Rethinking Seattle’s Living Room

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In recent days, we’ve been reading some pessimistic reports about the future of KeyArena. It’s dismaying indeed to read these pieces, as it is far too early to fear for Seattle Center’s future. To paraphrase the late, great Mark Twain, accounts of KeyArena’s death are premature.

In recent years, KeyArena has turned a profit – not a large one – but a profit. And the facility is helping with Seattle Center’s finances. In fact, as the Center is presently structured, the facility’s health is vital to keeping Seattle Center, often referred to as “Seattle’s living room,” closer to the bottom line.

The Center’s annual budget ($34.5 million in 2012) is partly financed by the city’s general fund. In recent years, the Center has relied on that fund – the city’s main revenue source – for about 37 percent of its needs.

The remainder of Seattle Center’s annual upkeep comes through lease proceeds, parking fees, special events and other sources. Many of the Center’s tenants are non-profits and, not surprisingly, many of them have been adversely impacted by the recession. As a result, the Center is owed hundreds of thousands in past-due rent.

Due to this shortfall and other financial challenges facing the Center, the Council approved legislation in 2011 that authorized the Center to borrow up to $3 million from the city’s cash pool.  That loan was originally structured be repaid no later than December of this year. However, given the realities of the Center’s finances, I expect the mayor’s 2013-14 budget proposal will include a request to the Council to extend the term of the loan and increase the total amount that the Center is authorized to borrow.

In other words: dismal news and not much in the way of silver linings for the Center, our city’s major legacy from the 1962 World’s Fair.

But there may be some encouraging news ahead. It seems that change is coming to the Seattle Center – the result of a deal that the city and the county negotiated with a private developer over the possible return of an NBA team.

As part of negotiations, the City Council insisted that resources be devoted to rethinking KeyArena’s role. Up to $150,000 for a study of Seattle Center’s long-term future will be reimbursed by the developer. The deal also specifies that an additional $7 million in admission taxes (collected while the NBA team plays at KeyArena) will be used by the City as follows: at least $2 million set aside for the Center and up to $5 million left to the City Council’s discretion. This nest egg could be used to defray rental costs at the new Arena in an effort to keep current tenants whole or it could be used for the Center’s redesign.

Approval of the MOU will provide the City with the resources needed to reexamine KeyArena’s role. The fact is that, whatever happens once a new team is obtained, there will be a three or four year period when KeyArena will be the new team’s interim home. The presence of an NBA team will infuse the Seattle Center and lower Queen Anne with economic activity, boosting local businesses and Center attractions.

Meanwhile, there will be ample time to contemplate how the Seattle Center can best be redesigned to maintain its legacy. How will the Center of the future look? At the moment, we are at a crossroads. The path we take must be one that draws on the hard work that has been done in the past while incorporating changes that reflect present conditions.

The coming changes are a little open ended and even a little scary. But change has always been part of the Center equation.

The architects of Century 21, as we called the 1962 World’s Fair, were not afraid to envision the future – often in ways that were ahead of the times. Sometimes they were very right, as when they forecast trips into space and technological breakthroughs. Sometimes they miscalculated, as when they thought food preparation would be reduced to vitamin pills and disposable dishes.

But, in total, the World’s Fair builders were headed towards the right goal: a Seattle Center that remains an urban hub where residents and tourists alike enjoy cultural and civic events in Seattle’s very own Living Room.