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Flynn's Harp: Veteran real estate exec, John Torrance, unveils arena & convention center plan

John Torrance, whose vision for a retractable-roof stadium in Seattle led to the eventual construction of Safeco Field, has come up with a detailed plan for construction of a new arena and convention center on the Seattle waterfront. Torrance, a senior vice president for CBRE, the commercial real estate giant, has guided creation of a plan that would turn 88 acres of Port of Seattle's Terminal 46 into a convention center and an arena, with provisions for a new cruiseship terminal and waterfront park.  The arena could house the NBA and NHL teams that Seattle covets and the convention center would be designed to catapult Seattle up the list of convention cities.

Torrance is unveiling his idea as an advisory panel prepares to deliver a report to Seattle City Council and King County Council on a plan by Chris Hansen, San Francisco hedge-fund manager and former Seattleite, to build an arena on property he has acquired south of Safeco Field.

And it also comes in the wake of word last week that the port is suffering a major loss of business to Port of Tacoma in July when three shipping lines, representing 20 percent of Port of Seattle business, relocate south.

Torrance suggests that the shift of major port business may help make the case that development rather than maritime represents the Seattle waterfront activity of the future. He hasn't yet discussed that with port officials or commissioners, on whom pressures to maintain the maritime focus come from longshoremen who would face the loss of jobs and traditionalists who wish to retain the working-waterfront character.

While Torrance's plan may seem like an eleventh-hour idea given the discussions of recent weeks about the proposal Hansen recently unveiled and has been vetting,  it's actually something he began investigating about two years ago, he says. And he's worked with architects and planners to put together detailed drawings in recent months.

He's already had early discussions with city and county officials and port representatives and hopes to make contact with Hansen as well to outline the plan and seek to gather support.

"The Seattle area has twin needs to help ensure its long-term economic vitality. One is an arena that has the capacity to attract NBA and NHL franchises and the other is a convention center with the capacity to boost Seattle into major-league convention ranks," Torrance offered.

"Hansen deserves credit for coming up with a possible plan to address the arena issue but what we're hoping to do is address both arena and convention center on a potentially world-class site, without any risk of taxpayer obligation.

Ironically, the plan details he will be unveiling for the first time late this month before Seattle's 101 Club comes as the city prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World's Fair whose U.S. Pavilion became the arena that his father intended would be the venue to lure an NHL franchise.

His father, the late Torchy Torrance, knew the NHL required a 15,000-seat arena for any hoped-for franchise, and thought the new arena that would be left after Century 21 concluded would meet that requirement. But to the horror of the senior Torrance and NHL proponents, the completed facility seated 12,200.

It was the younger Torrance, a longtime leader in the commercial real estate industry, who first proposed a retractable-roof stadium for Seattle in the early '90s after visiting Toronto and conferring with officials there about that city's Skydome.

I remember when he first mentioned to me back in 1993 the idea of the retractable-roof stadium to replace the enclosed Kingdome, I was among those who muttered a quiet "good luck."

But Torrance is a dreamer with follow through and influence. He soon came up with the name "StarDome" for the retractable-roof concept and that helped provide a vision and thus momentum, and believers. Those included owners of the Seattle Mariners, who by the mid-90s realized the Kingdome would not be sufficient as a baseball facility into the future and began pressing elected officials for the new stadium..

Torrance's Terminal 46 plan may catch the interest of Seattle and King County elected officials edgy about any assurances from Hansen of taxpayer safeguards into the future. The one certainty for those public officials is that taxpayers in the county have made it clear they don't want to pay for an arena or a convention center so elected officials know not to go there.

While Torrance's idea for the project and in-depth discussions in Vancouver, Boston and San Diego were at his own initiative, he would undoubtedly have the resources of CBRE, a national player that is the largest commercial real estate firm in the state, to support his efforts.

"We hope we'd attract financing and CBE has access to a lot of clients who could wind up involved in a program to develop the site," Torrance adds.

Development that could create thousands of jobs and bring in millions of dollars in tourism revenue, plus open the door to two major league sports franchises, rather than continued maritime use of the pier, should be a preferred option, Torrance says.

While the idea for the project and in-depth discussions in Vancouver, Boston and San Diego were at his own initiative, Torrance would undoubtedly have the resources of CBRE, a national player that is the largest commercial real estate firm in the state, to support his efforts.

"We hope we'd attract financing and CBE has access to a lot of clients who could wind up involved in a program to develop the site," Torrance adds.

He says he's seeking to have conversations with Hansen, who has already invested in the site he's proposing for an arena, in the hope of "moving him over to the site we're proposing, since our development idea would add enough value to the property he's buying to allow him to recover his investment."

Torrance estimates that the port could generate up to $25 million annually from leasing activity and hotel developments, based on what's generated for the Port of San Diego. "That's about 10 times what the container business generates," he says.

As his original retractable-roof idea and the stadium that came about saved major league baseball for Seattle, his newest concept patterned after developments in Vancouver, San Diego and Boston could turn out to be the most workable plan for new hockey and basketball franchises. And along with that a dramatic new major convention facility.

Mike Flynn is retired publisher of Puget Sound Business Journal who now has a consulting firm, Mike Flynn & Associates LLC, and writes a weekly column called Flynn’s Harp. Contact him at Mike@emikeflynn.com if you would like to be added to the list of those receiving it via email, or to see previous Flynn’s Harp columns, go to emikeflynn.com and click on blogs.

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