Yesterday, in a landmark five to four vote, the Seattle City Council turned down a request by hedge fund manager Chris Hansen to vacate part of Occidental Avenue South in the city’s South Downtown (SoDo) neighborhood.
Hansen, who has been engaged in a multi-year quest to return an NBA franchise to Seattle, had petitioned the city to transfer the aforementioned public right of way to his arena enterprise he could unify multiple pieces of property he owns in order to proceed with plans for constructing a new sports palace south of Safeco Field.
But a majority of the Council (Sally Bagshaw, Lisa Herbold, Kshama Sawant, Debora Juarez, and Lorena González) wisely voted against giving Hansen the street.
Bagshaw and Herbold had made their feelings on the matter clear well in advance, but Sawant, Juarez, and González waited until Monday to say how they would vote. González summed up her decision by declaring, “I believe it’s in the city’s best interest to protect the jobs we know we have rather than sell the street for hypothetical jobs that are contingent on a hypothetical team.”
The Council is to be commended for turning down Hansen’s petition. It’s not easy to say no to a wealthy individual with a league of vocal allies, including influential personalities on sports talk radio. But it had to be done, for Chris Hansen’s agenda is simply not in the city or the region’s best interest.
Hansen, an out of state billionaire, sees SoDo as the perfect place to build a new entertainment district anchored by a flashy sports palace. He’s convinced a lot of people desperate to see the Sonics return that his plans are well thought out and wouldn’t adversely impact the nearby seaport or our maritime sector.
But just about everyone who actually has a stake in the maritime sector has rejected Hansen’s vision for SoDo, including the Port and the ILWU.
We all know — or should know — that talk is cheap. Especially considering his track record, Hansen’s promises and assurances aren’t worth much.
The truth is, Hansen doesn’t have an NBA team secured, which his master agreement with the city and the county says he needs in order to begin construction on an arena. Nor is the prospect of a team on the horizon. Top NBA brass recently reiterated they’re not ready to even talk about expansion yet.
Since Hansen has no team and is unlikely to have one before his original master agreement expires, it would have been foolish and premature to continue down the path of clearing the decks for a third arena smack in the middle of SoDo.
Councilmember Debora Juarez astutely observed before the vote that a basketball arena can potentially be built in a number of different places, but a deep water port cannot. And she is absolutely correct.
If the people and elected leadership of Seattle desire to lure the NBA back here by partnering with a potential owner on an arena project — a goal NPI is happy to support — then the city needs to collaboratively and thoughtfully weigh all the options. That includes a potential refurbishment of KeyArena, where the Sonics played for many, many years before Clay Bennett and his Raiders stole them away.
This organization would like to see the NBA award a new Sonics franchise to Seattle, but not at the cost of jeopardizing our maritime and industrial sectors.
Our maritime jobs are some of the best-paying jobs that we have. Our brothers and sisters in the ILWU and other unions have been fighting to protect these jobs for a long time — often without recognition or appreciation. Our seaport is a working waterfront; it is one of the engines of our region’s economy.
“The maritime companies are real, contributing to the economy, paying wages,” Jon Talton noted in a column today. “The NBA and NHL teams are not real (yet). If these leagues want to be part of Seattle, they will make an effort. We don’t have to beg like some needy burg in nowhere.” He’s right.
It is important to remember that before Seattle was a high-tech hub, it was a seaport city, and it remains one today.
Seattle’s working waterfront and status as a gateway to the Pacific is so central to its identity, in fact, that the city’s Wikipedia page begins as follows:
Seattle (i/siˈætəl/) is a West Coast seaport city and the seat of King County. With an estimated 662,400 residents as of 2015, Seattle is the largest city in both the state of Washington and the Pacific Northwest region of North America.
There is no reason why Seattle cannot both protect its maritime sector and win a new NBA franchise to replace the team that now plays in Oklahoma City.
These have only been perceived as conflicting goals in recent years because of Chris Hansen’s plans for SoDo. Regrettably, the City of Seattle and King County gave tacit blessing to these plans when they signed the aforementioned Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Hansen several years ago. That was a bad move.
At the time, Hansen was maneuvering to acquire a team in the same fashion that the Raiders got a team for Oklahoma City: by stealing one away from another town. Hansen entered into an agreement to buy the Sacramento Kings from their owners, but that agreement fell apart when the NBA refused to sign off on relocation. The Kings stayed in Sacramento and Hansen’s gambit failed, leaving him empty-handed.
It should be evident now that Chris Hansen is the wrong person to lead the effort to bring the NBA back to Seattle. Time and again, he has exhibited poor judgment, from selecting the wrong site for an arena to attempting to land an NBA franchise by poaching another city’s team instead of lobbying the NBA for a new franchise to violating California’s public disclosure laws when he didn’t get his way.
(Not to mention that time he neglected to pay the City of Seattle in a timely fashion for the work city staff were performing on his arena project.)
This region needs a prospective owner who is committed to the region’s vitality and well-being, including its maritime jobs. It needs somebody who can work effectively with the NBA, its current thirty owners, and league Commissioner Adam Silver.
The ideal partner would be an individual or group of individuals with means who are laser-focused on getting the NBA to commit to beginning the process of expansion, and open-minded as to where the reincarnated Sonics should play. That’s the key. There is no arena project without a team. And it must be a team that Seattle can legitimately call its own — not a team spirited away from somewhere else.
Again, it would be wrong to rob another city of its franchise. We should not want any other community of fans to go through what we went through in 2008.
It truly saddened me back in 2013 to see ardent Sonics fans rooting for Chris Hansen to succeed in uprooting the Kings from Sacramento and bringing them here. That would not have been the return of the Sonics; it would have been the theft of the Kings. How can any Sonics fan complain about what happened here in 2008, and then turn around and excuse Hansen’s actions?
In addition to finding a new partner and letting the MOU with Hansen’s enterprise expire, we need to seriously study the feasibility of refurbishing KeyArena.
I would be very happy to see the Sonics resume play there. It would complete the feeling of a proper homecoming. Neighborhood businesses would surely be happy to see the Sonics back. KeyArena, remember, used to be the Sonics’ house. It was their home court, which they shared with the Storm, Seattle’s WNBA franchise, and the Thunderbirds, who now play in Kent at the ShoWare Center.
I can appreciate that for those who jumped onto Chris Hansen’s bandwagon, yesterday’s vote by the Seattle City Council comes as a disappointment.
But those folks really, really need to look at the big picture. Approval of the street vacation would have been a boon to Hansen, certainly, but not necessarily to the city’s prospects of scoring a team to replace the Sonics of old.
When it comes to expansion/relocation, the league’s executives and owners are in the driver’s seat. They call the shots. Not the Seattle City Council or the Mayor of Seattle. Not the King County Council or the King County Executive. If the NBA doesn’t want to work with Hansen, it doesn’t have to. It can just blow him off, which is essentially what it has been doing ever since it nixed his bid to buy the Kings.
We can’t get the Sonics back unless the NBA says yes to giving us a franchise. If the NBA doesn’t want to collaborate with Hansen (and they’ve signaled repeatedly that they don’t), then Hansen is actually an impediment to the Sonics’ return.
The sooner Chris Hansen is out of the picture, the sooner we can choose a new partner to lead the effort to secure an NBA franchise for our region.