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Why Crew owners see potential in North Austin soccer stadium site


The ‘McKalla’ site could be accessed by car from three major arterial roads, with some upgrades on entries.

MetroRail abuts McKalla on the east, and Capital Metro is opening to adding or moving a station to the site.

But the agency says the team must cover the cost of a new rail station.

As the Columbus Crew owners have made clear, the 24-acre, one-time industrial site hidden in a North Austin warehouse district is not the ideal location for a Major League Soccer stadium. They’d prefer someplace closer to downtown.

But what the city-owned lot — known as McKalla Place in the ongoing soccer discussion — does have going for it is proximity to major roads and the city’s only passenger rail line. And after encountering plenty of public and City Council opposition to two parkland options near downtown, the owners, looking to move the Ohio-based soccer team to Austin, have pinned their hopes of striking a land deal with city leaders on the weed-choked lot that for 28 years was the site of a chemical manufacturing plant.

The parcel doesn’t front a major artery, but there are roads leading to the site from Burnet Road and Rutland Drive, plus a short connection from Braker Lane is under construction as part of an apartment project. MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) is less than a mile to the west.

And then there is Capital Metro’s MetroRail track, which flanks the parcel’s east side for about 500 feet. A year ago, the transit agency commissioned a study to move the nearby Kramer Lane station south to a spot adjacent to the McKalla Place tract when a developer was interested in putting a large residential project there. Capital Metro officials say they’re still open to making such a move — as long as someone else pays for it.

“From a transportation standpoint, this thing seems to work pretty well,” said Austin lawyer Richard Suttle, who represents Precourt Sports Ventures, the Columbus Crew owners. “And, no neighborhoods.”

Rail link?

A reasonable connection to the MetroRail line, Suttle says, is critical to building the proposed 20,000-seat stadium on the North Austin site. The rail line links Austin’s northwest suburbs to downtown and could potentially deliver millennial urbanites and suburban soccer families — among demographics the team owners will be courting — to the stadium’s front gates. The nearby Kramer station is 24 minutes from downtown and 20 minutes from Leander.

The city of Austin’s analysis of McKalla and other possible stadium sites.

Precourt officials, who have been sued in Columbus by those looking to keep the pro soccer team there, have not said when they will make a decision about the potential move.

As for who pays for the cost of relocating the Kramer Lane station and adding a couple of thousand feet of passing track — Capital Metro’s consultant AECOM in that study a year ago estimated it would cost $13.1 million — Suttle would not characterize Capital Metro’s no-pay stance as a deal killer.

“That’s yet to be determined,” Suttle said. “That’ll be part of the negotiation with all the various partners who will be involved in this.”

RELATED: Precourt looked east before turning north .

Capital Metro, for its part, is more than willing to talk to Precourt. Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro’s vice president of planning and strategic development, said such a call has yet to occur.

“We think (mass) transit would be absolutely essential for an effective and useful soccer stadium,” Hemingson said. “Because it’s in our service area, and because it’s adjacent to a rail line, we would be willing to provide service to the site. For the capital required to do that, we would look to the developer and/or other partners to provide that funding.”

The rail question is complicated by an ongoing effort by Capital Metro to move the station about a half mile north instead, adjacent to the planned, 8-million-square-foot Broadmoor development. In a recent federal grant application, asking for $7.7 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation to move the Kramer station, Capital Metro said that there would be nearly 40,000 employees between a fully built-out Broadmoor, the Domain development west of Burnet Road, and a Charles Schwab campus east of the rail line.

Capital Metro hoped to combine that grant money with about $8 million promised by nearby developers to move the station and extend the double-tracked area at Kramer to the north. But the federal agency announced this year’s grant winners last week, and Capital Metro’s project did not make the cut.

Hemingson said Capital Metro is still interested in moving the Kramer station north, but will have to restart the discussions now in light of the grant’s fate. Capital Metro could see having a station at both Broadmoor and McKalla, which are separated by almost a mile, he said. But for operational reasons, he said, having both a Kramer station and a McKalla station about a third of a mile apart would not be feasible.

Getting there by car

As for the nearby roads, five-lane Burnet and six-lane Braker are among the largest arterial roads in Austin and flow freely near the proposed stadium site much of the time.

But as development at the nearby Domain has continued apace over the past decade — the sprawling and still-growing shopping and dining destination also makes the McKalla site attractive for the Crew owners — those roads have become more congested.

About 29,000 vehicles a day chugged along Burnet at a spot about a mile north of Braker, according to Texas Department of Transportation data from 2016. That compares with just under 20,000 vehicles a day in 2010.

On MoPac near that area, traffic volume increased to as many as 140,000 vehicles a day in 2016 from 120,000 vehicles a day in 2010.

City of Austin officials couldn’t immediately provide traffic counts on Braker or any analysis that might have been done of the Braker-Burnet intersection, requiring instead an open records request.

Suttle noted that most MLS games occur on Saturday evenings, or Sunday, when the surrounding roads generally have lighter traffic than those weekday counts from TxDOT. The team typically has 17 regular season home games each year, plus a handful of pre-season and tournament games.

“The thing about a stadium is that it operates on non-peak hours,” Suttle said. “On Saturday nights, it would be a whole different thing” than weekday rush hours.

But the narrow roads leading from those arteries to the stadium site would no doubt need to be widened and otherwise improved to make them suitable for game traffic. Would Precourt be paying for those projects? All of this is subject to more analysis, Suttle said, and to negotiations.

“This will be a privately funded facility,” he said. “So to the extent that we’re not making extraordinary improvements, it will be privately funded.”

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