How Seattle's arena fortunes changed one year after 'The Vote'

A 5-4 vote by the Seattle City Council on May 2, 2016 had an ugly aftermath as many believed the NBA in Seattle was dead. But in the 365 days since, it's been one blockbuster move after another.

One year ago, the Seattle City Council voted 'no' for a street vacation that stymied plans for a new arena in Seattle's SODO neighborhood. In that year, so much has changed, and no one knows just how the ongoing arena story may end.

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In a story full of twists and turns, it should not have been a surprise.

Yet on that fateful May 2, 2016, jaws dropped and witnesses gasped as the real-life Seattle arena saga finished yet another chapter. 

Published reports signaled the Seattle City Council, after months of debate, would approve a one-block street vacation of Occidental Avenue in SODO and clear the way for the Chris Hansen-led group to build a new $500 million arena. Multiple sources within City Hall suggested the vote could go either way.

It came down to one of Seattle's newest council members, who held the fate of the SODO arena proposal in her hands.  Four council members had already publicly voiced their support for the vacation, and four voiced their dissent.

"I've really struggled with this decision a lot," Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez said, perhaps unfairly cast in the spotlight with the deciding vote. The council chamber was silent as she spoke. "I don't believe the traffic issues have been well dealt with and today I'm am going to vote no on the street vacation."

It was, by many accounts, a last-second decision.

Her council colleague Sally Bagshaw jumped out of her chair. Lisa Herbold, another member of the Council, dropped her jaw.

Some wondered if that was it for NBA and NHL in Seattle.

Even Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson voiced his displeasure on Twitter, with some wondering if he could have turned the tide.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray would note that day, “The city’s past actions contributed to the Sonics leaving Seattle. Today’s council vote makes it less likely that the NBA will return to the City of Seattle."

But no one expected or could have predicted, what happened next.

The story itself is made for social media at a time when real-time news nuggets are consumed on the move. "The Vote" was instantly known by those outside the chambers on Twitter.

It was unusual for more than one reason, including the fact it was 5-4, and as many people noted, fell along gender lines.

The response was equally surprising and just as instant as the vote. It changed the tenor of the entire Arena conversation.

"End Yourselves," wrote an attorney, in an email to the female council members. It only got worse from there.

The misogynistic words flew on Twitter timelines, all directed at the five council members.  Soon, it became the story.

Murray and Hansen issued statements condemning the social attacks. The story was picked up by the Washington Post and New York Times, just to name a few publications.

Even comedian Samantha Bee picked it up for her nationally broadcast show "Full Frontal," highlighting the council members and their vote.  All five played along for the pre-produced piece, introducing them to the world as if they were coming out of the tunnel on a game night. They earned new nicknames, like Lorena “The Gavel” Gonzalez - and Debora “Slam Dunk” Juarez.

Watch the Samantha Bee segment (Warning: Graphic language)

The ashes left from the rejected vote left a lot of people wondering if the project was dead.  It also left a lot of second guessing. 

Did the Port of Seattle's late public relations push sway the council? Or was it the planned May 3 press conference to announce a legal challenge? Should Hansen, or his partner Wally Walker, have done more to convince council members of their request? How could there be this much debate over a statistically proven, largely unused, city block?

They were all questions that permeated talk radio and hosts who were also suddenly targeted with fanning the flames of the threats, and abuse.

In the background, the mayor, and Chris Hansen connected. There was still a thorny issue of the fact the city holds a Memorandum of Understanding with Hansen that doesn't expire until this year.

Sources in both camps acknowledge Murray and Hansen spoke by phone with Murray apologizing for the setback.  Yet during the same conversation, say both sides, Murray made a request along the lines of "Would you mind if I can find a developer for KeyArena?" After all, there was an AECOM report, commissioned by the council which cited that a renovation could be done for $285 million.  Hansen did not object, confident that no one would be able to do it.

"That was a huge mistake," says a City Hall source.

