Building Enduring Relationships

Ken Johnsen leads the teams that build some of Seattle’s most visible, complex, and well known urban development projects. He’s most proud of how these iconic landmarks will endure as a backdrop for future generations, and their memories.
Amy Loeffler
“I’m the conductor. Everyone from the contractors to the engineers to the designers all have to work well together. The only way to accomplish these large tasks is through really strong teamwork.”

Seattle National Hockey League fans may not know Huxley grad Ken Johnsen, ‘75, but when they’re finally able to attend a game at the new Climate Pledge Arena at Seattle Center, Johnsen will have already gotten to know them. It’s in his nature to attempt to not only inhabit the skin of his clients, but tap into the community spirit his structures will come to embody.

Johnsen, the senior project manager and former partner at Shiels | Obletz | Johnsen has a portfolio that includes some of Seattle’s most iconic landmarks: T-Mobile Park, King Street Station, Pike Place Market, and the Seattle Waterfront. No doubt his current project at Seattle Center, with partners Oak View Group of Los Angeles, will quickly come to embody the city’s comfortably worn, but innovative character as well.

Though Johnsen would never endeavor to pick a favorite landmark (just like he couldn’t pick a favorite child) he will admit that executing the planning and construction of T-Mobile Park, the Mariners’ baseball stadium formerly known as Safeco Field, left an indelible mark on his psyche. “Baseball is somewhere between sport and religion,” Johnsen said in “Green Fire, A History of Huxley College.” “During the project I was exposed to baseball fans and saw how much they cared about [the game] in an emotional sense. Baseball has been a part of the rhythm of my life since Safeco.”

Canvassing communities is a lesson Johnsen learned at Western’s Huxley College of the Environment, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in urban and regional planning. Good research and listening to customers proved to be invaluable during undergraduate internships with the Port of Bellingham and Harbor Airlines. “A little bit of research, that’s not just an academic exercise, good research and listening to your customers, that’s been part of everything I do,’’ Johnsen says. “That all goes back to those early days at Western.”

Seeking and incorporating community feedback are what helped preserve the old Key Arena’s roofline, with its classic, unfettered mid-century angles. Community feedback also kept the hockey arena downtown and earned the building’s designation as a historic landmark of the 1962 World's Fair. “When people think of Seattle Center they think of that roof, so it made sense to save that,” Johnsen says. “Underneath that roof, we are building a brand new arena.”

Recognizing the importance of preserving the aesthetics of the roof doesn’t diminish the challenges that come with retaining the recognizable canopy: It would have been far easier to demolish it. Excavating the earth underneath the roof was akin to “building a ship in a bottle,” one of the project’s principals told

Trussing the 44-million-pound roof during the renovation was by far the most vexing aspect of the new arena project. In January the roof itself was “floating” on temporary footings and work began this spring to reconnect the roof to its new support columns. When the renovation is complete 600,000 cubic yards, or about 40,000 truckloads of dirt will have been excavated to double the interior space of the old Key Arena, which for years was the NBA’s smallest. The 800,000-square-foot interior of the new arena will have room for 17,400 hockey spectators and seating for 18,600 at WNBA (and hopefully, NBA) games.

These herculean efforts aren’t just about preserving ephemeral, intangible, and nostalgic notions from a bygone era; these structures exist in our collective imagination and are the essence of what constitutes the soul of urban environments. This endeavor to preserve the soul of Seattle for future generations is what Johnsen sees as the unique challenge of his work, safeguarding the delicate and enduring memories wrought in the concrete and steel renovations of iconic landmarks.

When it’s complete next year, Climate Pledge Arena, whose naming rights were purchased by Amazon, will be the world’s first certified net-zero carbon arena and powered by 100 percent renewable electricity. Even the hockey rink will be made from frozen reclaimed rainwater.

“I’ve been going to the Seattle Center since I was 10. And now my sons and daughter go there, too,” Johnsen says. “That’s why I enjoy doing what I do, giving the public opportunities to create memories. Besides the actual physical structure, there’s the nature of the building and what it means to the community.”

Johnsen knew this, too, when he managed the renovation of Pike Place Market. During the first phase Johnsen and his team had to replace all of the electrical and plumbing infrastructure. They set about doing it by first asking, “How do we work the problem and allow the market to stay open, and get the work done efficiently, and also not make it inconvenient for those who are shopping?”

The Climate Pledge Arena project has further cemented Johnsen’s reputation for tackling complex engineering challenges, but Johnsen insists that he’s just really adept at getting people to work in unison on large tasks “I’m the conductor. Everyone from the contractors to the engineers to the designers all have to work well together,” he says. ”I truly think my best strength is finding really good, smart, talented people. All along I’ve known I’m not going to know everything. I always knew to find really good people and put them on my team.”

Today, Johnsen is also a trusted team member at Western, where he was a commencement speaker in 2018 and serves on the Huxley College Dean’s Advisory Board. He was also part of a strategic planning group for President Sabah Randhawa when he first arrived at Western.

Johnsen is particularly excited about his work as a founding board member of Western’s Salish Sea Institute, an interdisciplinary program exploring the political, cultural, Indigenous and scientific issues that affect the region. “I’m convinced it will grow into one of the premier programs at Western,” Johnsen says.

While each of their Seattle building projects have had uncommon challenges, Johnsen and his staff have always started by asking what the community values and challenging themselves to envision the space far into the future.

“All of these projects mean a lot to people,” Johnsen says, “and I’m honored to be the steward of those interactions that the community will have with these structures on a daily basis for decades to come.”

Ken Johnsen

is a freelance writer based in southwest Virginia with nearly a decade of communications and marketing experience in higher education.