Arena Madness

 
 

Remember when Clay Bennett made all sorts of promises to Seattle after he bought the SuperSonics from Howard Schultz in 2006? Bennett actually said he had no intention of moving Seattle’s basketball team to Oklahoma City. We all know he was fibbing because Oklahoma City had opened a brand-spanking-new arena in 2002 with the express intent of wooing an NBA franchise to the Big Friendly.

Ironic nickname, huh? OKC, which trademarked “Big Friendly” the year before the Sonics moved there, was Snidely Whiplash to Seattle’s Nell Fenwick in 2008. It played the scheming villain while Seattle was the hapless victim tied to the railroad track. Clay Bennett drove the train.

Guess who’s waxing up the moustache now.

That’s right. In the truly insane world of pro sports, which actually encourages cities to descend to the level of drunken looters after a Stanley Cup riot, Seattle is now prepared to wrest a professional basketball team from Sacramento and maybe a professional hockey team from Phoenix.

It’s all legal and above board, of course. Because this is what cities do in the name of achieving—or recapturing—status. Reminds me of when the Seattle Mariners were threatening to move to Florida and the publisher of the newspaper where I worked was worried that Seattle wouldn’t be “world class” without a baseball team. A colleague reminded him that Paris seemed to be doing just fine without one.

A local sports columnist recently asserted that Seattle shouldn’t feel guilty about stealing another city’s team, and his logic was priceless. “We didn’t invent this game,” he wrote. “We’re just left to choose whether we want to engage and play.” This same columnist will soon be lecturing in organizational ethics at a university near you.

It’s true that we can choose not to do the neener-neener dance at the Sacramento Kings’ going-away party, but we all know they’ll eventually be going somewhere. Having started out in Cincinnati before moving to Kansas City/Omaha and then Sacramento, it’s in their DNA. So why not bring them to Seattle? We even have a white knight ready to build a new arena that allegedly won’t cost the city more than $200 in the way of shakedown, I mean, good faith money.

Big-time sports teams are feathers in a city’s cap—until they’re not. They’re often badly run by rich people who have no sense of how out of whack the business model is. The owners recoup their investments only when they sell the franchises to other delusional people whose egos are in need of deep-tissue massage. When the new owners deduce that they were sold “damaged goods,” they insist that their hosts add a few amenities to their playpens or they’ll take their basketballs/baseballs/footballs and go play someplace where they’re wanted.

A new basketball team or hockey team will not appreciably change Seattle, although I guarantee you there’s an economist somewhere ready to spout impressive statistics on the economic benefit of another pro sports team. (Full disclosure: I work next door to the site of the proposed new arena in SoDo, one of the great dining wastelands of Seattle, and I would love to see some economic benefit here. But do we really need a new arena to accomplish it?)

Teams come and teams go and, remarkably, cities survive the ebb and flow. What’s ultimately not survivable is the ratcheting up of the gamesmanship required to beat out another hapless city for the dubious honor of hosting a team. It would be so much cooler to continue being known as the city that called the NBA’s bluff and said, “We’re not playing your bankrupt game,” than to act like a desperate teenager who can’t get a date for the prom.

JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine.

Creating an affordable, inclusive Puget Sound

Creating an affordable, inclusive Puget Sound

Making room for our growing population will require more density in urban areas as well as innovation in transportation and office use.
 
 

Seattle has an enviable problem. More and more people are moving to the Puget Sound, so many that, by some estimates, the region’s population could increase by one million residents by 2040. At the same time, Seattle is constrained geographically by water and hills. Our topography is scenic and beautiful, but it also makes it difficult to build new housing.

Further complicating matters, approximately 65 percent of Seattle’s land area is zoned for single-family residences. The hourglass shape of Seattle, at its widest point—between Ballard and Magnuson Park, along 65th Street—is zoned for the lowest density. Meanwhile, the area zoned for the densest development—downtown—is narrowest and where land is most scarce.

Water, land and zoning regulations: these are the facts. If population trends continue, how will people live in our city? As Seattle densifies, how can design provide a more humane environment and housing that all residents can afford? These are some of the questions I’m interested to explore at a panel discussion on October 5, “Seattle 2040: Where Will All the People Live?” at NBBJ’s Seattle office.

 

As an architect, I’m particularly interested in how we might insert greater density, for people of all incomes, into our existing street network including the single-family areas that constitute such a high proportion of Seattle. Mother-in-law apartments, residential units over garages, duplexes and townhouses are just a few options. Done right, we could increase density and affordability without dramatically changing the character of those neighborhoods.

This November a major ballot initiative, Sound Transit 3, could raise billions of dollars to expand light rail. If that happens, it would substantially increase the number of transit-oriented centers in our region, which would lessen the impact of building because we could spread it across more light rail stations.

There are other options. We could look at reusing and densifying public rights-of-way. High-rises like the “no-shadow tower” could mitigate the impacts of tall building on the urban environment. Or driverless cars might create a new transportation system in the next 25 years that fundamentally changes how we get around and where to encourage development.

If you think about the design of office space, 25 years ago, a majority had a private office with limited public amenities; now office space is moving in the other direction, asking people to have less personal space at their desk, but having access to a wider range of shared amenities. I almost think we need a similar approach whereby people move from large single-family houses to smaller homes or apartments. The key to making this work is to have access to more shared, semi-private amenities or nearby public open space.

Some of the issues Seattle faces also challenge many other U.S. cities, but these challenges cannot be solved by design firms single-handedly. A city’s growth affects everyone, young and old, rich and poor, newcomers and long-time residents. We are in this together, and it will require everyone to bring about our shared future. 

David Yuan, AIA, LEED AP, is a partner at global architecture and design firm NBBJ.