As SODO arena uncertain, will Seattle return to the The Key?

With time ticking on an arena deal with hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen, the city of Seattle continues to study what Key Arena will become if an arena does get built in SODO -- and also what might happens if it doesn’t. (AP)

With time ticking on an arena deal with hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen, the City of Seattle continues to study what Key Arena will become if another SODO arena is not built — and also what might happens if it doesn't.

Hansen, a Seattle native, announced Wednesday that he acquired an additional $25 million swath of land across the street from Safeco Field. The purchase adds to his extensive land holdings in the existing stadium district. But it remains unclear if it will add anything to his pursuit of an NBA or an NHL team.

As for now, city officials are content to remain publicly supportive of the Memorandum of Understanding they have with Hansen that outlines what a SODO arena deal would look like – such as $200 million in public funding — if the billionaire acquires a professional hockey or basketball franchise.

But behind the scenes, Mayor Ed Murray’s office has not abandoned the idea that The Key still holds promise as a major sports arena – particularly if a developer has the option of completely tearing down the existing structure and building something entirely new.

The appeal of Key Arena to some city leaders is simple: It's well-served by existing bus lines to Lower Queen Anne; It currently hosts shows as large as any of the prospective sporting events; It's in the heart of the city and Seattle Center's open spaces are designed for large crowds; And the site does not add to a crowded stadium district andfurther inflame the Port of Seattle's traffic concerns.

But bringing back Key Arena as the host of a major sports franchise has big, potentially insurmountable obstacles. First, the required Environmental Impact Statement would focus on traffic and accessibility issues that have no clear solution.

Other Key and SODO arena considerations

• It’s unclear if neighborhood groups would support additional traffic. Businesses originally lamented the loss of the Sonics and a handful never recovered and eventually closed. But since then, many have adjusted and thrived.

• The existing Key Arena plot likely can’t be sold to a developer. No city official at this time has said he or she is willing to wade into the political buzz saw of proposing to sell off a section of Seattle Center to a private developer. So it would have to be a partnership with the city. And the limits to that sort of partnership, in part, helped prompt the sale of the Sonics in 2006.

• For as cool as the NBA’s enthusiasm is for Seattle, it is even frostier about The Key.

• New arena traffic would be compounded by Expedia and its 3,000 employees who are moving in 1.8 miles away in 2019.

But perhaps the most important reason to route any new professional team back to Seattle Center is what would happen to it if another arena is built in SODO. The suspicion is that major concerts will flee The Key if a new arena is built. This would limit the arena’s tenants to the Seattle Storm, Seattle University basketball and the Rat City Roller Girls – an unhappy prospect for the city which is finally seeing the debt-free arena break even with its mix of big shows and mid-level sports.