The Austin City Council postponed action regarding the potential future home of a Major League Soccer club this week, but there is plenty to discuss after eight publicly owned sites were unveiled as possibilities earlier this week.
The city released a detailed report Thursday, providing more information about the sites identified as having the potential to be home to a stadium or practice facility for an MLS team.
The report laid out possible opportunities and challenges for each site, with additional information regarding the history, economic impacts, community benefits and logistical challenges associated with MLS franchises in other communities.
Precourt Sports Ventures, which owns the Columbus Crew SC soccer team, is exploring a move to Austin, provided it can find suitable locations for a stadium and a practice facility. The ownership group released renderings last week that showed a stadium at Butler Shores Metropolitan Park and has made clear that is its preferred destination.
“All sites aren’t created equally,” Precourt Sports Ventures President Dave Greeley told the Hill Country News on Wednesday. “Our ability to move a team and activate the rights we have in Austin and privately finance a stadium, it’s 100 percent linked to the quality of the site. We just have to look deeper, and that’s part of the community discussion and dialogue about if those sites will work or not.”
The city identified the Butler Shores site as one of five potential stadium locations. Two of those locations also were listed as possible spots for a practice facility, while three others were identified as suited only for a practice facility.
The other stadium-only locations are a former Home Depot store at the corner of Interstate 35 and St. Johns Avenue and an empty lot at 10414 McKalla Place, near the intersection of Burnet Road and Braker Lane.
Sites for a stadium or practice facility include the Travis County Exposition Center and Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Metropolitan Park.
And locations identified as suited for only a practice facility are Walnut Creek Sports Complex, Bolm Road District Park and the Burger Center.
“None of the sites seem like they’re ideal,” said Phil West, an Austinite and author of the book “The United States of Soccer,” which tells the history of MLS. “There seems to be something that is in the way with all of those, and I don’t know if there’s a parcel where they could just buy it and put up a stadium and have it solved, check all the boxes.
“Not involving the city would expedite it, but that’s obviously going to raise the price tag.”
The Butler Shores idea has already generated citywide discussion, specifically regarding the lack of on-site parking, potential traffic congestion and the opportunities associated with a downtown entertainment venue close to bars, restaurants and Zilker Park.
The report included all three of these discussion points, touching heavily on traffic. It acknowledged that a plan would be needed for shuttles and other modes of transportation (walking, biking, public transportation, ride-sharing, etc.), and said a transportation analysis would be needed to further assess and develop traffic measures.
A stadium at Butler Shores also could become a new home for the Parks and Recreations Department, the report said, and could serve as a venue for events that are currently held at Auditorium Shores, “increasing year-round public access” to that parkland.
Butler Shores is currently home to six baseball and softball fields that host the South Austin Little League, Austin Independent School District and Austin Girls Fast Pitch — a total of 500 children. Precourt Sports Ventures has said it would help create new facilities for them nearby, which the report described as a priority and something that would need to be done “at no expense to the public or the league.”
Another challenge associated with the lack of parking is the possibility of increased traffic on the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail at Lady Bird Lake. Evening kickoffs could necessitate lighting along the trail for stadiumgoers. Council Member Ann Kitchen has made known her concerns about residents living in the adjoining neighborhood having to deal with noise and other disruptions that a stadium would bring.
Building a stadium on city-owned parkland might trigger an election, a possibility Precourt Sports Ventures has said it is prepared to tackle.
“(Austin lobbyist) David Butts says parkland is the ‘Madonna’ here in Austin,” said Mark Littlefield, a local lobbyist who is working for Precourt. “It’s sacred, and it can only be used for the people.”
The ownership group has floated the idea of shuttling fans from its practice facility to the downtown stadium. The report also included expectations for training fields to be used for interscholastic activities and by the general public, filling an “existing gap” for soccer fields in the area.
To create the report, city officials worked with several entities, including Precourt Sports Ventures, MLS and Austin Sports & Entertainment, which has released plans for a wide-ranging project called the East Austin District that includes a 40,000-seat stadium at the Travis County Expo Center that could host professional soccer.
MLS has made it clear to the city that its only current opportunity for a franchise is the Crew relocating.
“As long as (Precourt Sports Ventures) is exploring moving its franchise, the league will not be facilitating or authorizing any other existing or prospective ownership groups to locate an MLS team in Austin,” the report stated. The city also laid out the potential benefits to bringing a top-level professional sports team, including the enhancement of “Brand Austin.”
MLS also has made clear it through its expansion process — the league has grown from 12 teams in 2006 to 22, with expansion to 26 expected by 2020 — that it prefers its teams to be in soccer-specific stadiums within the “urban core.”
In its analysis of locating a team at the Expo Center, the city acknowledged the surrounding area “is not currently consistent with successfully operating” MLS stadiums. Only three of the potential stadium sites are within Austin’s urban core — Butler Shores, Guerrero Park and the former Home Depot.
However, another site outside the urban core piqued the interest of Precourt Sports Ventures.
“The McKalla Place site is outside the core, but it sounds interesting to us,” Precourt lobbyist Richard Suttle said Tuesday after the sites were released. “We’ll have to take a closer look at what’s around there. I don’t know much about the Home Depot property.”
The City Council moved all discussion and any action regarding the 29-page report until Feb. 15, which further complicated the timeline for professional soccer coming to Austin. Precourt Sports Ventures has expressed that it would like to have a move finalized in time for the 2019 season. The MLS regular season runs from March until October.
Circuit of the Americas Chairman Bobby Epstein, who announced in August that he was launching a United Soccer League franchise in 2019 at the track, has put his project on hold until the MLS to Austin exploration is resolved.
In her cover letter, the city parks department acting director, Kimberly McNeeley, called the report on potential city-owned sites preliminary and said a more comprehensive process would need to take place.
The process to potentially bring Austin its first major professional sports franchise is underway, but the clock is ticking.