VIEWPOINTS: Precourt is eyeing Guerrero Park. Why that’s worth a debate

With Butler Shores Metropolitan Park in the rearview mirror, Precourt Sports Ventures has turned its attention on two other city-owned properties, with one – Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Park – being the clear favorite for its Major League Soccer stadium.

The focus shifted to Guerrero Park in Southeast Austin when the challenges regarding Butler near downtown became insurmountable, including City Council Member Ann Kitchen’s threat to put a measure before the City Council barring all parkland for consideration of a stadium Precourt wants to build for its professional soccer team. Kitchen’s District 5 includes Butler park.

Precourt also is considering city-owned property at 10414 McKalla Place near the Domain.

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For months, Precourt, which owns Columbus Crew SC, has been looking at relocating to Austin. Guerrero is considerably larger than Butler Park and is situated in a less-congested part of Austin. Nonetheless, the challenges of using that park are no less daunting. A key question is: Under what, if any, circumstances should city parkland be used for private, for-profit development?

The answer should be narrowly framed, reflecting Austin values that parkland is a commonly held asset providing affordable amenities, such as swimming pools, softball fields, walking trails and wildlife preserves. Austin’s parkland and trails are the refuge families and others turn to as respites from traffic congestion, sweltering summer days, concrete pavements and high-rise buildings. 

Preservation of such treasures must be at the top of the City Council’s priorities in examining whether parkland should be used for private development. Elected officials would be wise to abide by the city charter that leaves it to voters to decide whether parkland should be sold, transferred or given away to private entities, particularly in long-term agreements, as would be the case with Precourt.

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The answer might differ depending on the park and whether the project is a good fit. In the case of Butler Park, it was an easy call.

The $200 million, 20,000-seat stadium would have taken up the lion’s share of the park, putting it off-limits to the public for upwards of 99 years.

Along with that, Precourt had no plan to accommodate parking. Without designated parking facilities, disruption to surrounding neighborhoods would have been severe. The stadium would have been a traffic magnet in one of the city’s most-congested traffic corridors.

The circumstances are different for Guerrero. There, a 15-acre stadium would amount to a small footprint in the near 400-acre park.

Nonetheless, the criteria we spelled out in negotiations over Butler remain the same for Guerrero. Precourt should: not pretend Central Texans don’t drive; provide community benefits commensurate to the value of the parkland that it would use for a stadium; and let Austin residents vote.

The city, too, should approach any negotiations based on those same terms. Council members should do their due diligence regarding Guerrero to avoid sending a message that Butler — west of Interstate 35, near affluent neighborhoods — is more important or valuable than Guerrero, east of I-35, near some low-income neighborhoods.

It would be helpful if the city did an economic feasibility study of Guerrero and McKalla to ensure whatever the sports venture offers in the way of community benefits is fair. Keep in mind those properties are taxpayer assets. Figuring out their market values or opportunity costs would help ensure a fair deal.

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What would not be fair is giving away city-owned land to Precourt, either parkland or nonparkland, in exchange for a stadium that the city technically would own on paper — but that Precourt would manage and operate as its own private property.

It’s understandable why Precourt has its sights on Guerrero.

American-Statesman correspondent Chris Bils reported that Precourt is seeking the use of about 15 acres along the western edge of the park. That site, which contains the southernmost softball fields at the Krieg Softball Complex, offers views of the city skyline over Lady Bird Lake. It is distant from the adjoining bank of the Colorado River, which has experienced severe erosion over several decades.

Precourt representatives said the MLS club would pay to construct new softball fields at the park to avoid displacing local organizations. A Precourt spokesman told us the economics don’t work if the sports club must buy property and pay for a stadium.

There are good reasons for and against using Guerrero.

Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria, whose District 3 includes Guerrero, sees a deal with Precourt as a potential opportunity to address environmental erosion, make repairs and secure other amenities that would significantly improve the park, such as a pedestrian bridge connecting the north and south parts of the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail.

Renteria says he would put good ideas in the hands of voters. Others don’t see it that way — and they, too, have a point.

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Susana Almanza, who leads PODER, a nonprofit that advances environmental and social justice causes, opposes using parkland for private development. She and other environmentalists say Guerrero Park is important in protecting the Colorado River and streams that snake through the property.

Obviously, the environmental impact on Guerrero — and its neighbor to the north, the Colorado River Wildlife Sanctuary Park, also owned by the city — are important considerations.

Whether one agrees with Renteria or his sister Almanza, the debate should be civil.

Renteria crossed a line of decorum by describing opponents as “hysterical people out there throwing bombs at us.” He should know that residents have a constitutional right to assemble and protest. It might be messy, but that’s democracy.

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