Commentary: Approving a conditional street vacation in SODO will provide answers to many lingering questions

I’m excited to have finally solved the equation – a solution to the complicated, polarizing arena debate - that has the potential to make everyone happy.

Just hear me out: If the Seattle City Council approves Chris Hansen’s new request for a conditional vacation of Occidental Avenue, it will answer a lot of questions without creating more problems.

The key word here is conditional. Just as the city prefers, Hansen’s new request is conditional. He pledges not to vacate the street or even begin construction on a completely privately-funded arena until he secures an NHL or NBA team.

So before a single shovel even goes into the ground, three things would all have to happen:
1. A team becoming available through expansion or otherwise
2. Hansen announcing an NHL ownership partner or a big investor to his NBA ownership group
3. Securing that available team

By approving the conditional street vacation now, it would help answer the two biggest lingering questions from hockey fans:
1. Where is Hansen’s NHL partner?
2. Is a “shovel ready” arena good enough for the NHL or not?

If it’s not, no harm, no foul: We’re left at status quo - the city continues to negotiate with Oak View Group on a KeyArena renovation and SODO wouldn’t be allowed break ground (they couldn’t even vacate the street!).

If it IS good enough for the league, and Hansen CAN deliver an NHL team, then fantastic! You’ve let free market enterprise and competition determine a winner, and Seattle gets the first of potentially two teams.

Most importantly, approving a conditional street vacation protects Sonics fans. If the city and Oak View successfully negotiate a KeyArena renovation, the NBA question still lingers: Where would they find an ownership group willing to pay a billion dollars for an expansion franchise just to be a third-party operator at The Key – basically, a tenant who’s third in line for the building economics, likely without a large portion of the revenue coming from signage, naming rights and parking. And an ownership group that would also have to pay for their own practice facility, because I don’t see one included at KeyArena, like there is in the SODO plan.

There’s also the concern that Tim Leiweke and company might be perfectly content with a state-of-the-art concert venue that houses an NHL team – that there would be no need to add 41 NBA home games, i.e. 41 more dates that could potentially prevent some of the best bands from coming to town.

If that’s the case, a conditional street vacation gives Sonics fans a backup plan. Having another “shovel-ready” arena in SODO would hold Leiweke accountable for all his NBA rhetoric. If he balks or can’t find a willing NBA ownership group, it allows Hansen to do the job he set out to do in the first place: Bringing the Sonics back to Seattle. If it’s five years from now, ten years from now, so what? Better late than never. (Plus, Terminal 46 will be obsolete anyway, by the Port of Seattle’s own admission, so it wouldn’t be a problem there either!)

Finally, the city would still be protected. We can’t forget, from Day One, Hansen has pledged to help with KeyArena so it doesn’t lose money. And while some reports say building another arena would make the Key a $150 million taxpayer liability,
a. It took just $100 million to renovate the Forum in Inglewood into a slam-dunk concert venue
b. The street vacation fee of $18 million plus construction taxes from SODO (likely another $20 million) and the $7 million pledged toward permanent upgrades at KeyArena in the current MOU could help fill that gap
c. And if KeyArena actually qualifies for the $70 million in federal tax credits for being an historic landmark, we’d get pretty close

Again, all the lip service we hear from politicians, elected and currently running, is their support of bringing the Sonics back home. If that’s the case, then back it up. Make sure the Sonics will eventually be coming home by supporting what would be (at the very least) a contingency plan, and at best, a solution that keeps KeyArena profitable over the longterm and gives us a state-of-the-art venue in SODO with parking and transit options and two more teams that Seattle so desperately deserves.

I mean, we all know this music. (Hold music) This has been the soundtrack to Hansen’s newest street vacation request for close to a year. The Oak View negotiations with KeyArena shouldn’t be keeping everyone on hold. It’s far past time to answer that call and approve this request.

If that happens, I think everyone will be surprised at how many questions can finally be answered.