110-degree steam leaks. Repeated confrontations with maskless construction workers. Inaccessible entrances. Loud, building-shaking vibrations and noises.
For the past two years, Seattle's beloved all-ages venue and non-profit The Vera Project has dealt with these and other construction-related problems thanks to the nearby renovation of the Climate Pledge Arena, carried out by the Los Angeles-based construction company Oak View Group. As the Foo Fighters and Death Cab for Cutie are set to open the arena next Tuesday, leadership at Vera, which occupies the Northwest Courtyard of the Seattle Center, is pushing for financial compensation for their arts organization.
Over the phone, Vera executive director Ricky Graboski said when construction on Climate Pledge Arena (CPA) began back in 2019 the disruption was "pretty significant" and "irritating," but didn't prevent them from carrying out any programming or scheduled shows. At the time, the venue, he said, was wary of creating any big corporate enemies.
Then in March 2020, the pandemic hit. Graboski observed that crews "ramped up construction" as soon as resident orgs in the courtyard shut down to the public. While Vera staff were mainly working from home last summer, construction made it difficult for them to access the space in the way they wanted. But the real issues began when staff started to go back to the office over the past year to plan programming and livestream virtual events in their space.
Graboski and Vera board members Jonathan Zwickel and Kimberly West explicitly cataloged their grievances with the construction process in a letter dated September 8, 2021, addressed to Tod Leiweke of Seattle Kraken, Morgan Littlefield of the Oak View Group (OVG), and Robert Nellams of Seattle Center.
Split up into five separate sections—"Access to our Workspace," "Safety Hazards," "Disruption and Damage," "Reopening," and "Financial Costs"—each section has multiple examples of the conditions Vera staff said they have had to confront. Many of the complaints come from construction work on specific projects: the upper breezeway, the lower breezeway, and the upper courtyard, which the venue is smushed between. Here are some choice incidents described in the letter.
"Throughout the weeks of August 23rd and August 30th, 110-degree steam was released into our building on multiple occasions. This presented a serious safety risk to our staff and the young people that were in our building at the time." "Nails and other sharp objects, loose gravel, cement residue, and other potential hazards have been left in the lower breezeway on a regular basis, presenting a clear risk for slips, falls, and other injuries." "At the height of the pandemic, we had several altercations with construction teams that refused to wear masks near our entry and walkways. On one occasion, a mask-less construction foreman shouted down our staff at close proximity." "Significant noise issues have prevented staff from working in our space comfortably or regularly for the last two years. This has persisted throughout the entire construction project but has become disruptive enough to severely limit in-person work hours and programming during the upper courtyard/breezeway portion of the project." "The lower breezeway has been blocked off since September 1st, leaving the small, fenced pathway from the International Fountain stairs as our only ingress. The stairway is regularly blocked and our pathway on the lower courtyard was repeatedly obstructed until we escalated the issue. On the first day of bollard construction, we did not have access to our building."
The letter claims that delayed construction projects prevented Vera from reopening their space along with other venues on July 1 of this year. Despite giving CPA and Seattle Center two months' notice about their reopening date of September 1, the letter said they were left without an adequate emergency exit at their first event back because of construction-related problems.
Overall, Vera estimates that they face $200,000 of earned and contributed income losses and anticipate further losses due to "wayfinding, noise, and safety concerns amongst our guests and community." Vera leadership wrote in the letter that they fear the continued disruption will prevent them from fulfilling their mission of serving young, DIY creative communities here in Seattle.
"Apart from COVID, which of course is the biggest precipitating factor here, coupled with the construction, young folks don't feel safe coming into the space," said Graboski over the phone. "They don't want to be harassed by construction workers. It's just such an insurmountable roadblock for them that it's been rough."
In an emailed statement, Seattle Center ombudsperson for CPA integration Edie Burke wrote that the Seattle Center has been "diligent, responsive, and understanding" to all the issues raised by Vera. Burke said work has been "sorely needed" on the upper and lower breezeways as well as DuPen Fountain, where Vera is located. Seattle Center has met with Vera every other week for the past three years, said Burke, and "have consistently communicated about construction impacts."
