Transcript of a conversation with Chris Hansen, Seattle native and hedge fund manager from San Francisco who wants to build a $490 million arena in Seattle's SoDo district that would house relocated NBA and NHL teams. First of two parts.
Regarding the controversy over traffic and parking raised by SoDo businesses including the Mariners, does it feel as if you walked into a family fight about commitments unkept by the city?
I knew a little bit, but probably not enough. I went at the site selection in a non-political way. It’s a great site with two stadiums already here. And any event at the arena would bring half the crowd of the other venues. If (other sports teams) can get people in and out, it should be relatively easy for us.
Traffic will be a problem with any site. The port has valid concerns. But most of the problems existed before we got here. If you use the analogy of a car’s carbon footprint, if we we can make the arena’s carbon footprint negative, we’re doing a good thing. The thing we underestimated was people using our project as a tool to get their needs addressed before we ever brought up the project.
So the arena represents leverage for some constituencies?
I’m sure at some level that’s probably the thinking. But it would be unfair of me to comment.
Is it is clear to you yet who will be responsible for road/traffic improvements such as a possible Lander Street overpass, from which funds were diverted years ago, and now would cost as much as $180 million by some estimates?
I’ll say it like this: I’m going to make a financial commitment to an arena. It’s pretty much set how much I’ll put in. Some could be redirected to other areas. If someone tries to put me on the hook for an infrastructure project of this magnitude that should be undertaken by the city, it would make this project not viable. If you tack that onto the cost of an arena, it would be unrealistic.
We’re funding a traffic study, which is really on behalf of other constituencies. The city’s involvement is to assure independence, and it is running the show more than we are. The discussion probably needs to happen on what the optimal solution is.
There’s only one direction for downtown to grow. South Lake Union is pretty well filled up. When downtown expands into Sodo, with or without an arena, there’s going to be conflict with the port, railroads and others. That discussion has to take place. Our role is that when we bring night events here, we will make things better, not worse.
When we look at light rail, the tunnel and all the transport options for SoDo, we say when our arena comes, how can we alleviate the stresses for our specific events? That’s fair to turn the discussion to that. To saddle our group with the promises made earlier is not fair.
With Mercer Street a civic priority, it doesn’t seem as though the city has the road improvement budget to take on a huge project in SoDo.
I know. I acknowledge that. It’s not that’s it’s not my problem. Of course it’s my problem. If we succeed, we’re going to be neighbors here. But making it ONLY our problem is what’s unfair. The Mariners are here, the Seahawks are here, the port, Starbucks headquarters, Burlington Northern . . . others are coming to the area. There’s a whole bunch of constituencies that can help fix the problem.
Is it reasonable to expect that the traffic study you have commissioned is going to produce anything new that we didn’t know 10 years ago about needing the Lander Street overpass?
Sure. The problem needs a fresh look. It needs to be done. If I were in charge of the port or city, I would ask whether the Lander Street overpass is truly the best option. I don’t know.
I would caution that this traffic study is being done quickly and at a high level. In the EIS (environmental impact statement), there will be a very detailed study. On a scale of 1 to 10 with the EIS being 10, this traffic study is a three or four. It’s to analyze the issues so the city and county councils can use the data to see if the memorandum of understanding (the document that spells out the arena plan and its funding) is a good idea or not.
People would have a hard time objecting to the arena if they could see it didn’t make the problem worse. A big part of things is parking. The arena completion is at least three years out, close to the time that light rail and the tunnel (replacing the Alaskan Way viaduct) will be ready. It’s important to look at solutions that work for four or five years after that, rather than spend money on temporary problems before the transportation “lift” comes.
Since the tunnel will be tolled, are you concerned that drivers will repeat the avoidance habit developing with the new tolls on the 520 bridge, which in SoDo’s case would mean more cars using SoDo’s surface streets to get through downtown?
I don’t have a great answer. My background isn’t in transportation analysis. You know, at some level, it’s interesting that some people’s self interests have forced this issue to become the entirety of our conversation instead of all the other things.
Your nearest potential neighbor, the Mariners, came across as adversarial in their complaints about parking and traffic.
I would be the first to say that the Mariners got a bad rap. It’s my job as a neighbor to extend an olive branch to work on things together. I’m a Mariners fans. They have justified concerns. I can’t speak to their past intentions. I’m not privy to their previous behaviors that some might consider against the best interests of Seattle sports fans. My personal view is that the arena project adding parking, helping create an entertainment district, and possibly working with them on their media side would be a great thing for them.
