PubliCola sat down with mayor Mike McGinn yesterday for a sometimes heated conversation about his record, his political style, and his chances in the upcoming election.
We'll publish the full interview later, but we wanted to highlight a couple of questions we asked about the arena; specifically, why the city is giving only pro forma consideration to sites other than the land San Francisco hedge-fund mogul Chris Hansen has purchased in SoDo; and why did the mayor work to keep Hansen's land purchases a secret?
First, the environmental impact statement. For major projects like the arena, state environmental law requires the city to do an environmental review of multiple sites to determine the impacts various sites will have on the natural and human environment before giving the thumbs up to one site.
Arena opponents have argued that the city's arena proposal violates state law because it's biased toward one site—Hansen's land in SoDo—and doesn't consider other viable alternatives, such as the Sick's Stadium site in the Rainier Valley.
Last year, the International Longshore Workers Union sued the city on exactly those grounds, arguing that political momentum (and Hansen's cash) have led to predetermined outcome. The EIS will look at Hansen's land, KeyArena (which the city and NBA have already deemed inadequate to host an NBA franchise), and potentially another site at Seattle Center—a process that is indisputably biased in favor of Hansen's site.
PubliCola: Why not at least consider alternate sites like the one in the Rainier Valley, just to see how it stacks up against the Hansen site? What's the harm in doing that?"When Chris Hansen appeared and said he was interested, he did indicate then that he was buying land, and he asked us to keep quiet so he could finish his land acquisition."
McGinn: The point of an EIS is that, before decision makers make a final decision, they should be fully informed as to the pros and cons of each site, so we’re going to do that in an honest way. But one site has a really significant pro, which is a private investor who’s willing to put in millions and millions of dollars. ...
When Chris Hansen appeared and said he was interested, he did indicate then that he was buying land, and he asked us to keep quiet so he could finish his land acquisition.
PubliCola: But you’re not talking about the EIS. An EIS doesn’t consider things like the fact that Hansen has offered money for a particular site.
McGinn: You’re right that the EIS is going to examine the impacts on the natural and human environment. That’s what it’s going to consider, and that is information that we’re going to consider when we make a decision. But we are also entitled to make a decision based upon the fact that somebody is looking to invest. We don’t have to preclude that in making a decision. That is a legitimate factor to consider. So to say we prefer this site that nobody wants to invest in—
PubliCola: But what if the EIS finds that the SoDo site isn't the best one?
McGinn: Then that issue will be in front of not just me, but in front of the council and the public. So it’ll be out there. So we’ll do the honest assessment, and you’re right, at that point we have to make a decision based on all the facts.
We also followed up with McGinn about why he agreed to, in his words, "keep quiet" so that Hansen could finish buying up land in SoDo. That land, which is currently occupied by low-intensity uses like one-story storefront businesses, parking lots, is far more valuable as the site of a proposed arena; in fact, the city has already agreed to spend up to $100 million (far more than its current assessed value) to buy it back from Hansen if the arena deal goes through. [Correction: Initially, we reported that the city could spend $100 million or more on the land.-Eds.]
"Keeping things quiet" so that Hansen could buy the land in secret, then, benefited no one but Hansen, who saved untold thousands by buying the land before its value jumped.
PubliCola: Why did you want to keep things quiet so that Hansen could buy up the land? The city doesn't benefit, since we have to buy it at whatever its appreciated value is, so what was your reasoning?
McGinn: We were excited about the opportunity of bringing back the Sonics and we didn’t want to kill it by making it impossible for [Hansen] to work on his plans.
PubliCola: How would that make it impossible? The city has said it can afford to buy the land even at its appreciated value. Why couldn’t Hansen afford to do the same?
McGinn: Chris was buying it in private sales—willing seller, willing buyer. We didn’t want to create an environment in which we’d kill the sale of the land, kill the project before it even got started. He was entitled to try to develop his plans.