Seattle Opera Wants Soundgarden's Old Stomping Grounds

They're ready to raise $40 million to revamp the Mercer Arena.

Seattle Opera is feeling pretty smug about its new plan to lease the old Mercer Arena at Seattle Center. Attached to the east end of McCaw Hall, the cavernous, vacant, nearly 80-year-old structure has best been known in recent years for the occasional hockey game and hosting the opera while McCaw was under construction. The opera has long coveted the structure as a place to consolidate its various operations--offices, rehearsal space, and storage. The city, meanwhile, is delighted to get the white elephant off its books, since it produces no revenue and would require some $25 million to meet current seismic codes. If the City Council approves the plan, announced by Mayor Greg Nickels last Wednesday, Seattle Opera says it'll begin a $40 million fund-raising campaign for the facility. Taxpayers would pay nothing, and the city would begin collecting rent at $220,000 per annum. The arena has no historic protections. It's also got toxic mold, per a city spokesperson, and Lon Chaney is probably living in the basement. It's a tear-down, in other words, sitting on a valuable, centrally located chunk of city-owned land. And the city has to approve any future use, whether commercial or by a nonprofit, as being commensurate with the greater glory of Seattle Center. At one point, there was talk of splitting renovation costs with Live Nation, the giant concert promoter. However, says Seattle Center director Robert Nellams, "There were a lot of rumors, but no one called me." That left Seattle Opera with a clear field and a willingness to put up its own money for a building no one else wanted. Executive Director Kelly Tweeddale offers a guesstimate of $40 million for a redo that would eliminate the ugly, windowless arcade presently fronting Mercer—a facade added for the arena's 1962 World's Fair makeover. But, she says, "We may find that replacing the building is a better option." Financing would likely include the sale of a nearby parking lot Seattle Opera was bequeathed by the Kreielsheimer Foundation. Sitting opposite McCaw Hall, it's probably worth around $10 million, and is now occupied by the just-reopened Teatro ZinZanni, whose lease runs through 2011.

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