More than a decade after then-Sonics owner Howard Schultz initially floated a taxpayer-funded $200-plus million renovation plan for KeyArena — the first attempt at rehabbing the facility after its 1995 rebuild — the building is once again at the forefront of the city’s professional basketball hopes.
In mid-January, the city issued a request for proposals regarding the arena’s future, the latest development in Seattle’s efforts to bring both the NBA and NHL to town.
The request for proposals has seven “core objectives” that bidders must address, including minimal financial participation on the part of the city for both the construction and operation of the venue (the selected bidder will be responsible for the full cost of funding to complete the redevelopment and construction), mitigating transportation impacts, and a design and operations that integrate with Seattle Center, and the surrounding neighborhoods.
In addition to the KeyArena site, the property to John Street — which includes the Seattle Center Pavilion and the 1st Avenue North Parking Garage — is also in the redevelopment request. Facilities north of the site, including KEXP, the Vera Project, and SIFF, are not included. Proposals are due by April 12 at 5 p.m.
Two global arena companies have already publicly stated their interest in submitting bids: the Oak View Group (OVG) and the Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG).
In an interview with the Queen Anne & Magnolia News, AEG Facilities President Bob Newman said an arena project needs a great city and a great location.
“The right location in our eyes — and we do this for a living all over the world — is right here on the Seattle Center campus,” he said.
That perspective doesn’t stem from a lack of opportunity elsewhere.
“We could have gotten involved in other projects around the city, but we always believed this was the right location for a world-class arena,” he said. “You have the base for one now, we just have to make it more modern.”
AEG is no stranger to the local entertainment scene. The company owns and operates both the Showbox and Showbox SoDo, and produces both Bumbershoot and the Marymoor Park Concert Series. Since 2008, AEG has partnered with the city to provide support services for the Key.
“We’re not looking to do a fast transition here,” Newman said. “We’ve been here 10, 12 years. This is putting the roots in deeper.”
Newman said one key element of the arena is its atmosphere for sports and other shows.
“Let’s preserve that,” he said, “and then redevelop the building to something that meets all the modern guest needs, all the modern athlete needs, all the modern artist needs, all the modern technological needs that could be in a building.”
While some are skeptical about KeyArena’s potential to meet the requirements of the NBA or NHL, even after a full overhaul, Newman said AEG’s perspective as an owner of teams in both leagues gives the group the insight to build a facility that does so.
“If we didn’t feel comfortable bringing our own shows, or bringing our own teams here, we wouldn’t recommend or endorse the project,” he said. “But we would do that in a heartbeat if we had the opportunity.”
Newman said between the existing partnership with the city, and the experience as a franchise owner and arena operator uniquely positions the company for this project.
Another part of the appeal of renovating the existing arena, he said, is the various cultural, arts, and entertainment entities on the Seattle Center campus, like KEXP and the Pacific Science Center, and potential to collaborate with them.
“You have all of these ingredients, and now we just have to bake the cake,” he said.
Thus far, Newman said a pleasant surprise has been how open community stakeholders have been to the potential redevelopment of the facility.
“What we’re finding in all these meetings is there is a lot of alignment here for support of this project,” he said. “More than I ever would have imagined.”
However, he said he’s not coming into these meetings to tell the community what to do, but rather to hear what their concerns and ideas are for the project.
“All of our projects that are successful, you figure out what’s important to all parties, and then you start to design and model,” he said. “You do it before that, and make assumptions, it’s a recipe for failure.”
Among the community groups that will keep an eye on the process over the coming months is the Uptown Alliance.
Debi Frausto, who leads the Alliance’s Key Arena committee, said the initial aim was to make sure the neighborhood had a voice in the process. Now, the group is inviting interested parties to reach out to them to learn more about the area around the arena.
“We’ve just made ourselves available to whoever wants to learn about the neighborhood,” she said. “We feel like we can really help them understand, and we’ve just gone through this whole [Urban Design Framework] process for four years, so we’ve got a pretty good sense of what’s going on, and what the future for Uptown’s beginning to look like, and what some of the opportunities are, so we want to be able to share that with them.”
The Alliance is also preparing a survey for local community members to share their ideas for how a renovated arena could engage with the surrounding area, and is planning a special meeting for Feb. 13 to discuss the city’s request for proposals and share more information with the community.
In the coming weeks, Mayor Ed Murray will convene a community advisory panel to evaluate finalists and make recommendations on the project.
Newman said despite the long wait, the finished project has the chance to be something special.
“Sometimes patience is a virtue,” Newman said. “I think the community is going to realize, ‘Wow, we were patient, and now look what’s going to happen here at KeyArena.’”