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Tim Leiweke
Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke talks Key Arena at the GeekWire Sports Tech Summit. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

The area around Seattle’s Key Arena — Seattle Center, South Lake Union — is a lot different than it was nine years ago, when the Seattle Supersonics left for Oklahoma City. Amazon’s global headquarters is about a mile away, where tens of thousands of employees march to and from work every day, many through means other than driving by themselves.

Not only could this hoard of well-paid tech workers represent a built-in fanbase for a future NBA or NHL team, the openness to alternative transportation is also proof in the mind of the group renovating the World’s Fair-era arena that the surrounding area can handle the large crowds that come with a sports and concert venue without over-stressing the infrastructure.

Speaking at the 2017 GeekWire Sports Tech Summit, Tim Leiweke, head of Key Arena redeveloper Oak View Group, said Seattle’s fast-growing nature means any arena site is going to have traffic issues. Leiweke called Amazon’s growth “shocking, gutsy, innovative and scary,” but he said it is an example of how much better the surrounding area’s infrastructure has gotten that it can handle such growth.

“There’s nothing easy in Seattle; you’re the fastest growing city in the entire Unites States, you’re going to have traffic problems,” Leiweke said. “The traffic problems are not Key Arena’s, the traffic problems are Seattle’s, and we have to solve them.”

Oak View’s plan involves a $564 million renovation of Key Arena, leaving the roof in place, and gutting much of the rest of the building. The team will expand the building’s footprint to about 660,000 square feet, primarily by digging underground.

A rendering of the renovated Key Arena. (Oak View Group Rendering)

Leiweke said his group’s proposal will not require any public funding. The group promises to take on all financial risk on the construction, ongoing operations, and capital improvements for the building.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced the city’s selection of Oak View earlier this month at a ceremony at Key Arena. Surrounded by former Seattle Supersonics head coach Lenny Wilkens, and owners and reps from pro sports teams including the Seahawks, Mariners, Sounders FC and Storm, among others, Leiweke promised to bring an NBA or NHL team to Seattle.

Oak View’s selection was basically a done deal once the other group involved in the bid process, Seattle Partners, withdrew its proposal days earlier, citing concerns about how the city was conducting the bid process.

A renovated Key Arena could open some time around 2020 and 2021. Though Leiweke didn’t dive deep into his transportation plans, he looks at getting to and from the arena with an eye to the future. Light rail is scheduled to come about a decade after the building opens. Leiweke is also putting a lot of stock into self-driving cars and building less parking into some of his company’s future projects as a result.

“There’s a new mode of transportation that is going to come in our lifetime, at some point or another, that will change the way we think about how we bring people in and out of our facilities,” Leiweke said.

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