Tukwila NHL arena news will reshape Seattle arena debate

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In one moment on Monday morning, the entire arena debate in Seattle changed.

Maybe the entire sporting landscape in the Puget Sound region did, as well.

When ESPN’s Craig Custance posted on Monday morning that Ray Bartoszek’s RLB Holdings Sports and Entertainment had filed a request for a zoning code interpretation with the city of Tukwila, with the intent of building an arena in the city, that woke up hockey fans across the region. Suddenly, the long-awaited alternative to the painfully-slow arena process in Seattle had arrived. Custance said that the zoning request was filed last Wednesday, with the SEPA application (basically, the start of an environmental impact study) to be filed by Friday. Tukwila officials said that Bartoszek’s group first approached the city about the arena site early in 2014.

Oh, and the arena would be privately-funded, too. That’s a big point and crucial to the coming process.

If the name Ray Bartoszek rings a bell, that’s because he was part of the ownership group that almost brought the National Hockey League to Seattle in 2013. The then-Phoenix Coyotes were one Glendale City Council vote away from being sold to Bartoszek and Anthony Lanza, who would have moved the team to Seattle and have them play in KeyArena for three seasons as a new arena was built. He’s stayed in contact with the NHL and commissioner Gary Bettman since, and as Bettman wants a team in the Seattle area, this could be a major step towards that.

While both Tukwila officials and Bartoszek emphasized to Custance that it is still early in the process, with Bartoszek calling the current situation a “potential real estate project”, the intent is there. A possible arena in Tukwila was now not just a thought, but steps are being taken to make it a reality. The date mentioned for a possible opening for an arena is the fall of 2017, about the time any new NHL expansion teams would likely start playing. So, likely, that date being mentioned has a larger meaning, and maybe an end date for any NHL team starting in the Seattle area.

Maybe the biggest surprise from what we learned on Monday morning was the planned location for the arena. For months, the assumed arena site in Tukwila was believed to be the “Sabey site”, land owned by David Sabey at the south end of Boeing Field, just inside the Tukwila city limits on the border with Seattle. This was the one mentioned in previous articles.

But the site Bartoszek is working on is not that location. Instead, his arena location is on the east side of the city, south of I-405 and between the West Valley Highway and the former Longacres site, just north of the recently remodeled Tukwila Amtrak/Sounder station. It’s in an area that Tukwila has designated as a Transit Oriented Development (TOD) area, planning to make it an area where public transit, such as Sound Transit’s Sounder commuter rail line, Metro Transit’s RapidRide bus rapid transit system and other Metro routes (all of which serve the arena site, or run close to it) could easily serve employers in the area. An arena would benefit from solid transit, as traffic on I-405 around the West Valley Highway interchange, and around Southcenter to the west and Renton to the east, can get very congested.

What’s not at the location is Sound Transit’s Central Link light rail line. That goes through the Sabey site, and Tukwila’s light rail station is on the far west side of the city, along Highway 99 and near Sea-Tac Airport. So a direct transit connection from and to Seattle, outside of the Sounder, is out of the equation for the time being. That might become an issue down the line.

The timing of the Tukwila arena news doesn’t seem to be a coincidence. The Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for Chris Hansen’s proposed arena in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood, south of Safeco Field, is to be released on May 7. With that process being drawn out for years, with opposition from the Seattle Mariners and the Port of Seattle starting to be known again, the anticipation on what the FEIS will say, and what timelines that the city of Seattle puts on the next phases of the project will be crucial to whether it even can get to the point of considering a date to break ground. The news from Tukwila now puts a lot of pressure on the process, especially on the point where construction of the SoDo arena could only start when an NBA team was gained. It forces the city, and Hansen, to take more seriously the need to allow the arena to proceed if it’s the NHL that comes to Seattle first.

That’s where the pressure goes up on Vince Coleman, as well. He’s been negotiating with Hansen on trying to get the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) changed from only allowing the arena to be built if Hansen brought the NBA back to Seattle. He’s been in constant contact with Bettman on the arena situation, and there was a time when it seemed like progress was being made. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, who was seen at the beginning of his term by some as anti-hockey, had even begun to soften his stance on a possible NHL-first MOU change.

But Coleman hasn’t been heard from recently, and the state of his negotiations with Hansen is still unknown. Much of this hinges on what the FEIS says when released next week, but Coleman needs to let Seattle fans know that he’s still interested in bringing the NHL to Seattle. He needs to be talking to Murray and the Seattle City Council, trying to get the MOU changed so it can be NHL-first. He needs to be seen, or announce some sort of action that tells NHL fans in the region that he’s still in the race. Otherwise, he will be seen as out of the picture, and Bartoszek becomes the only one with Bettman’s ear. Then again, with Monday’s news, and that Custance’s story mentioned that Bettman will talk to the NHL Board of Governors about Bartoszek’s plans, he may already be the only one.

If the NHL arena plans in Tukwila gets on a fast track, that likely means the SoDo arena project becomes much less likely. And much of the blame has to go to Hansen, as his attempts to bring the NBA back to Seattle seem to have done more harm than good, on many fronts. His failed attempts to buy the Sacramento Kings and Milwaukee Bucks may have ticked off a number of NBA owners, and the NBA keeps saying that there’s no plan to put a team in Seattle anytime in the next few years, or even within the decade (if at all).

