Despite a failed vote for vacation of Occidental Avenue last May and a push by the city of Seattle to explore redevelopment plans at KeyArena, Sonics Arena investor Chris Hansen remains hopeful and optimistic in their push to bring an NBA/NHL arena to the south Seattle neighborhood of SoDo.
Hansen spoke with Dave "Softy" Mahler about the project for nearly 40 minutes in a wide-ranging interview on Thursday afternoon.
Hansen stressed that his ultimate goal is seeing NBA basketball return to Seattle and will support whatever process allows for that outcome to come to fruition.
"We would never stand in the way of that," Hansen said. "If somebody else is going to own a team, we would just swap our land and our arena into equity ownership and let somebody else own the team. It's fine. Our job is to bring a basketball team back here. That is everybody's goal here."
The city of Seattle is currently engaged in a "request for proposal (RFP)" process with AEG and Oak View Group over a possible renovation of KeyArena that could potentially suffice as a facility capable of housing an NBA team once again. Proposals are due on April 12 with recommendations from city staff to Mayor Ed Murray due by June 30. But even under the most optimistic timelines, a project at the KeyArena site would be several years behind the Hansen project in SoDo.
The renovation of KeyArena itself would likely take a significant portion of time and that's not even factoring in the studies and input required legally for the project to progress. That process has already made its way to conclusion for the SoDo site.
The city council voted against the street vacation last year in a 5-4 vote. Being approved for the street vacation would have made the arena "shovel-ready" and allowed Hansen's group to pursue an NBA team.
"This wasn't the first setback we've had in this process," Hansen said. "We've had a lot of setbacks in this process. Early on when the (Sacramento) Kings thing did not go our way, when several of the votes in that process did not go out way... And so, I think you just take it in stride, man. I think you just... I'm all about moving forward. I'm all about being optimistic and tackling challenges as they come so I think the first thing I did was reassure a lot of people on our team that like 'hey, it's going to be OK. Look there's things that we can do. We have a lot of options here. Let's just go back to the drawing board and see what we can come up with.'"
Hansen came back to the city with a proposal to remove the public financing portion of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the city regarding the project. It also added additional public benefits such as more money toward building an overpass at Lander Street to help freight mobility from the Port of Seattle, which has been the project's most vocal critic.
"The original deal that we constructed really had its origins in 2011 so a lot of time had transpired between the time that we originally drafted what was the bulk of the MOU with the city and the original mayor's staff and then council and the time that that vote happened," Hansen said. "And a lot of change in the world, you know. And a lot of the concerns that people brought up were valid I would say. A lot of things that - you may disagree with people - but listening to people's opinions and taking their considerations and taking understanding who their constituents are and why they think things are important is just a valuable lesson in getting things done.
"It pushed us to go back to the drawing board but I'm really proud that we're doing this privately. I would say that's a really positive aspect of this process. I'm proud that our group can de-risk it to the city and bring it forward and we can be kind of a role model for other cities that now this kind of structure is possible for NBA teams. I think that's all positive and I think we owe and tip our caps to the city council for really forcing us to go through this again.
"We really didn't contemplate the NHL coming first in the original agreement and so that was obviously frequently coming up as we had dialogue with the league and prospective owners is like 'how would we rework the MOU (to have hockey come first).' All that kind of fades away now right. It's a private deal and we can strike our own deal and we don't have to worry about that."
The original MOU is set to expire in November and Hansen's group has resubmitted the street vacation request under the newly outlined proposal. Hansen said he expected another vote on the vacation by the end of this year.
Hansen said the main concerns from the city council in voting against the project in May were traffic mitigation and Port jobs. Putting funds toward Lander overpass helped with that. The new proposal also formalized the agreement that Hansen's group will not vacate the street or begin construction or the arena until a team has been acquired.
"The main concerns that came out of the city council were traffic mitigation and Port (of Seattle) jobs and we improved the deal from that perspective. And it was also getting improved by the likelihood of the Lander overpass being built, but we put additional capital toward traffic mitigation and transportation.
"We also kind of formalized something that we through was understood which was we're not going to ask the city to sell us or vacate the street until we actually have a team. We're not asking them to sell us this and then we might turn it into some real estate project down the road that's unaffiliated with sports."
"I don't know if they understood it or if it's more like the adversaries to the project used that. Maybe it's just something that we hadn't thought about enough about really just making this concrete. Easy enough to do."
Given the changes they've made to the proposal, Hansen said he didn't know what else they could do to further sweeten the proposal at this stage of the process.
"If there's something else to do, I don't know what it is," Hansen said. "That doesn't mean it doesn't exist. And in a place like Seattle, I'd be very hesitant to say that we've done everything we can do because I don't know what other possible recommendations could come forward. I wouldn't be surprised if somebody wants or expects something different. But I think if you just look at it, we have a labor peace agreement with the unions, we have a community benefits agreement with the community, we have a scheduling agreement with the other two professional teams in the area, we have a transportation agreement that's been looked at by SDOT and they're still looking at some additional things but have said this is a great place to put an arena. And so we've done so much of the big stuff, it's hard for me to think of any other big stuff to do."
Hansen remains committed to returning basketball to the city and says his motivation for the project is for civic purposes.
"This is a civic asset," Hansen said. "That's the way we approach this. No one in our group is doing this for like economic reasons, unlike AEG or Oak View Group. There's nothing wrong with that. They're corporations that are seeking a return on capital and they're trying to build their music businesses and that's what this country is about and there's nothing wrong with that. But our group, we all have day jobs and do different things. This is a civic undertaking for us."