the arena’s hockey rink layout and modifying seating angles.
City Councilmembers Tim Burgess and Jean Godden were emailed the report, as were staffers and a legislative policy analyst. Shortly thereafter, AECOM consultants gave a presentation to Godden and provided information that was later passed on to other council members. Records show AECOM firmed up its plan and by April 8 was scheduled for a May 11 council presentation of its final KeyArena report detailing the renovation option.
Had that happened, the KeyArena option would have become public only four days after the May 7 release of the Sodo EIS, which had already declared a remodel wasn’t possible. That contradiction likely would have fueled groups opposing the Sodo location and raised questions about an EIS that Mayor Ed Murray had just hailed as a “major milestone.”
Instead, on May 5, records show AECOM’s report was delayed so additional financial information and further analysis could be gathered.
“I’m pretty certain that it was a joint decision,” said Godden, who chaired the Seattle Center oversight committee and had spearheaded hiring AECOM in spring 2014. “We heard from the executive office – the mayor’s office and from the budget office – and decided that it would be a good idea to get some (additional) details. We wanted to have a complete report to get to the council.”
Godden said she thought AECOM’s findings were not “anything of great urgency” and could be delayed.
Two days later, the Sodo project’s EIS was released with by-then-outdated information that KeyArena would need to be torn down. The public wouldn’t learn of the newly discovered remodel option for nearly five more months.
Murray’s spokesman, Viet Shelton, said nobody in the mayor’s office or executive branch delayed the report.
“We were not involved, nor did we have any say or direction in the timing of that report,” Shelton said. “That was a council report and the issues around the timing of it (were) all decisions made by council and council staff.”
Shelton said any conversations with Godden were limited to updates on the report’s expected release.
Godden said she was surprised the EIS didn’t consider a remodel, given the months of advance notice about what would be in AECOM’s final report. But she added that the EIS wasn’t her responsibility.
As to why AECOM’s discoveries weren’t incorporated, EIS planners say they never saw the information and that a 45-day public comment period ahead of the Sodo study’s preparation expired Sept. 30, 2013. John Shaw, a senior transportation planner who coordinated the EIS for the city, said it would have been unusual to accept new information after that date.
But that doesn’t explain why it took so long for AECOM’s report to become public.
Some City Council members received a draft of AECOM’s final KeyArena report, indicating it could be retrofitted for $285 million, on May 22. But it wasn’t until June 19 the final report was issued without any news releases, though Godden insists it was posted on the council’s website.
Rather than address the council, AECOM gave July presentations to individual council members, with no public minutes created that mention the report. Media reports on the study didn’t surface until late September, after public-records requests.
The city now plans a public hearing March 15, then a late-April vote on giving up part of Occidental Avenue South for Hansen’s project. Opponents of that Sodo plan, including the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, unions and maritime interests, vow to appeal and sue if the street removal is approved.
And they’ll likely argue that the EIS failed to properly consider alternative sites, citing the AECOM report.
Ryan Sickman, then a senior sports-engineering specialist on AECOM’s consulting team, said he’d figured out by summer 2014 that KeyArena’s hockey issues were related to its rink not being properly centered within the square-shaped venue. He explored twisting the rink diagonally in designs to maximize space.
“That’s when we started to say, ‘Hey, there’s a distinct possibility that this could work,’ ” he said.
Later, additional space was found from adjusting seat angles. This was part of preliminary presentations to Seattle officials in November 2014.
“We gave a series of presentations,” Sickman said. “To say that it was fully vetted at that point, I couldn’t say. I can’t remember exactly when we realized that this worked. But I know we spent a lot of time doing our due diligence.”
By April, as AECOM neared its original final report date, the idea solidified.
“It became a legitimate option,” Sickman said. “And as we move into this next generation of sporting venues and civic leaders, I think we have a responsibility to really take a look at our infrastructure and our existing facilities and see what’s feasible – without pulling a plug and building a new arena every single time.”
Built for $7 million for the 1962 World’s Fair, KeyArena became home to the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics from 1967 to 2008. It was refurbished for $75 million in 1995, but is considered a poor hockey venue and in need of NBA upgrades.
The main argument by opponents of the $285 million KeyArena renovation option is that the NHL doesn’t want it and no developers will pay for it. While it’s true the NHL has opposed KeyArena as a full-time facility, it previously assumed it would need to be torn down and rebuilt.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told KING-5 TV in December that the league didn’t want KeyArena. But in a subsequent email to the Seattle Times, Daly acknowledged he hadn’t reviewed the AECOM report.
“No, I have never seen it,” he wrote. “But I don’t think there is any interest in a renovated arena.”
Emails show representatives of Los Angeles real-estate entrepreneur Victor Coleman – a possible Seattle NHL owner – expressed interest in AECOM’s findings. But Mayor Murray said last November he couldn’t entertain KeyArena offers without violating the city’s Sodo deal.
A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Hansen, the city and King County runs until November 2017 and provides up to $200 million in bond funding for a Sodo arena if Hansen lands an NBA team. The NBA, which approved moving the Sonics to Oklahoma City in 2008, has said there is no immediate prospect of a team in Seattle.
Sodo opponents say leagues and developers shouldn’t dictate arena locations – that they push their most profitable options instead of the city’s best deal. They say the city shouldn’t favor Hansen’s project over KeyArena because of a deal it can’t escape for 21 more months.
“We would really like to see this option explored,” Dave Gering, chairman of the Manufacturing Industrial Council, said of a KeyArena renovation. “It would be a real sad thing for the citizens of Seattle if this (Sodo project) occurred without really taking a look at that.”
Councilmember Burgess remembered being briefed on AECOM’s preliminary findings in late 2014 by Godden’s staff and city policy analyst Sara Belz, who’d coordinated the study.
“I think it was a bit surprising and also encouraging,” he said.
Burgess added that nobody, over the ensuing months, expressed concerns about AECOM contradicting the pending Sodo EIS on KeyArena’s renovation potential.
“I certainly heard that later, when the final AECOM report came out,” Burgess said.
Records show he received a draft of the final report May 22 with the $285 million figure. Burgess and staffers emailed analyst Belz, questioning the merits of spending $285 million when AECOM was forecasting annual operating revenue of only $912,000 for an NBA/NHL facility. Belz replied that a positive of such a remodel is that it’s one of the few options where team owners might pay most or all of the costs.
She also predicted a “significant uptick” in revenue for Seattle Center’s parking garage, something not factored into AECOM’s report.
Belz is now a senior policy adviser to Mayor Murray.
Former City Councilmember Nick Licata had also known of AECOM’s preliminary findings.
“Even before that (November 2014) date, there were other folks not necessarily on the city’s payroll – professionals and others – who were saying, ‘Yeah, you can do that arena again,’ ” Licata said of a renovation.
He added that the Sodo environmental study discarding a remodel possibility “was bogus in the sense that it was a foregone conclusion where they were going and they did not want to be bothered with KeyArena.”
Nearly 15 months have elapsed since AECOM raised the KeyArena renovation possibility.
City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, who represents KeyArena’s Queen Anne district, said she’d welcome more public discussion.
“I’m really quite interested in what the AECOM study had to say,” she said. “It was like the least expensive option to retrofit, as opposed to starting over with a new arena. I think it’s a very interesting conversation to have.”
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