Bucks arena district plan moves ahead, despite lots of unanswered questions

The Milwaukee Plan Commission has given its unanimous approval to the Bucks‘ arena district plan, which will now move ahead to the Milwaukee Common Council for a vote there. While the $450 million in subsidies for the $500 million arena have already been approved, elected officials still need to approve a bunch of zoning changes for the arena and surrounding “entertainment district” that the Bucks owners are promising to build, which will be easily distinguished from surrounding buildings by not being shapeless gray blobs.

The controversial bits of the redevelopment plan include tearing down an existing parking garage before building a new one (Bucks execs say they’ll provide shuttle buses for fans in the meantime) and closing a block of N. 4th Street to provide the Bucks with a public plaza. Both of those elements have raised the hackles of alderperson Bob Bauman, so expect more debate on them once the plan hits the council next month.

Meanwhile, there’s still no sign of a lease agreement on the arena, which needs to address such humongous issues as how to pay maintenance costs and whether the Bucks can break their lease before the term is up. The Bucks owners still say they hope to break ground in April, but hey, they can always leave some details to be figured out later — because that’s worked out so well in the past.

Virginia Beach gives preliminary approval to $200m arena, public could pay $175m of cost

Three years after Virginia Beach started looking into building a new arena to lure the Sacramento Kings to move to town (SPOILER: they didn’t), Mayor Will Sessoms and the city council met yesterday to reach agreement on the construction of a $200 million, 18,000-seat venue on city land. According to the latest renderings, the arena will include lots of spotlights and fireworks and lens flare (or maybe that’s the moon, who can tell, it’s all so blurry).

The project would receive $50 to $70 million in city infrastructure spending (which would include things like a plaza outside the arena, which isn’t really infrastructure, but anyway), and also … we don’t know what else also, because the meeting was behind closed doors, as will be today’s followup meeting. So no official word on whether the city is still planning on providing $8.5 million a year in tax kickbacks to the arena developers to help pay for stadium construction costs, as was reported last year (along with reporting that the arena would be “funded entirely by private investors,” because journalists don’t understand simple economics and anyway can’t be bothered to question press releases because someone important might get mad).

So we could still be looking at more than $175 million in public subsidies for a $200 million arena. There will at least be one public hearing on the project (on December 1) before a final city council vote on December 8, which presumably will be public, but you never want to assume in Virginia Beach.

Bucks owner: No talks yet on arena lease, but how long does it take to write fine print, anyway?

The Milwaukee Bucks owners have revealed that their new taxpayer-funded arena won’t open until 2018, which was already reported last month, but it’s officialer now. Wes Edens and Marc Lasry, you will recall, spent years giving the impression that a new arena needed to be in place by 2017 or else the team would move, but now that they have their $450 million in public cash and tax breaks, sure, no hurry.

In more newsy news, Edens said he hasn’t even begun lease negotiations with the state, but expects them to be completed by the end of the year anyway: “The lease negotiations are very important and they’re meaningful but I don’t have the same sense of anxiety about them that we did during the whole financing process.” That seems awfully blasé given that the two sides need to agree on such huge items as who’ll be responsible for which maintenance costs and whether the Bucks can break their lease before the term is up, but maybe Edens is just trying to convey a “Hey guys, this’ll be easy, just sign on the dotted line there, no need to read it” vibe. (PRO TIP to Wisconsin Center District negotiators: Don’t do that, it never works out well.)

76ers get back at arena sponsor by printing name on court in tiniest lettering possible

There’s been an escalation in the Philadelphia 76ers‘ ongoing war against their arena’s naming rights sponsor — you can read all about it here, but the short version is the Flyers get all the naming rights cash so the 76ers owners have sworn not to use the corporate name at all — and it is awesome for anyone who’s a fan of passive-aggressive typography:

76ers-2015-16-courtz.focus-none.width-800That is “Wells Fargo Center” written as small as possible, in white lettering against a light-wood floor, so that no one will ever be able to read it or even notice it without a big red oval drawn around it by the Philly Voice’s art department. Apparently the only reason it’s on the court at all is to meet the letter of some league rule — I bet there’s going to be some fun times debating font sizes at the next meeting of the NBA’s Court Branding Subcommittee.

ESPN Kevin Johnson doc killed, was more awful even than you thought

On my Google calendar for next Tuesday night, there is a notation for “30 on 30 on Sacramento Kings,” which is the ESPN documentary that was scheduled to run on Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and his successful push to fund a new arena for the Kings. I was so looking forward to watching and commenting on some of the worst bits, but sadly this will now not happen, as ESPN has pulled the show’s airing after revelations that KJ may have molested teenagers and plotted to destroy the National Conference of Black Mayors and run his own secret private government in City Hall — most of which was public knowledge before they made the film, but better late than never, right?

In any event, we can all still point and laugh at the documentary even without seeing it, courtesy of Max Rivlin-Nadler of the New Republic, who got a screening copy and did plenty of pointing and laughing on his own:

Down In The Valley amounts to a 77-minute political advertisement for Johnson, a man who in 1995 paid a 15-year-old over $230,000 to keep quiet after she alleged that he had sexually abused her…

A narrator explains that this often-overlooked city would soon need to call on one of its own to save it. Cut to pictures of a young Kevin Johnson, playing baseball and basketball, and growing up on the rough side of town before developing into a world-famous basketball star.

