When the Sonics started agitating for a new arena less than a decade after KeyArena's publicly-funded $75 million renovation, taxpayers and politicians where rightly outraged. At its grand re-opening in 1995, NBA commissioner David Stern praised KeyArena as "a beautiful building" and "very special to me." Just a few years later Stern would scornfully dismiss the arena as "woefully inadequate."
But that was a decade ago. In the years hence the Sonics were sold, public funding demands were escalated, and the team was ultimately stolen away to Oklahoma City. But more importantly in the context of recent developments, KeyArena has grown another decade older.
Now pushing 20, KeyArena is gracefully entering its golden years by arena and stadium standards, where the useful life expectancy is typically about 30. That lifespan is as true here in Seattle as it is in other big cities. KeyArena first opened as the Coliseum in 1962; it was torn down to its steel trusses and rebuilt 32 years later in 1994. The Kingdome was even less long-lived: Opened in 1976, renovated in 1994 (at a cost of $51 million), and demolished in 2000 at the tender age of 24.
It may seem wasteful to replace these giant structures every three decades or so, but it's long been the norm. Tastes change and buildings deteriorate. The Kingdome's costly 1994 renovation was necessitated by a catastrophic roof collapse, and the old Coliseum holds the dubious record for hosting the only NBA game ever to be forfeited due to rain, when the roof leaked onto the court during a 1986 game against the Phoenix Suns. The city paid off KeyArena's construction bonds in 2008 after a financial settlement with Clay Bennett, and its operations have turned a small profit ever since—about $640,000 in 2012. But that's far from enough money to fund a robust maintenance program let alone any major repairs or renovations.
At some point, competitive pressures combined with good old fashioned entropy dictate that it makes more economic sense to replace an old arena or stadium than it does to maintain one. And experience suggests that KeyArena will hit that point within another decade or so.
I mention this as a counter to those who argue that the death of the Sodo arena proposal would amount to a lengthy reprieve for KeyArena. It won't. For even apart from the desire to attract an NBA or NHL franchise, KeyArena's days are numbered. Many of the largest concert tours are already bypassing Seattle in favor of the Tacoma Dome, for various reasons not the least of which being the logistics imposed by KeyArena's cramped and difficult to maneuver loading dock. Furthermore, event traffic has always been a nightmare while arena parking has never been sufficient to meet the needs of a capacity crowd.
KeyArena was more than adequate back in 2004, but by 2024 likely not so much. There's a two-to-four-year lead time necessary to design, approve, and build a new arena, and if the Sodo arena does not get built, expect a new KeyArena replacement effort to get under way shortly after the Sodo arena Memorandum of Understanding expires in 2017. But don't expect those efforts to take place in Seattle.
And that, after all, is what's really behind the Seattle Time's opposition to a Sodo arena: What publisher Frank Blethen and his Eastside developer buddies are really bucking for is a new arena in Bellevue. And if that happens, we will be left with the same aging, empty arena at the Seattle Center that we'd be left with should we build an arena in Sodo, but with Bellevue drawing all the business across the lake instead of us profiting off it here in Seattle. And as residents of King County, Seattle taxpayers could be left shouldering much of the costs nonetheless.
The question facing the region is not about whether to replace KeyArena. It's about when and where. And if we don't make that decision here in Seattle, developers and politicians outside the city will make it for us.