Even before the Seattle City Council put its seal of approval on a revised deal to permit a new arena in SODO, local news sites were awash with discussion of the future of KeyArena. On Wednesday, the Times editorialized on the subject, calling for the city not to forget “KeyArena and the neighborhood economy it supports”. Since the loss of the Sonics in 2008, the arena has struggled financially, and a newer, larger arena might draw away the last of its regular tenants, such as the Seattle Storm, ending for the foreseeable future its viability as an entertainment venue. Should this come to pass, no consensus exists on what may become of the arena.
I don’t suppose I’m going to change that lack of consensus in this post; but I’m going to tell you, as someone who lives very close to KeyArena and sees its effect on the neighborhood, that in the long run, I’d like nothing more than to see it knocked down to build some nice mid-rise apartments, and along with it all the other old low-slung Center buildings and multistory parking garage south of Republican and west of 2nd Ave N. Contra the Times, KeyArena does not support a “neighborhood economy”; it’s a pox on the neighborhood, and only supports lots of parking lots and dive bars.
In general, local discussions of anything to do with the Seattle Center have, to me, an emperor-have-no-clothes quality to them. It’s taken as given that Seattle is greatly invested in the Seattle Center as an entity, as a campus, but in fact there’s nothing particularly optimal about the current arrangement. Great cities around the world have magnificent operas, thrilling theaters, absorbing museums, and attractive landmark highrise structures like the Space Needle; but the norm is not to put them all in one place. Such attractions work just as well dotted throughout the urban center, where they are close to transit and lots of people. Other functions of the center, like the (excellent) International Fountain and small event space rental could work just as well through other city departments.
More after the jump.
Moreover, not only does it add little or nothing to the sum of its parts, I’d argue the Center, and especially KeyArena, operates unintentionally as a blight on the surrounding neighborhood. Spend some time walking around the area, and you’ll realize pretty quickly that the number of surface parking lots, dreary testimony to old buildings lost, correlates pretty well with the distance from KeyArena. Insulated from the campus, a little pocket of Uptown west of Queen Anne Ave, between Olympic Place and Mercer Street feels a little like Summit Slope, with lots of dense, lowrise apartments, some quite old; a charming, pleasant feel, mostly absent around the west side of the Seattle Center.
I see no mystery in the mechanism for this blight. Everything about the Center, and particularly the arena, caters primarily to visitors from outside the neighborhood, which is manageable in moderation, but in this concentration it overwhelms the nearby parts of Uptown. People swarm in, mostly driving cars, and swarm out when they’ve seen what they came for. During game days, KeyArena blasts recorded messages in a loop over a PA; outside of game days, it’s a giant concrete block behind an empty plaza. For about half an hour after any major event at the Key, car traffic completely overloads the neighborhood street grid, cars and transit are almost completely immobilized.
If Seattle believes in the efficacy of human-scale, walkable, mixed-used urbanism to promote more sustainable living and build livable neighborhoods (and the direction and results of our zoning code strongly suggest that’s true), I think it follows that the city should passively shrink the Seattle Center, converting that land to mixed-use housing, or other neighborhood necessities, possibly including a new school, when opportunities present themselves, as one potentially does now.
I should clarify that I’m not suggesting the city should send in the bulldozers tomorrow; I’m loath to gratuitously knock down a usable structure, even if it’s ugly and its urban design is awful. Reuven Carlyle put out some thoughts about repurposing the building on his blog, including the idea of conversion to a STEM specialty school or multi-use neighborhood facility, which certainly seem worth exploring. Where I differ from Carlyle, and many others (who I’m sure are about to give me an earful), is that I don’t regard the Seattle Center as the heart and soul of Seattle, I don’t see it as an asset to the neighborhood (exactly the opposite), nor do I see much practical value in it as more than the sum of its parts.
I’m thus not sweating either the future of the KeyArena as a venue, or even (in the long run) as a building, nor the Seattle Center as a campus, and I don’t think anyone else should sweat it either. Let’s not forget it, but let’s not feel obliged to throw gobs of public money at it. In the “worst” case scenario, the city just sells it off for mixed-use development, and the land returns to the neighborhood whence it came.