Motherlode of Reinvention

Rockwell Group is designing seven spaces in the New Arena at Seattle Center that will create unprecedented fan experiences for sports and music

By: Bob Condor

The goal of constructing the New Arena at Seattle is both simple and uber-ambitious: Build a sports and entertainment venue second to none in the world by any measurement.

“We want to reinvent the business,” says Tim Leiweke, CEO of Oak View Group, which is leading the effort to build the $930 million New Arena with entirely private funding. “It began with David Bonderman [NHL Seattle majority owner] and Irving Azoff [OVG partner] and me talking about building the greatest environment humanly possible for fans, athletes and artists.”

The economics of building today’s multi-use arenas dictates some mix of premium seating, not only to fund construction but subsequently help teams attract free-agent athletes and arena operators to book major sports and esports events, the hottest musical acts and entertainment events not even dreamed up yet. Typically, premium seating translates to suites, lots of them, rings of them, too many of them.

“We have less suites in the New Arena than any new building built in the U.S. over the last 10 years,” says Leiweke. “We actually limited the number of suites. My brother [and NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke] is very focused on the atmosphere in the bowl. We want to make sure the bowl is tight and loud with perfect acoustics.”

The OVG solution is creating seven spaces that offer a mix of clubs, suites and lounge spaces. Five are classified as premium, ranging from a private restaurant to sideline suites to event-level suites that feature windows to the tunnel players use to walk from their locker rooms to the ice or court. The other two spaces are prime examples of “reinventing the business.” One is a private concourse and food hall that can be entered by some 1,300 NHL general seating ticket-holders in the upper bowl. The other is a club that will be a hybrid space with striking views to the Space Needle; it will be used by general seat ticket-holders during NHL games and concerts but available for booking social and corporate parties on other days and nights.

These seven spaces and associated seating equal approximately 20 percent of all seating options, but represent a significantly higher percentage boost to the bottom line that will benefit all fans and arena goers.

“The genius of these clubs and suites is we’ve tucked them away so they don’t disrupt the culture of the fans in the bowl,” says Tim Leiweke. “Club spaces are typically built out for the access and amenity. We thought what if the clubs are not an afterthought but part of the vision and lifestyle experience?”

That question led the trio to wonder who could design the seven spaces as a “once-in-a-lifetime experiences.” Bonderman suggested and approved hiring the firm of visionary architect David Rockwell, world-renown for high-end interiors at hotels, museums and restaurants. The seven spaces are by far Rockwell Group’s largest collection of designed spaces for a sports venue.

As a bonus for Seattleites, the Rockwell efforts are led by partner and studio leader Shawn Sullivan, who grew up a Sonics fan, attended Bumbershoot every Labor Day weekend and saw his first live concert at the Seattle Coliseum (featuring New Wave bands Blondie, Haircut 100 and Flock of Seagulls). Sullivan and staff are intent on featuring a distinctly Pacific Northwest feel with both materials and spatial elements. Rockwell will work with Populous, the architect of record, on how the designs blend into the arena’s interiors and flow.

Sullivan says he uses the word ‘differentiation’ a lot: “Most arena suites and club are homogenized and not unique. You might leave saying, ‘that was good club for an arena.’ We want people to feel these [New Arena] clubs are phenomenal hospitality spaces across the entire city and region.”

The undertaking started with four to six Rockwell staffers (“really creative thinkers”) researching sports and music venues across the globe. Another research point: Determine the “essential characteristics and DNA” of the city and region. “We come up with a story that we can apply operationally,” says Sullivan. “We want bring Rockwell Group’s sense of hospitality and passion for theatricality to Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.”

Next, some 10 to 15 architects and interior designers commenced to develop the work product currently in final renderings form. There have been interim meetings with OVG, NHL Seattle and construction partner Mortenson executives to discuss everything from layouts to furnishings to how virtual reality technology can inform the process. During this phase, Rockwell customized the NHL Seattle Preview Center with its planned premium look and feel to enable club seat depositors and suite holders to experience the interior designs.

For his part, Sullivan says he’s “learned a lot over the years” about how to achieve the best results for clients and, ultimately, hotel guests, museum visitors, restaurant goers and other users of the spaces Rockwell creates. Similar to OVG, Mortenson, Populous and various subcontractors, the Rockwell team is brainstorming, designing and executing with the proviso of not disturbing the original and now landmark roof of the Seattle Coliseum built for the 1962 World’s Fair.

“This is so exciting for me to do all the things I love and taking it back to my hometown,” he says. “”I have always had a fascination with this building, and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to restore and represent it to the world.”

Sullivan says he aims to amaze everyone from fans to musicians to NHL players, but says there is one group he can’t ignore: “It is a bit intimidating. I want these spaces to be extraordinary. I mean, my family will see them and all of my friends too.”

In partnership with Populous, the architect of record, Rockwell Group will provide best-in-class architecture and interior design services intended to turn heads and persuade people this project most decidedly is not a renovation of the former building or space, says Tim Leiweke. The OVG chief executive adds, “everyone will realize we are building not just a brand-new arena but that we are changing the vision of the arena experience forever.”

Leiweke has his own group of certain people he wants to impress: “When we are done, when visiting NHL players or artists come into the building for the first time, we want them to see a bowl that is tight, with people everywhere straight up, loud and intimidating to opposing players and acoustically perfect for musicians.”

Limited VIP appointments can be made to see the NHL Preview Center at the Pacific Science Center – click here for more information.