Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke talks about the private investments going into the project and bringing in an NHL franchise, assuring people that the NBA is next.
Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke talks about the private investments going into the project and bringing in an NHL franchise, assuring people that the NBA is next.

Seattle’s MVPs behind the KeyArena’s clearance for an $850 million expansion broke ground on the two-year project on Wednesday, Dec. 5, a day after hockey fans learned the city will once again be home to an NHL team.

The iconic roof to the KeyArena will be raised and preserved during construction, as developer Oak View Group expands the arena from 400,000 square feet to 750,000, which involves going an additional 15 feet down.

“It is not a renovation,” said Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke, “it is a brand-new arena.”

OVG was tapped to expand the arena in June 2017, and a joint venture of Skanska and AECOM Hunt was named as the general contractor this July.

A final environmental impact statement was published in September was not met with any appeals.

While Tim Leiweke is redeveloping the arena to meet NBA and NHL standards, his brother Tod Leiweke has been working on getting together the teams that will play there. A former Seattle Seahawks CEO, he is now president and CEO of the Seattle Hockey Partners ownership group, which on Tuesday celebrated the NHL Board of Governors’ approval of Seattle becoming home to the 32nd NHL franchise team.

Tim Leiweke noted the 32,000 ticket deposits hockey fans placed in March. Tod Leiweke said 5,000 people added themselves to the waiting list on the day of the franchise announcement; the new arena will have about 17,400 seats for hockey and 18,600 for basketball.

The total investment as of Dec. 5 was roughly $1.6 billion in private funds, which includes a $75 million hockey training center in Northgate and the $650 million NHL franchise fee.

KeyArena, formerly the Seattle Center Coliseum, was the longtime home of the Sonics basketball team and several minor-league hockey franchises. The Sonics used the venue from 1967 until the team moved to Oklahoma City ahead of the 2008-2009 season, citing a lack of public funding to renovate the Key or construct a new arena to meet NBA standards.

Getting the Sonics back in Seattle has been a massive push by basketball fans, and Tim Leiweke assured them that getting an NBA team is still on the agenda.

“This ownership group has made a commitment to the city, to the sports fans of the Northwest, to the mayor and to all of the basketball fans,” he said. “We’re going to prove that we’re ready for the next one, and we’ll work diligently to get that here as well.”

The arena rebuild started as a $650 million project, but grew to $850 million, which Tim Leiweke said was due to a commitment to keep the original roof and honor the 1962 Century 21 World’s Fair, for which the arena — then the Washington State Pavilion — was originally designed. 

“It takes more money, yes, in order to build a world-class arena that will be top-five in the world for music and sports,” he said. “It means we had to make the arena perfect. It will be perfect, it will be privatized, it will host the Storm, it will host the NHL, and it will be prepared to host the NBA when they’re ready to talk to us.”

Tod Leiweke recalled the arena “being left for dead” when the Sonics exited the city, while he was with the Seattle Seahawks.

“This building is historic,” he said. “It was such an important part of our community, and it deserves to be preserved, but as my brother said, this isn’t a renovation; this is an entire new building.”

Tim Leiweke told the Queen Anne News it’s important to get the new arena open by the time the WNBA’s Seattle Storm start their 2021 season in May, and he expects there to be about 50 music concerts that first year. He added he wants a certain famous Seattle band to play during the arena’s grand reopening, but declined to identify the band by name.

Tim Leiweke heaped praise on Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan for her advocacy work before the NHL Commission, pushing for Seattle to be awarded a franchise.

“From the very beginning, they have been the partners that could actually get this done, and they did,” Durkan said of the Leiweke brothers.

The mayor also thanked former Sonics coach Lenny Wilkens for his contribution to making the arena a great place to come to for sports, the 13-time NBA All-Star having led Seattle to a 1979 championship victory. Wilkens sat up front during the Dec. 5 groundbreaking ceremony, and was later pulled up to shovel some dirt by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

The governor said the arena rebuild is a victory for the entire state, and confirmed there will be a rivalry with the Vancouver Canucks.

“I got into it with Premier (John) Horgan of British Columbia today,” Inslee said. “We’re going to be in their face right for the first puck all the way to the finish, and I’m looking forward to that.”