SEATTLE - If Chris Hansen passed the ball back to the city Tuesday, Mayor Ed Murray isn’t ready to execute a slam dunk.
In other words, Murray has other ideas for a new sports arena in Seattle, and it involves Key Arena.
The mayor's budget director, Ben Noble, told KING 5 that the mayor's office is quietly exploring a major renovation of Key Arena at Seattle Center. The facility was home to the NBA’s SuperSonics until 2008 when efforts to renovate and expand its size fell through, prompting the team’s sale and move to Oklahoma City.
"We've been approached by more than one legitimate group," Noble said.
Noble says the 2015 AECOM report on a potential remodeling of Key Arena initially generated little interest.
"Nothing much came of it, at first," said Noble. But after the Seattle City Council rejected the street vacation Hansen’s group needs to go forward with a new arena in SoDo, the talk about the Key Arena option picked up.
Noble says the groups currently exploring Key Arena have bought into the AECOM study’s conclusion that pivoting the floor 45 degrees would allow for an NBA and NHL team to play there. He added that the arena’s roof is not historically designated so that it could be torn down for the right project.
"There are perhaps legs," to the discussions, says Noble. He added that the interested groups believe they could contribute significant private money to redevelop Key without a pre-existing commitment for an NBA or NHL team. It's unclear if the groups would ask for any sort of public contribution, said Noble.
Noble would not confirm that arena and events conglomerate AEG is a potential bidder. AEG Facilities currently operates Key Arena. AEG spokesperson Cassie Zebich declined to comment, saying only that "all inquiries will be handled by the mayor's office."
Noble says the talks are far enough along that the city is planning to issue an RFP (Request for Proposal) in December. Noble says he believes the RFP plans explain why Hansen's group made their privately financed SODO arena pitch on Tuesday. And regardless of Hansen's offer, Noble said the city plans to issue the RFP.
Concurrently, the city is also exploring a major renovation of Seattle Center. Murray commissioned a summit last September to explore a makeover of the site’s northeast quadrant, including Memorial Stadium, the KCTS Building, and Mercer Garage. The Seattle School District also discussed the idea of building a new high school on the Seattle Center campus.
A KeyArena RFP is sure to raise plenty of questions regarding Hansen’s SODO proposal. Both sides say Hansen and Murray had a discussion this summer about the possibilities around KeyArena. Sources said Hansen didn’t raise objections to the city’s plans to explore Key Arena changes.
"We still remain in contact with the Hansen folks," said Noble. The city is also still currently contractually obligated to Hansen, via the MOU, until the end of 2017.
But Noble acknowledged that any RFP would have to address the significant transportation challenges in and around Seattle Center. Parking that existed when the Sonics left in 2008 has been gobbled up by the Gates Foundation and new apartment and condo buildings. Mercer Street remains a congestion problem, and King County Executive Dow Constantine said Tuesday that even if ST3 is approved there are more transportation challenges in Lower Queen Anne than SoDo.
"Transportation would have to be (part of the RFP)," said Noble.
Noble also said the mood at City Hall for Hansen's original MOU soured considerably after Steve Ballmer purchased the Los Angeles Clippers for $2 billion in 2014. He also says the city now believes it does not need Hansen's offer of $27 million to fill the Lander Street funding gap.
"We're reasonably sure we will secure some more state money soon," said Noble, "We've already planned to do Lander with or without an arena there."
Noble says he doesn't know how long the RFP could take, or what kind of environmental review would be needed, but said: "Competition, from the city's perspective, is a good thing."
Madison Square Garden has also been rumored, at City Hall, to have shown interest in the Key. MSG spokesperson Kimberly Kerns, told KING 5, "We are going to decline to comment."