Once they’re given an opportunity to see the pluses we’re bringing, we hope they see us as a neighbor who is a net benefit to them, as well as being responsible to the same fans. We have the same fans, there’s a lot of overlap. Both our customers are the Seattle sports fan.
Please review again your reasons for choosing this site.
No. 1 is zoning, No. 2 is minimal environmental (displacement) impact. The loss to maritime and industry workspace gets a little overstated. Very few of the businesses (on the purchased property) are maritime and industrial. So the impact on the community is less. No. 3 is transportation, which was a critical asset for us here: The connection to I-90, the ferries, heavy and light rail terminals. I think (King County Executive) Dow Constantine said it well when he said you couldn’t get a spot anywhere in the region more connected to more public transportation than this site. I don’t know why it hasn’t been more discussed.
If you took the same issues pitched against the site about traffic against the other sites mentioned, they wouldn’t fare as well. This is an urban site that’s connected by numerous methods of mass transit that’s within walking distance of where a large number of people work. If it’s advantageous to fans, it’s advantageous to us.
The best comparison is the lift the Giants got from leaving Candlestick Park for San Francisco. They got a lift from attendance and ticket prices. Fans thought Candlestick was an awful experience and AT&T Park is an incredible experience.
A San Francisco TV station recently did a look back to the issues about the new park before the Giants committed to moving. It was exactly the same as ours now in Seattle: Parking, traffic, it’s going to be a disaster. The point is they figured it out. One of the solutions was how they directed street cars and buses to get people in and out. There’s so much parking downtown (after business hours) and you don’t have to move people very far. People adapt to taking a street car for five minutes to avoid the traffic around the arena.
It’s a complex opportunity to adapt and expand the infrastructure in place to move a large portion of the fan base. That’s a long-term solution. There’s an easier, perhaps temporary solution, which is exiting people to downtown, where there is a huge inventory of (after business hours) parking. This is what happened in San Francisco. People aren’t taking the street car from their house, they drive downtown, park inexpensively, and take the transit to the arena.
It was a long process encouraged by the Giants themselves to change behavior. Now it’s clockwork.
Beyond the arena itself, how important to the arena project is the creation of an entertainment district in SoDo?
I think it’s important. Whatever we do won’t be on the scale or design of LA Live! But it will fit with our community. Having a better vibe around the arena would be great for fans. People would enjoying coming to more games if there were more to do pre- and post-game within walking distance of the arena.
The fan experience at Fenway Park or Wrigley Field is more than just the park itself. Few fans would argue that Fenway/Wrigley experience is worse than driving 20 minutes to a suburban location surrounded by a parking lot, where you get in your car and leave after the game.
Will you participate financially in the district’s creation?
The economics haven’t been determined yet. But we will take steps to make it happen because it’s at our front door. We’d like to make sure that, at a minimum, we’re creating the right circumstances for this to happen. We own some acreage around the arena footprint that will be used for parking and some for a practice facility.
Is there a district in an NBA or NHL market that might be a model for Seattle?
The Kansas City Light and Power District around Sprint Center is something more fitting. They don’t have an NBA or an NHL team but the building is a financial success. Our vision is something more like an extension of Pioneer Square, as opposed to big glass, modern-looking buildings. That’s my personal opinion. Other developers may have a different perspective.
The Mariners built on a site more removed from Pioneer Square restaurants and bars partly because fans would be inclined to spend more on in-stadium concessions. You have a different view of that?
I can’t speak to what the Mariners did. That’s for someone else. From my perspective, the better I make the experience for the fan outside the arena, the more likely they are to come to events. Win or lose, they can view it as a fun form of entertainment. That means parking and traffic too.
People love to go out and have a beer before a game, whether at a Seahawks tailgate, or in the arena or at a bar. And afterward. The fan without kids thinks about walking around the area, grabbing beer and going to the game, coming out and meeting up with friends who may have sat elsewhere, and have another beer.
Few metropolitan cities have so close together a large downtown, an active port and two stadiums and possibly an 18,000-seat arena. Isn't that packing a lot of activity into a relatively small area?
Keep in mind that the entertainment district is small, and won’t impact the port. If anything the entertainment district alleviates the traffic pressure because it causes fans to come earlier and stay later.
Part Two Monday: Lost in the congestion debate is Hansen's complicated offer to the city that he thinks is "a little under-appreciated." He also says he would have preferred to be a minority NBA owner, but stepped forward when no one else did. If he pulls off a relocation, he has some high standards for the Seattle business people who will join him in ownership.