Home Editors' Picks Opening day for new Seattle arena pushed back to summer 2021

Opening day for new Seattle arena pushed back to summer 2021

Words and pictures by Dan Morse

“This is going to be one of the best arenas in the world, and it’s been decades in the making.”

Tod Leiweke is not afraid to tell you how great the new Seattle Center Arena will be.  He is also insistent, along with construction executive Ken Johnson, that this won’t be just a renovated Key Arena.

“It is a brand-new arena, under an iconic, historic roof.”

Ken Johnson

That roofline will be all that remains of the old Key Arena when all is said and done.  It’s already been stripped of everything attached to its underside. Speakers, sound panels, all gone.  Pretty soon all 44 million pounds (yes, 44 million, I double checked) of roof will be lifted off the building and held up with a temporary steel structure.  Think extreme scaffolding.

“We will be setting up temporary support holding that roof in place while we excavate about 600,000 cubic yards down. And then build back up with the permanent steel and take the temporary steel away and the permanent steel holds its place.”

Ken Johnson

The roof won’t be the only piece of old Key Arena that sticks around either.  The windows from all around the sides of the arena have been carefully removed and catalogued.  Once the new arena gets far enough along, those very same pieces of glass that have hung around for so long will go right back into place on the new Seattle Center Arena.  The newness of this facility will be stressed repeatedly as construction moves along, but don’t let these small connections to the past get lost in the shuffle.

On the inside of the arena, construction — or rather, deconstruction — is already well underway.  The former home of the Storm, Sonics, and Thunderbirds is nearly unrecognizable. It has been stripped down to its bare bones, a shell of its former self.  Only a few piles of torn up seats, bent steel, and a couple section signs here and there remain. For now.

“The seats are gone, the suites, the walls have been removed.  We’re trying to get to the point where all we have left is the concrete, and that’s really where we are now.”

The project is coming closer and closer to the point where the massive undertaking of digging down beneath what used to be the court floor can begin.  Something similar was done in 1995, when a remodel lowered the court 35 feet below ground to expand seating. The major difference this time, however, is that it won’t just be the court or the ice surface that drops down.  The entire footprint of the arena will be dug out over 50 feet down, with an estimated 600,000 cubic yards of dirt removed from beneath the surface. This means the entire lower bowl will be able to surround a full sheet of ice, which wasn’t possible with the last remodel.

“We are so proud of this project,” says Leiweke.  “It’s not for the faint of heart, we’ve said that before.  My brother [Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke] says this is the most complex project he’s ever worked with in his life.  I’ve been here a year and it’s been a challenge from day one.”

Tod Leiweke

It’s a huge project, building a world-class arena under an already constructed roof.  But it hasn’t deterred Leiweke or anyone else at OVG from keeping the focus on what will be the most important thing at the new arena: the fan experience.  Both Leiweke and Johnson will repeatedly stress the intimacy of the bowl of the arena, where fans will sit (and perhaps stand) during both hockey and basketball games.

“This is going to be one of the steepest buildings in all of North America. Not only steep, but intimate. From my experience in sports that’s what the artist wants, that’s what the player wants.  They want to feel connected. So, we made some decisions and one of the decisions we made is one ring of suites. Something that can affect the intimacy of a bowl is when you try to add more suites.  We only have one ring of suites, a total of 40 suites on that level.”

Tod Leiweke

With the seats situated at such a heavy incline, the fans will always be able to feel close to the action, even from the upper levels.  And this won’t hold up only for hockey games.

“We studied every other basketball arena and we think that we have as intimate a building as there is.”

Tod Leiweke

This building is being billed as the home for NHL Seattle, but don’t forget that the Seattle Storm will be opening it.  Basketball is right next to hockey at the forefront of the construction. The NHL is set to come here, but dreams of the return of the Supersonics are also on everyone’s minds at OVG.  That has not been lost in the design of the building.

As the design has been finalized and construction has begun, costs have begun to soar.  The original $650 million price tag has increased nearly 150%, but the owners aren’t worried.

“The project today is north of $900 million. We think it lands somewhere between $900 and $930 million. There’s some healthy contingencies built into the budget to ensure that, if we should discover something unforeseen, we’re prepared.  It’s really evidence of ownership totally committed. We didn’t cut things out, we didn’t ultimately cut corners. As time’s marched on, we’ve realized how epic this project is. To be leading a project like this, with a dream of not only NHL hockey but world class music events and someday the NBA, it’s worth it.”

Tod Leiweke

One aspect of the final arena design owes thanks to another local sports facility.  Newly renamed T-Mobile Park has served as an inspiration for a very fan-centered portion of the Seattle Center Arena.

“We’ve opened up a lot of space behind the seats.  Go back to T-Mobile, when we built that, no one knew the Pen was going to be the Pen. No one knew that people wanted to socialize standing up watching and go out. There’s lots of spaces in this building where people can go, keep their eye on the bowl, be part of the action, stay engaged in whatever is happening on the floor, basketball or hockey, yet still have a concession opportunity.  We think we’ve got all of that done just right.”

Ken Johnson
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