Op-Ed: Seattle Arena Proposal Beset by Paid Nabobs of Negativism
Just days after “private citizen” Peter Steinbrueck delivered his expert opinion that a new basketball arena couldn’t legally be sited in Seattle’s stadium district, he’s been hired as a consultant for the Port of Seattle. He’ll make up to $40,000 per year, reports the Seattle Times, which just printed Steinbrueck’s guest editorial, titled “Why the big rush on Chris Hansen’s Sodo arena?”
There, Steinbrueck also references I-91, the handiwork of lobbyist Chris Van Dyk and his stadium-fighting Citizens for More Important Things, which prohibits the city from spending tax revenue on projects like this without receiving “fair value” for the investment. (At the time, Mayor Nickels asked, rhetorically, what the fair value should be for investing in an opera or symphony hall.) Today, apparently, “fair value” represents about 2.7-percent interest. Investment professional Hansen counters that he anticipates, conservatively, about a seven-percent return.
Art Thiel at Sportspress Northwest, which has become the go-to source for arena news, tackles the I-91 implications here. Oddly, back in 2008, when a “Save the Sonics” proposal that called for $150 million in public and $150 million in private funds was floated, Van Dyk said “he thinks the latest proposal could be a good deal for taxpayers,” according to the Times. It’s unclear to me why he now thinks a proposal that’s 60 percent private and 40 percent public is worse, especially as the tax-funding mechanisms involved are created by the construction of an arena rather than scooping the monies up from elsewhere.
Rather grandly, Steinbrueck wrapped up his op-ed by saying, “It’s about the future of Seattle, and what kind of city we want to be,” which raises a different question than the one about being in a rush. On the other hand, I’m glad that he raised it.
There’s a class of people in Seattle who make their living by building roadblocks. This is not to be confused with people who lobby against something because they are for something else. This group is more specialized than that. They’re simply anti-whatever. Paycheck, please. I don’t know where Steinbrueck, in particular, stands, so I’ll avoid lumping him in with Chris “What More Important Things Have You Done, Actually?” Van Dyk.
But his public citizen pose is dubious. He told the Seattle Times: “I had no communication with them (the Port) prior to the testimony,” while KOMO News “has obtained copies of e-mail exchanges that show Steinbrueck began communicating with port officials about the arena in April.” Certainly, the Port ought to inspect this proposal carefully, but so far they seem more interested in killing the idea than finding a modus vivendi.
Just as a clock is right twice a day, you can be “agin it” and still be on the side of history occasionally. But think of the opportunities lost. Anyone familiar with ’90s Seattle will likely remember the Seattle Commons plan. It was envisioned as a 61-acre park, extending from where Lake Union Park is today toward downtown via a thinner green peninsula. The cost? $111 million, with Paul Allen chipping in a $20-million loan that he eventually decided might just as well be a gift, if the project went through.
Somewhat incredibly for Seattle, opposition arose to a park, or more specifically, to the “developers” who’d stand to profit. As Washington Free Press argued, small businesses would be displaced, housing costs in the area would rise, and, by the way, “low-income housing plans are an afterthought.” The levy failed.
Today, we have a 12-acre park. South Lake Union has been developed to within an inch of its life, with more on the way. Small businesses have been displaced, and housing costs have risen.
This seems germane to a discussion of “what kind of city we want to be.” Sometimes the fantasy of what we’d like to be can blind us to what we really are. The fact is, there is a stadium district, and its two stadiums already provide congestion for Port traffic that needs to be mitigated. Forestalling a third stadium won’t solve that. The Port’s better hand is to welcome construction of a third stadium, providing they get the dedicated roadways that they need for freight connectivity.
Though Thiel has an informative article on why, if they can afford it, the arena backers don’t just pay for the whole thing, there’s simpler heuristic you can use. The Seattle Sonics have been the Oklahoma Thunder since the fall of 2008. How many whole-enchilada arena proposals has the city entertained in those four years? Right. None. How many NBA teams have approached the city wanting to play in the Key? That is why, though it’s also good to be critical of the arena proposal, it’s worth asking whether each of these objections to it holds water–or are just being raised to muddy it.
In Seattle, the perfect is often quite literally the enemy of the good, but not always because of idealists striving for perfection. It’s just sand poured cynically into the gears. Meanwhile, the future happens anyway.