It was over, arena opponents suggested, before it began.
From the moment King County Superior Court judge Douglass North started questioning lawyers representing the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 19—who sued the city and county, arguing that the agreement they signed with arena investor Chris Hansen bypassed state environmental law by precluding all other sites except Hansen's land in SoDo—he appeared to have already made up his mind against the union and other arena opponents. And indeed, Judge North took mere seconds to rule against the arena opponents,
The ILWU, represented by attorneys David Mann and Peter Goldman, argued that the memorandum of agreement the city and county signed with Hansen included only one "alternative" site—KeyArena, whose supposedly dilapidated state was the reason the Sonics left in the first place—and the requisite "no-build" alternative.
Moreover, they argued, the agreement refers repeatedly to "the project site," meaning Hansen's land in SoDo. Given that the environmental review process is supposed to consider multiple alternatives, and given that the MOU does not give the city the option to consider sites other than Hansen's after the environmental impact statement (EIS) is complete, Mann argued, the MOU "commits the city and county to a very specific course of action": Approving the SoDo arena site.
Goldman, calling the process a "sham" if other sites weren't considered, said, "What council could possible vote the arena down after this process? ... The whole point of the MOU has been to make a SoDo arena inevitable."
But North wasn't buying it. Given that the MOU does require the consideration of KeyArena and the no-build alternative, North asked, "How does that violate [the State Environmental Policy Act]?"And he noted that the reason the MOU did not include the authority to build anywhere other than Hansen's land is "because there's no arena proposal elsewhere."
Essentially, Judge North agreed with the city's argument that the MOU didn't constitute an "action" (or, as Goldman colorfully put it, "not just a snowball but an avalanche" making the Hansen site a foregone conclusion).
That is, that it didn't amount to a decision by the city on where to locate the arena and that, in the words of assistant city attorney Jeff Weber, "there is nothing in the MOU that precludes the city or the county from deciding to proceed with another location" if they decided Hansen's property wasn't feasible. (Of course, Weber also noted, "It would have been a waste of time for the city to launch down the road of [environmental] review without knowing that there was enough financial support.")
Outside the courtroom after the ruling, Jack McCullough, the attorney for Hansen's WSA Properties, said, "It was a win for our position here today but as I said we've had work to do," including working on the EIS.
Mann and Goldman said they didn't know yet if they would appeal the ruling. But they said they'd continue to monitor the EIS process closely, looking specifically at what the impacts the arena would have on traffic and freight mobility. "We're going to hold the city and county council to their commitment to keep an open mind and look at the facts," Mann said. "That is our only choice at this point. We're going to work the process really hard."
Goldman added: "We're here fighting for SoDo. We're not fighting against basketball, we're not fighting against millionaires and billionaires, we're not fighting against public subsidies. What we're fighting for is what our city's going to look like in 15 years. Are we going to be a city that's going to be a huge real estate development all the way down to the West Seattle freeway? Or are we going to maintain our living wage jobs down in that industrial arena?"
Immediately after the ruling, Mayor Mike McGinn and County Executive Dow Constantine issued statements praising the judge's decision, and the ILWU issued a statement vowing to continue to fight the arena.