This sounds Sharknado-level awful, and I’m more sorry than ever that it’s not going to be available for livetweeting.

And what about the Kings arena project, which is set up as Johnson’s finest hour?

The film focuses solely on Johnson for its final hour, letting him provide the play-by-play of the procedures involved in convincing the NBA to not let any new ownership move the team…

Completely missing from the film is any meaningful information about the cost of that new basketball arena. Johnson intentionally crafted the bill approving the arena to be immune to any public referendums, even though the public is on the hook for $226 million, almost half of the cost. Johnson, in his desire to keep the team in the city, convinced software tycoon Vivek Ranadivé to lead up an ownership group to buy out the Maloofs for a then-record $534 million. Johnson then got the city council to pass a spending bill that would avoid a public vote to pay for a new arena for the team, now assured that they would be staying. Down in the Valley mentions none of this.

ESPN, as Rivlin-Nadler notes, has a long history of being caught between its role as a news agency and its role as a network in the business of buying the rights to sporting events and using them to extract huge carriage fees from cable companies, and hasn’t always done the best to balance the two. So it’s not really surprising that ESPN green-lit Down in the Valley, nor that it got spooked and backed away from it at the last minute. I guess we should all just be glad that the network’s vacillation put its decision-making process on full display — and let at least a lucky few get a glimpse at the thing itself. The need to at least pretend to professionalism does have its benefits.

SF Chronicle cut and pasted Warriors arena press release, ran it as news story

I know I’ve often criticized the sports media for doing little more than reprinting teams’ press releases when it comes to stadium and arena coverage, but even I didn’t expect this: The San Francisco Chronicle’s Golden State Warriors reporter has been suspended for literally reprinting a team press release about the Warriors’ arena plans:

The headline for the original Chronicle story and the Warriors’ press release on NBA.com were the same: “Warriors formally purchase Mission Bay site.” The initial story was identical to the release, except that the team referred to itself as the “NBA Champion Golden State Warriors” in its lede, and the Chronicle story left out the “champion” superlative. The only other change was a semicolon in the press release that became two sentences in the Chronicle story.

That’s pretty terrible, but the story gets even worse, as Deadspin has uncovered six more examples of times Warriors beat reporter Rusty Simmons, or his editor Al Saracevic, flat-out copied-and-pasted Warriors press releases. (Most of these were on far more boring topics than arena dealings.) They also asked Simmons for comment, and got this reply:

“I would really like to tell you how that happens, but I’m not allowed. I’m so sorry. …My suspension should be lifted in a couple of days, and we’ll talk.”

I think I speak for everyone when I say: We can’t wait to hear this one.

Warriors’ arena to include $10m/year traffic fund, but read the fine print

The battle the last few months over the Golden State Warriors‘ proposed new arena on the San Francisco waterfront has been especially dull — basically, a bunch of rich donors to UC-Francisco opposed the plan because they were worried it would create too much traffic around the university’s hospital. This seemed like the sort of thing that was going to be easily compromised over when it first emerged in April, and sure enough, a settlement with UCSF (though not necessarily the donors) was announced yesterday. But it’s the details of the settlement that should be raising eyebrows:

At least $10 million in revenues from the 18,050-seat arena annually would be used to fund traffic mitigations for the life of the arena, pending approval from San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors.

Wait, $10 million a year? That is a huge amount of money, the equivalent of maybe $150 million in present value, which even on a billion-dollar project is a significant chunk of change. If Warriors owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber really agreed to pay that much to ease traffic concerns, that would be unprecedented.

It’s not entirely clear, though, whether this is actually Lacob and Guber’s money: Mayor Ed Lee’s press release just said the traffic funds would “come from new revenues generated by the Warriors sports and entertainment center,” which could easily mean city tax money, not team checks. Neither Lee’s website nor the city’s database of legislation has the text of the bill that Lee introduced on Tuesday, and it’s 6 am on the West Coast right now, so your guess is as good as mine what this actually means.

Not that it makes much of a difference in terms of the project’s financing overall, which is still extremely city-friendly: Lacob and Guber are paying for the full construction cost, plus the cost of acquiring the land, plus property taxes on the whole megillah. If anything, it’s set to be a model of how much team owners can afford to cough up for a new building when public funding is off the table — though admittedly, San Francisco is a bit of a special case since it’s a city full of rich people who currently have no full-sized arena to go and drop $300 a pop on Eagles tickets at. Still, it’ll be interesting if someday soon the bayfront features two sports facilities built with effectively no public money — it’ll be like visiting England, only with better seafood.

Bucks lease talks to begin, bringing all-new ways for Wisconsin to gift team owners with cash

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran a loooooong article yesterday about the pending talks over the Bucks‘ lease on their new arena, which came down to: The Brewers have to pay part of the maintenance costs on their stadium, but that doesn’t stop them from letting fans drop peanut shells into the air vents which end up corroding the heating units, which eventually could leave the public with a broken stadium at the end of the team’s lease. And what if the Bucks do that too, huh?