It opened the door for clandestine meetings and conversations. Email records and sources confirm city leaders began speaking with Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), officially, soon after that.  The city has long been a partner with AEG, at KeyArena and with events like Bumbershoot.

AEG quietly hired Roger Nyhus, a long time Murray friend who also hosted his re-election campaign kickoff, for public relations duties. It would later pick up Aaron Pickus, who was the press secretary for former Seattle mayor Mike McGinn, the man who negotiated Hansen's original deal. Tim Leiweke, whose brother Tod once ran the Seahawks and is well respected in town, also got involved during the summer. He was starting up a company to take on his former employer and was looking for a project to help launch it with a bang. Leiweke was intrigued.

Hansen and his crew carried on, knowing full well their long-time dance partner was working the floor.

There was a big land purchase in September. Another other deal was closed in October. The SODO group's land holdings totaled nearly $125 million

The whispers started. "Maybe Hansen knows something," said one person in one corner of City Hall.

Another, in a different corner, "But the NBA hates Hansen!"

They are both whispers which have been repeated by people, from different angles of the debate, for months. It is what made the end of October so juicy.

That's when Hansen's group made a blockbuster pitch: Forget the MOU. Tear it up. We'll pay for the SODO arena privately. We'll even help build the long-desired Lander Street Overpass. All the city has to do is grant the Occidental Avenue street vacation -- the thing the council voted down back on May 2.

If starved Seattle sports fans could have an Internet fireworks show, it was like the Fourth of July. Hansen's group had made an unprecedented offer in Seattle sports business history.

But if you believe people at City Hall, it was a matter of Hansen playing his ace in a high-stakes poker game. The next day, Murray announced the city was going to take bids for a remodeled KeyArena. Try explaining that one to cities who continue to be asked for public financing of sports stadiums.

Hansen wasn't done playing cards.  He had another ace up his sleeve.

"I'm excited to announce I've partnered w/ the Sonics Arena Group to help bring the @NBA & @NHL to the best fan base in the world. Seattle," tweeted Russell Wilson, six months after demanding fans should "start a petition."

The decade-long saga that has featured more protagonists, and antagonists than a Shakespearean play, had a new character.

"Brilliant move," one Hansen opponent told me. The likable Super Bowl-winning quarterback, in the midst of another playoff run, started dropping SODO arena references at the end of press conferences. He penned op-eds in the paper, online, and used his considerable social media clout as well. Supporters felt Wilson was a guy who had driven the SODO project to the corner of Mo and Mentum.

But by January, the ball continued to bounce away from SODO. The city formally issued the requests for proposals on KeyArena and suggested a developer could tear the whole thing down and start from scratch. It also was looking for a privately financed deal and one that could match Hansen's group almost line item, by line item.

AEG signaled it would submit an offer. The dynamic Leiweke, who used to run AEG, did the rounds. He told anyone who would listen that the city had a crown jewel and that a renovation at Seattle Center could be done. Leiweke did not shy away from any media platform, while AEG took a more modest and quiet approach, perhaps well-ahead of competing bidder Oak View Group (OVG) behind the scenes.

On April 12, the city saw just how serious to the two bidders would turn out to be. Both offered what they called privately financed offers, well over a half-billion dollars, and double what the old AECOM report suggested.  The city's economic development director Brian Surratt said both groups "knocked it out of the park."

The city officially released both complete proposals Monday which could, one way or the other, change the landscape of Seattle for years to come.

How it ends is parlor room speculation at this point. Neither the NBA or NHL have wanted to enter the room.

But the only winner at this point, may the council that was so derided and assaulted one year ago. Gonzalez doesn't have a serious challenger for re-election and has found her footing with significant legislation at City Hall on issues like secure scheduling, police reform and, soon, will likely go after paid family leave.

Gonzalez may also be able to take another vote and say, on the arena issue, she may have saved the City of Seattle tens of millions of dollars.

It would be, yet, another twist.

KING 5's Travis Pittman contributed to this report.


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