OVG’s Climate Pledge Arena, powered entirely by renewable energy, gives the Kraken a shiny new venue and the world an environmental beacon of change.
As Tim Leiweke made short remarks to media members after an October tour of the newly opened Climate Pledge Arena, his large white labradoodle, Dudley, stood on hind legs and gave Leiweke a furry hug. The Oak View Group CEO and his dog had been separated for the past month as Leiweke focused his attention on getting the company’s $1.15-billion arena project over the finish line.
“That was my reward, seeing Dudley,” Leiweke said later.
Like many involved with Climate Pledge Arena, Leiweke’s demeanor that day — the morning after the hometown Foo Fighters unofficially opened the building with an Oct. 19 concert — was a palpable blend of pride and relief. Four years earlier, Leiweke told the Seattle Times as the project was just getting underway, “Everyone in life feels a desire, a passion, a purpose to go test themselves. That’s what I plan to do.”
Leiweke got more of a test than he ever wanted.
Climate Pledge Arena could go down as one of the most complicated builds in North American sports venue history owing to a spate of factors, not least the legal requirements to preserve and include the former KeyArena’s 59-year-old, 44-million-pound roof in the new design, or the greatest global health crisis in a century that created shipping issues right through the Foo Fighters show, when the building still hadn’t received its electric fryers.
“There was nothing as hard as this,” Leiweke said. “What remains in my career and probably my daughter (Francesca) running the company, there will never be one as hard as this.”
The project team, led by OVG and including architects Populous, builders Mortenson and engineers Thornton Tomasetti and ME Engineers, finished the venue in time for Coldplay and NHL expansion team the Seattle Kraken to officially open it on Oct. 22 and 23. Finishing on time was a testament to the sustained collaboration and teamwork of the designers, builders and engineers.
And the arena bears the clear imprint of Leiweke, a determined force of nature and the right kind of owner for a project that other major players in sports business deemed too expensive or impractical.
The result is one of the most sustainable sports venues on the planet, capable of hosting any type of concert and multiple pro sports teams, a crown jewel in a growing OVG empire, and a testament to architectural, construction and engineering ingenuity firmly connected to its history.
“We didn’t really have money, we didn’t have a track record or history for the company itself, and we had to figure it out,” said Leiweke. “The moment we had enough guts to say, ‘we think we could build a brand-new arena and keep the roof on it and protect that historic landmark,’ everything six years later started then.”
The complexity of Climate Pledge Arena’s 29-month construction project will likely never be matched for two key reasons: Ideally there won’t be another world-altering event like the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s unlikely any other developer would build a new arena under an existing roof.
But the project’s first hurdles were endemic to Seattle and started well before construction.
By the early 2000s, KeyArena, the home of the Seattle SuperSonics, had outlived its utility. Its back-of-house fundamentals were missing, and the venue was passed over by high-profile touring acts. Built in 1962 with a roof inspired by a local native tribe’s customary hat, KeyArena sat in the dense, busy heart of a city that had no desire to publicly fund the major improvements necessary to keep the Sonics. They bolted for Oklahoma City in 2008.
Left without a major sports tenant, AEG profitably operated the arena during that period by leaning on live music, college sports and the WNBA’s Storm. But something would have to change for the city to land an NHL or NBA team.
“You didn’t have to look very far down the road once the Sonics left to see that it was going to become a bit of a problem for the city and for Seattle Center,” said Robert Nellams, director of Seattle Center, the 74-acre park in which Climate Pledge Arena is located.
A subsequent effort to build an arena in the SoDo area crumbled for several reasons, namely because of taxpayers’ reticence to kick in public money and increased congestion in the district where the city’s port and the Seahawks and Mariners stadiums already resided.
Leiweke had intimate knowledge of the Seattle market, in part from his time as president and CEO of AEG, a 17-year tenure that ended in 2013. Two years later, he founded OVG with entertainment mogul Irving Azoff. Where many were focused on the SoDo area of Seattle, Leiweke wondered why the KeyArena site couldn’t work, especially given the dense and attractive uptown area in which it sat.
The city put forth a KeyArena redevelopment request for proposal in early 2017. In Seattle’s prevailing political climate, OVG had a key advantage.
“They agreed to do it without asking the public to invest hundreds of millions of dollars, or any millions of dollars. That gave them the upper hand,” said Seattle developer Bob Wallace. “Then when they decided to locate at [KeyArena] and take this albatross off the city’s hands, it was a win-win.”
OVG’s $564 million bid was one of just two the city received. AEG submitted the other, but ultimately withdrew its bid that included public funding, saying it perceived the process as slanted in OVG’s favor. Seattle’s city council approved OVG’s bid in September 2018.
