The Key Arena, A Failed Attempt at Rebuilding And Its Future

By 1973 Yankee Stadium was literally falling apart. When people would stomp on the seating bowl concrete bits and pieces would rain down on those beneath it. It was time for the 50 year old building to be gutted and rebuilt. The rebuilt Yankee Stadium opened in time for the 1975 season and lived until it was demolished and replaced after the 2008 season, 33 years. In other words, the rebuilding of Yankee Stadium was a dramatic success.
The Seattle Center Coliseum, The Sonics Original Home
Seattle Sonics’ owners Barry Ackerley came to the City of Seattle during the summer of 1990 and said that the original Seattle Center Coliseum (built in 1962) was no longer a viable option as a NBA Basketball Arena, the City was surprised. Ackerley offered to build a private $100 million NBA/NHL Arena where Safeco Field currently sits. After giving Ackerley the go ahead, the City backed out of the deal. At that point an embittered Ackerley gave the city an ultimatum, come up with an Arena plan or I’ll sell the team. The City had to be looking at the success of the rebuilt Yankee Stadium; they probably figured that it wouldn’t be so hard to squeeze a modern NBA Arena into the footprint of the old NBA Arena.
The Key Arena, The Final Home of the Sonics
Thus the Key Arena, and the key to the Sonics 2008 departure from the City of Seattle, was born. It was an attempt to follow the Yankee’s model of success with their stadium, an attempt to keep the Sonics in the City for decades to come. The City announced that The Coliseum would be gutted, that the construction firm would dig down and that the “New Arena” would be contained in the old one’s footprint; it was also announced that the new arena would keep the original roofline of the Seattle Center Coliseum, keeping the City’s skyline pretty much intact. After all, keeping the new building within the old one’s footprint had worked well for the Yankees. If it worked in New York it should work in Seattle, right? 

The major reason that the rebuild Yankee Stadium worked was because they really didn’t do much to change the original design. Sure the Yankees added some modern amenities but the ballpark didn’t change, its footprint didn’t change. There was no reason to change any of it, after all the primary reason the ballpark was being renovated was because the Stadium had become unsafe. Not because it was unable to keep up with the financial needs of the Yankees.
Unlike Yankee Stadium, the Seattle Center Coliseum was structurally sound. The building was just not able to keep up with the financial needs of the ownership group. The City and the Sonics were trying to squeeze a modern building into the tiny footprint of the old one. They outright ignored what was going on with the new buildings in Phoenix and Portland and the massive footprints needed to build those modern (and still very successful) NBA Arenas.  
And to make matters worse the renovation ran way over budget and became a sinkhole for the tax payers who were forced to cover the cost overruns.  This forced the City to exact a high rent from the Key’s primary tenants, the Sonics. After all of what Ackerley went through to get the renovation done, the negative impact on his bottom line forced him to sell the team to Howard Schultz and the rest is history. 
Now the City, the NBA and the Key find themselves at a cross roads, again.  This morning Chris Hansen raised the stakes for a new building even higher by offering to have his ownership group take over the Key and help pay for upgrades to make it a suitable temporary home for the NBA. He also talked about continuing to improve the Key using tax revenues generated by the New Sonics temporary stay in the building. These improvements to the Key that Hansen would help bank roll are enhancements that the City has been trying to do ever since the Sonics left; enhancements that would allow the Key to stay competitive with the arenas in Everett and Kent. 
In other words, Hansen is offering the city a chance to fix the wrong it created when it backed out of its SODO Arena Deal with Ackerley in 1990. A chance to make the Key a destination venue for concert acts and.  A chance to bring back the City of Seattle’s first professional sports franchise.

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