Safeco Field improvements or affordable housing? Public weighs in for first time

SEATTLE -- Safeco Field has been home to the Seattle Mariners since 1999. But a battle is brewing on who should pay to maintain the ballpark in the years to come.

The team says $180 million in public funding is needed in order for it to sign a new, long-term lease at Safeco, while many others say it’s money that can go a long way toward easing the city's housing crisis.

“It’s kind of sad if we were to upgrade the stadium, and tourists had to step over homeless people to get into the stadium,” King County resident Jonathan Thompson told the King County Council on Monday.

For the first time, the public has weighed in on a controversial proposal by King County Executive Dow Constantine. It would use more than $180 million from a hotel/motel tax toward maintaining Safeco Field in the years to come.

King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove questioned whether the team needs the public’s help.

“Why couldn’t the owners finance these upgrades rather than draining public resources that could be used for housing?” he asked.

Mariners Vice President and General Counsel Fred Rivera attended the public meeting.  He said that the Mariners were looking at more than $800 million in stadium fixes and upgrades over the 25-year lease and that the team would be paying for the vast majority of it.

“The Mariners are paying for the upgrades ... We've negotiated over a year with the Public Facilities District that owns this stadium, we are the tenant,” he said. “These are the terms that, overall, we think represent a fair allocation and responsibility for a publicly owned asset."

At this point, a lease agreed upon by the team and the PFD has yet to be signed. The signing is contingent on whether the county will allocate the money toward ballpark fixes.

Many came in support of the team and what they’ve done to generate business. A third-party report estimates that to be $3 billion in economic activity over the 25-year lease term.

“They’ve been an excellent contributor to the community, been actively involved in clean-ups and transportation,” said state Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle.

Safeco Field resides in Pettigrew’s 37th Legislative District.

But for many, the overlying theme was that the city is in a housing crisis. Many say the money should go toward affordable housing.

“I ask that you please use this money responsibly on needs,  and not nice-to-haves,” said Sara Wamsley, policy manager for the Housing Consortium of Seattle.

The public will have another chance to weigh in on this issue. Another hearing is scheduled for August 29.