The tide has already turned against Hansen, at least from one front. King County Council member Pete Von Reichbauer told KOMO NewsRadio’s Charlie Harger that Bartoszek’s arena plan in Tukwila was better, and with Steve Ballmer’s purchase of the Los Angeles Clippers, he believed that Hansen no longer had the money to get an NBA team or to build an arena. He also believed that Tukwila was a better location than SoDo for the arena. Since King County is also involved in the SoDo arena process, if Van Reichbauer is expressing the majority opinion of the county council, that’s a massive blow to Hansen.

That Hansen made the exact same mistake that Barry Ackerley made in 1990 likely led to a similar result, only coming much faster. It was Ackerley who killed the hopes of an NHL expansion team at that time when he bailed out on the prospective ownership group and struck a deal with the city of Seattle to remodel the Seattle Center Coliseum into a basketball-centric arena, which became KeyArena. It can be argued that the end of the Sonics in Seattle began with that decision, as it meant KeyArena couldn’t make the money it needed to make a profit and helped give the NBA the first excuses it needed to say that the building was obsolete, and gave the city a reason to let the team go away.

Hansen never learned from that. Insisting on making the MOU NBA-first was a monumental mistake, but it came at a time when he was making many in the region believe that he could…no, he would…bring the Sonics back. The excitement was very high, and it seemed like Hansen could do no wrong. He got the deal he wanted from Seattle and King County, and it seemed like a matter of time before the arena in SoDo would be built, even if the Mariners and the Port of Seattle came out strongly against it. The M’s even took a massive public relations hit for opposing the arena, and that played into Hansen’s favor, as well.

But Hansen also said that he had no interest in hockey, and that the NBA was his sole focus. Even the rendering of the arena in a hockey set-up seemed half-hearted, as many pointed out that the proposed look lacked player benches and penalty boxes. He said that he wanted hockey to be a part of the arena project, but he himself wanted anything to do with a team. Someone else had to get the hockey team to become his tenant. It was only after it became more apparent that the NBA still had no interest in Seattle, and that the NHL still had strong interest, that Hansen started to talk with possible owners. For a time Jeremy Roenick was connected with Hansen, but that soon went away.

Eventually, it became clear that the lack of an NHL-first plan for the SoDo arena would be the Achilles heel of the entire project. That Bartoszek and Lanza were so close to moving the Coyotes to Seattle in 2013, maybe closer than Hansen had been with the Kings, added to the angst. It was clear that Hansen was seemingly living in a dreamland where the NBA would still allow him to bring back the Sonics, even when the evidence was increasingly against him.

Meanwhile, the arena FEIS dragged on. First it was supposed to come out in late 2014, then early 2015. Then Murray announced a date of May 7, and it seemed like the arena might finally make a little progress. But all outside of Hansen, and maybe some on the City Council, had come to realize that there would be no new Seattle arena unless the MOU allowed for NHL-first. Hopes were raised when the news that Hansen had started negotiating with Coleman on a possible NHL-first plan, but that was back in 2014. Not much has come out since, and if Tukwila gains momentum, then the idea of an arena in SoDo is all but dead. Then Hansen would have to deal with Bartoszek if he wanted an arena for the Sonics, and he would be dealing from a position of weakness. And, in the end, he can only blame himself.

That Bartoszek’s group would build the arena in Tukwila with no public money works against Hansen, as well. The SoDo arena plan is based on Seattle and King County chipping in about $200 million (the county contributing $80 million if the NHL was involved, $5 million if not), with Hansen paying the money back in installments. Some on the Seattle City Council have been hesitant to support giving Hansen that money, and if Tukwila ends up approving a privately-financed arena there, then the anti-arena forces on the council could kill it right there. Monday’s news may already have the Seattle arena project closer to not happening, even with the FEIS coming out on May 7.

And what about the other proposed arena location in the Puget Sound region, in Bellevue? No news has come out of there since the site at 116th Avenue NE and NE 4th Street since it was mentioned in February, but the car dealership at that location burned in a massive 3-alarm fire on Saturday. That puts the future of the site in doubt, but with the news from Tukwila, any arena plans that may be in the works could be dead very quickly.

Which brings us back to Monday’s news, the news of Ray Bartoszek’s possible arena plan for the east side of Tukwila. That Gary Bettman will be mentioning those plans at the NHL’s Board of Governors meeting in June, along with the Las Vegas season ticket drive, is a massive endorsement for Bartoszek. That the fall of 2017 was mentioned as the earliest opening date for the arena is also big, as that would be the earliest any NHL expansion teams would begin play. The dream of the NHL coming to the Seattle area, a dream that was supposed to happen in 1976, and was supposed to happen again in the early 1990s, may actually be back on track.

It will take a while to know if it is. But, for today, the hopes of hockey fans across the Puget Sound region just got raised significantly.

And Ray Bartoszek may become what Chris Hansen wanted to be. The arena builder.

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