It’s an interesting enough question — who knew that there was such a thing as peanut corrosion? — but ultimately way less important than another item yet to be negotiated: whether the public stadium authority will have any recourse if the Bucks try to break their lease and leave before the 30- or 40-year term is up. That’s important not just because taxpayers could be left holding the bill for an arena with no team, but because the Bucks owners could use any out clause as leverage — as has happened in numerous other cities — to extract more arena upgrades or even a whole new building 10-20 years down the road.

It sounds silly now, sure, when the new arena isn’t even built yet, but then, it probably sounded like a silly concern in St. Louis or Indianapolis or Houston when those cities built new sports venues. The only time to get the lease right is now, when it’s being negotiated — or the Bucks arena could way too easily be the half-billion-dollar gift that keeps on giving.

Seattle could renovate Key Arena for $285m, says study that doesn’t explain why it would want to

Chris Daniels of KING-5 TV in Seattle has gotten hold of a report on possible renovations to Key Arena that was commissioned by the city council, and it says: Yes, Key Arena can be renovated. How much money you got?

AECOM studied multiple scenarios for the building, of varying costs, and concluded there are multiple potential options for repurposing the building, including as an adventure sports park, amusement park, aquarium, museum, or waterpark. It even suggests the building could be redeveloped into 400-500 units of housing. Those options, according the report, would cost north of $100 million. The city could also demolish the arena at a cost close to $7 million.

The AECOM report suggests the city could complete a gut remodel of the building to make it NBA and NHL compatible at a cost of $285 million.

Okay, then. It’s not entirely clear what “NBA and NHL compatible” means — Key is currently too short to comfortably fit a hockey rink, but the only thing wrong with it as an NBA arena is that the NBA wants more revenues that it can generate, and the sky’s the limit there in terms of demands. (The report is online, but it’s 169 pages and the Scribd search function doesn’t appear to be working properly — if anyone wants to read the whole damn thing to see what $285 million would buy, be my guest.) And while Seattle city councilmember Jean Godden noted on Friday that “$285 million [would be] a small amount compared to the cost of a new arena” (true!), it would also be a whole lot more than the cost of letting Chris Hansen build a new arena with mostly his own money, not to mention more than just not building a new arena at all.

I suppose one way to look at it would be that this would be an investment in keeping the Key Arena active and maintaining the surrounding neighborhood — except that, according to another study from earlier this year noted by Daniels, the surrounding neighborhood doesn’t seem to have been bothered much by the NBA’s departure:

The study [by economists Brad Humphreys and Adam Nowak] says condo prices have experienced “excess price appreciation” since the Sonics left, based on research involving 10,000 residential property transactions within one mile of Key Arena between 2000-2013. They write, “These results suggest that the presence of a team in a high profile sports league is not the most important factor driving observed property value increases documented in the existing literature.”

This isn’t a brand-new study — I mentioned it in my Vice Sports piece about the Bucks back in July — but still the point remains: Seattle could spend $285 million upgrading Key Arena to make NBA and NHL teams want to move there, maybe, depending on what the upgrades included and what kind of lease they were offered. Or it could not, and still have $285 million and still be Seattle. It’s nice to have all the options on the table, but unless the only question being asked here is “How can we get a basketball or hockey team to move to Seattle?”, this isn’t all that enticing an option.

Bucks arena finally gets final approval (pay no attention to the fine print)

The Milwaukee city council, after two months of debate and contentious public hearings, cast its vote on city subsidies for a parking garage and team-controlled pedestrian plaza for a new Bucks arena this morning, and … come on, what did you really expect?

A $47 million city spending plan for a new Milwaukee Bucks arena won Common Council approval Tuesday, the final endorsement needed for a $250 million public financing package that includes state and county cash.

The council voted 12-3 Tuesday to approve the plan, with Ald. Mark Borkowski, Ald. Nik Kovac and Ald. Tony Zielinski in opposition.

The passage of the city cash has been a fait accompli for a while now. The big question was what would happen to Ald. Bob Bauman’s proposal to amend the plan so that it would no longer permanently close North 4th Street and give the resulting pedestrian plaza over to the Bucks. And the result was, according to one correspondent who was there, that nothing was actually resolved about that: The question of whether the pedestrian plaza will be year-round or only on game days was kicked back to the city Department of Public Works, which has say over such matters, and which will now need to have its own set of hearings and whatnot. Which the Bucks owners presumably won’t like, but what are they going to do, turn down half a billion bucks out of spite?

The other big unknown that remains for the Bucks arena — other than the final design, which the council will get to sign off on later this fall, but that’s even less likely to provide fireworks (aside from any that are unleashed by the magic basketball) — is the team’s lease, and in particular whether it will include an agreement with any teeth to keep the team from leaving town before the building is paid off. Or threatening to leave town, which can be just as bad, as Indianapolis found out to its dismay. The city council didn’t have any say over the lease language, so it’s going to come down to negotiations between the governor’s office and the Bucks. At least Scott Walker has plenty of time to spend on this now, right? And surely he’ll drive a hard bargain, since it’s not like he has a conflict of interest or anything.