Climate Pledge Arena
Capacity: Hockey, 17,100; Basketball, 18,100; Concerts, 17,200
Tenant: Seattle Kraken (NHL), Seattle Storm (WNBA)
Owner: Oak View Group
Operator: Oak View Group
Cost: $1.15 billion
Owners’ rep: CAA Icon
General contractor: Mortenson
Structural engineer: Thornton Tomasetti
Mechanical/electrical/plumbing engineer: ME Engineers
Seat provider: Fixed seating by Camatic; Moet Chandon Imperial Lounge chairs custom designed by Rockwell
Suites/premium areas: 59; Tunnel Club Suites, Pitchbook Suites, WaFd Bank Club, Symetra Club, Moet Chandon Imperial Lounge, Space Needle Lounge, Verizon Lounge, and Mt. Baker Hall
Suite designer: Rockwell
Premium area capacity: 5,140
Naming rights: Amazon
Legacy/founding partners: Alaska Airlines, The Climate Pledge, Coors Light, Starbucks, Symetra, Verizon, Virginia Mason Franciscan Health, WaFd Bank
Concessionaire: Delaware North
Soda pouring rights: Pepsi
Video boards: Daktronics
Wi-Fi system designer: Cisco
DAS provider: Verizon
DAS hardware: Commscope
Red steel, blue steel
As Populous’ lead architect on the Climate Pledge Arena job, it was Geoff Cheong’s task to design a new building beneath the 59-year-old roof, which had gained Seattle Landmark Preservation Board protection in 2017, and federal protection a year later from the National Registry of Historic Places. OVG was actually behind the effort to get federal recognition; they already had to keep the roof, so pursuing federal historic recognition, and the associated $50 million in tax credits, was a clever financial move. But beyond the design challenge, getting the two historic preservation entities to approve designs was taxing, too, especially since neither body communicated with the other. The historic approval process was ongoing, right up to the arena’s opening.
“In my professional career, the most complex design challenge I’ve been a part of and that our Populous team has had to solve,” said Cheong.
Construction was greenlit in late 2018, but the original contractors, Skanska and AECOM Hunt’s joint venture, backed out when they couldn’t commit to OVG’s aggressive timeline and budget. Mortenson stepped in and project executive Greg Huber distinctly remembers the first briefing meeting.
“‘We’re gonna do what, and why? We’re going to dig a tunnel?’ Just being hit with a number of complexities was certainly overwhelming,” he said.
Significant demolition finally began in May 2019. All of Climate Pledge Arena’s back-of-house functions would be positioned at the bottom of the building, which meant the hole the venue sat in needed to be wider and deeper. After the roof was securely propped up and a temporary steel support system installed, the team finished demolition of the old building and then excavation of the 53-foot-deep hole.
Building back up was slow and tedious. As permanent steel was installed, the existing temporary pieces had to be painstakingly cut out with a torch or disassembled. Huber showed a reporter a time-lapse animation of the process; temporary steel was colored blue and permanent steel red, and they overlapped enough that red and blue blended to purple.
“We knew about it, we planned for it, and it just ended up being one of the great difficulties of the job,” said Huber.
Climate Pledge Arena’s significant emphasis on live music spawned the other major engineering and construction difficulty, the creation of a 170-foot-long, roughly 30-foot-tall-by-30-foot-wide tunnel connecting the venue’s subterranean back-of-house functions to the outside world. Put simply, the arena “doesn’t work without it,” Leiweke said.
The tunnel’s entrance sits a block away from the arena and it passes within five feet under a historically protected 98-year-old brick building before leading to an open space in the arena with eight loading docks and ample maneuvering room for tractor trailer trucks. The arena floor is located near the loading docks, making concert setup and breakdown more convenient, and there is a devoted area for performers, called the “artists compound,” that includes dressing rooms, green rooms and a recording studio.
Thanks to the subterranean back-of-house elements, Cheong and Populous could design a 360-degree, public-facing exterior on the ground level. That makes Climate Pledge Arena one of the few, if not only, buildings in the NHL with no visible backdoor.
Amid the yearlong process to create the tunnel, two project-changing surprises hit the team. COVID landed in the U.S. around February and Seattle was initially one of the country’s hardest hit cities. There were coronavirus cases at the arena job site, but the project evaded major virus outbreaks and only shut down for two days total.
“Doing it in our COVID world where the whole nature of how you had to work on a project was changed, mandated really — reduced crew sizes, very close coordination of who was in contact with who — that was a good illustrator of the whole project here,” said CAA Icon project executive Rob Stephens. “Everyone just worked together and kept this going.”