Burke wrote Vera's recent complaints have "prompted several large meetings with Construction Leads for all three projects, Seattle Center Redevelopment Staff, Seattle Center Ombudsperson and Climate Pledge Arena representatives to plan ways to mitigate their inconveniences."
Together, Burke said they have focused on "making access to their workspace easier" and "keep[ing] ADA access in mind" during construction, paying staff to "help [Vera] event guests navigate into the venue." A Seattle Center rep added that the steam leakages would be something they would look into themselves as Vera's landlord.
Vera leadership also addressed their letter to Seattle Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke. Graboski said Leiweke showed up to Vera on "at least half a dozen occasions" before construction and "made us a promise over and over again that we would make it through all of this construction better than where we started." Leiweke's brother, Tim, co-founded and acts as CEO of OVG, the company renovating Climate Pledge Arena.
In a brief statement to The Stranger, a Kraken representative said they "have worked consistently to communicate with" and "support" their neighbors during construction on the arena. Nevertheless, Kraken considers Vera to "be a partner" and said they have "ideas for a potential ongoing partnership" with the all-ages venue.
Graboski acknowledged that Seattle Center has supported Vera in their grievances but called CPA and OVG's responses to their letter "shockingly inadequate." Now, Vera has little means to recoup any of their financial losses as well as the estimated "250+ hours" of time they spent in meetings both internally and externally trying to mitigate the losses themselves.
But maybe it didn't always have to be this way. Back in 2018, when the Seattle City Council was finishing up negotiations with OVG over renovation and leasing of the arena, Councilmember Lisa Herbold proposed an amendment to create a construction impact mitigation fund for tenants like Vera Project.
That amendment, however, was ultimately withdrawn by Herbold after OVG "objected to the additional financial burden it would place on them," and the council member did not want to jeopardize the legislation's passage, reported SCC Insight. One of the council members at that time, Rob Johnson, left his council seat early to take a full-time position as vice president of Transportation and Sustainability for NHL Seattle and CPA.
Out of all the arts organizations surrounding CPA, Vera Project is uniquely affected by the construction. Their neighbors—KEXP to the west and SIFF to the east—have largely managed to escape the most nightmarish of construction scenarios, and in emails, both acknowledged Vera's hardship.
A SIFF representative wrote that their staff who did work in the office "were impacted by noise and obstructions, making it difficult to access the building at times," yet they remain "optimistic about the additional foot traffic and potential exposure" the CPA will bring. Separately, a KEXP representative wrote that they have had a "productive working relationship with the Arena and with Seattle Center on construction mitigation so far."
Looking forward, Graboski said his organization “absolutely” wants and needs “some sort of financial mitigation” to recoup the damages construction has cost the venue. They haven’t specified an exact amount.
But more broadly, he thinks the clash is indicative of a "massive cultural shift" that's happening on the Seattle Center campus. The refurbishment of the arena is bringing in attention and big corporations like Amazon and venue partner Live Nation, and a new sports team. Graboski worries that people have lost the plot and forgotten what makes our city special.
“Seattle as a whole—city officials and the general media of the city—loves to pride themselves on Seattle being such an incredible music city. But they also seem to forget where music comes from," he said. "It's not from Live Nation—it's from small community-based music venues, art spaces, warehouses, DIY spaces."
Construction around Climate Pledge Arena isn't the only threat to Vera and surrounding arts organizations. As Graboski told Michael Rietmulder at the Seattle Times, plans for a proposed Sound Transit 3 underground stop underneath their building has "a significant potential to permanently displace us." Rietmulder noted that a new round of ST3 mitigation talks has started.
With CPA and ST3, Vera said they plan to continue to advocate for themselves so they can preserve the arts ecosystem of Seattle Center. The first phase of arena construction finishes this month, with the second phase starting sometime in February.
"We're going to keep trying. I'm just going to keep shouting louder and louder until I think they've actually heard us," Graboski said.