Then, in June 2020, OVG announced that Amazon would be the venue’s naming-rights holder, but that the company would put Climate Pledge, its global initiative to get major corporations to address and eliminate their carbon footprints, on the building. That prompted a six-week pause of construction as Mortenson and the rest of the project members reviewed completed and future work in search of sustainable alternatives. That resulted in a slew of changes, including all the gas lines being removed and replaced with electric (the venue will be the world’s first arena to run solely on renewable energy); finding a place to put a large number of photovoltaic installations — the 500-kilowatt solar panels couldn’t go on the historic roof; and ME Engineers creating a vertical drip watering system for the arena’s enormous living wall. (See story, Page 23.)
“It was a curveball that we got thrown, but we knew it was important to Amazon and we were able to make it work,” said Huber.
Just like being there
Mortenson used four virtual reality headsets to help stakeholders experience Climate Pledge Arena virtually before it was constructed. Up to four people at a time could interact with each other in the virtual version of the building, which led to “a lot of revisions to clean up the design, to conceal structure or fire-proofing or whatever, and just really enhance it, because you could see it and feel it,” said Mortenson project executive Greg Huber.
The Climate Pledge Arena construction project averaged over $2 million worth of production per day at peak, and nearly 6,000 individuals contributed to the project’s total 3.8 million hours of work.
Lighting is lit
Climate Pledge Arena has 224 LED displays totaling more than 28,000 square feet of LED, more than any arena in the world. Daktronics provided the LED, including the 100-plus displays spread around the concourse and the twin three-sided scoreboards within the seating bowl, the first triangle scoreboards in the U.S.
Rockwell Group designed the arena’s premium areas but The LAB at Rockwell Group, the firm’s team of creative technologists, contributed two interactive, 35-foot-long disc activation screens that use sensory technology to track guests and cause the two-color discs to flip back and forth in response to guests’ movements. The discs form an array of images related to events at the arena.
Grab and go, literally
Only six Amazon Just Walk Out stores exist in sports venues worldwide, with four of them at Climate Pledge Arena. But the venue will be the first to launch Just Walk Out stores that serve hot food. Just Walk Out tech previously used sensory scales as one of six factors that definitively determined which items customers were purchasing, but serving freshly cooked food complicated that setup, especially if one kitchen worker had a heavier hand than another. New tech has been developed to address the issue.
The project kicked off amid Seattle’s red hot (read: busiest and most expensive) construction market, driving the venue’s price tag up from the get-go. Budgeting for Climate Pledge Arena was “the worst,” Leiweke said. “It just kept on growing.”
By the final publicly reported tally, OVG’s initial project bid had nearly doubled to $1.15 billion. With Dudley resting at his feet, Leiweke rattled off several cost increasers: deciding to go big on the premium spaces added $100 million to the project; the Amazon-inspired, mid-construction sustainability changes cost another roughly $50 million; and beginning in the fall of 2020, the pandemic’s disruption of the supply chain and shipping forced the team to seek expensive shipping help from companies like Seattle-based Expeditors International. At one point, the arena’s seats were stuck in Malaysia for three months; at another, its risers trapped in Slovakia.
But OVG’s funding never appeared to be a major issue.
A 2019 construction loan of $500 million from a consortium led by SunTrust provided OVG with its first substantial outside support. The company said it has since refinanced the construction loan with a long-term investment grade-rated bond. Around the same time, Kraken owners Seattle Hockey Partners — consisting of billionaire David Bonderman, movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and Tod Leiweke (Tim’s brother) — took on a $325 million loan; OVG owns 51% of the arena and Seattle Hockey Partners owns the other 49%.
OVG had additional backing from Live Nation and the $100 million investment it received from Silver Lake in March 2018 in exchange for an equity stake in OVG. Leiweke’s company had the $50 million in National Historic Registry tax credits, and by February 2020, OVG’s partnerships team had cornerstone deals with Symetra, Alaska Airlines, and Virginia Mason Franciscan Health nailed down, reportedly valued at between $4 million and $6 million each.
OVG landed the sports industry’s sponsorship white whale, Amazon, in a June 2020 naming-rights deal valued between $300 million and $400 million. OVG’s pact with the city of Seattle meant the arena owners kept all naming-rights revenue.
“Yes, the budget went up,” said Leiweke, “but so did the revenue.”
The night after the Foo Fighters unofficially opened the building, an army of people buzzed around the floor and up in the rafters’ rigging, tearing down the first of the arena’s many concerts. Getting Climate Pledge Arena built will be immense for OVG’s long-term business, but it also gives Seattle another shot at landing an NBA franchise.
“We followed their lead,” Leiweke said about the NBA. “I hope that there is another chapter we get to write here.”
Those connected to the unique project undoubtedly felt pride as they listened to the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl sing “make my way back home, when I learn to fly high” that Tuesday night. But they also felt mental and physical fatigue and a sense of relief. Asked if he felt that way, too, now that the project was done, Huber smiled.
“Yeah,” he said. “Not a hard question.”