Many Austinites are understandably swept up in the euphoria of welcoming our first major league sports team to town. Like Mayor Steve Adler, we look forward to the day “we are all wearing the same jersey, celebrating the first (Major League Soccer) championship in Austin.”
The City Council’s vote last week green-lighting a deal to bring the Columbus Crew SC to Austin is a milestone — but it’s not the end of the process. City staffers and Precourt Sports Ventures reps still have considerable work ahead to address critical details, such as parking and drainage. And once city staffers and Precourt officials hammer out the final contract language, likely in the next 90 to 120 days, we urge both parties to agree to commit to making the signed document available to the public.
The McKalla Place tract where the stadium will be built remains the taxpayers’ land. The public has a right to see all the terms in writing. Whether this deal is ultimately judged a success will hinge on whether staff nails down the key remaining provisions and provides full transparency.
Thanks to give and take on both sides, the package has improved considerably for taxpayers since Precourt first approached Austin last fall. Precourt always said it would privately finance its stadium, certainly a better deal than the taxpayer-funded stadiums built in many other cities. But Precourt initially offered very little in exchange for long-term, property tax-free use of the 24-acre city tract on McKalla Place near the Domain.
That wasn’t going to fly.
Austinites called for better terms and tangible perks. Precourt officials rightly recognized they needed to budge if they wanted to play ball here. Under the package approved by council members, Precourt will:
• Pay the city $8.25 million in rent over the 20-year lease. Even though the city will kick $2.5 million of that back into a maintenance fund for the stadium, an expense we argued Precourt should have absorbed, the rent payment, is still substantially more than the $1 a year initially offered.
• Provide $640,000 up front in transit improvements, plus pay $3 million over 15 years to Capital Metro, a significant provision championed by Council Member Delia Garza.
• Ensure a nonprofit group builds 130 affordable housing units on the site within four years of the stadium opening, under a measure pushed by Council Member Greg Casar.
• Cover the cost for off-site traffic control, emergency responders and litter pickup on game nights, as Council Member Kathie Tovo requested.
• Support youth soccer programs beyond the MLS-required development academy for boys. Precourt has pledged financial support to Lonestar Soccer Club’s programs for elite young women, and at Tovo’s request, Precourt will develop a plan to make sure its youth soccer clubs, camps and scholarships reach kids from low-income families, boys and girls alike.
Even with painstaking negotiations that stretched Precourt’s deadline for bringing the team to Austin for the 2019 season, some vital issues remain unresolved. To our profound disappointment, Precourt has yet to produce its plan for getting 20,000 fans to and from a stadium that will have only 1,000 on-site parking spaces, a problem that has plagued this project from the start.
The deal calls for Precourt and the city to “work together” on a traffic and parking plan, and holds Precourt responsible for identifying an undetermined amount of off-site parking and promoting a “vibrant shuttle process.” That’s the right idea, but the commitments are still too vague. City staffers must ensure that adjacent neighborhoods are not inundated with cut-through traffic and on-street parking on game days.
City staffers also must ensure the project, which will sit at the headwaters of Little Walnut Creek, has enough stormwater detention ponds to prevent properties downstream from flooding. With Austin in the process of revising its stormwater standards based on new maps, staffers had recommended that Precourt design the site to handle a 500-year storm, going beyond the current 100-year storm requirement. However, the council simply asked Precourt to “consider” the stronger standard.
As we’ve previously noted, any project on city land also must include community benefits that consider the value of the property along with the windfall gained by a business using public land without paying taxes on it. Council Members Leslie Pool, Alison Alter, Ellen Troxclair and Ora Houston, who ultimately voted against the deal, deserve credit for helping make such comparisons possible by pressing for other developers to submit plans for the McKalla site.
We’re disappointed the developers’ creative pitches didn’t generate more interest or discussion among the full council. But we urge the city to continue talks with those developers, particularly those committed to providing a significant amount of affordable housing, to see if their concepts might fit well on other vacant city tracts.
It’s true the soccer stadium will not produce property tax revenue, whereas other developments could have produced valuable tax revenue for the city, Austin schools, Travis County, Austin Community College and the hospital district. We recognize, however, that profitability isn’t the only measure of a public space.
The World’s Game won’t dissolve the racial and economic divides in Austin. But a soccer stadium can provide common ground where fans from across the city can gather, especially with the hundreds of free and reduced-price tickets Precourt has pledged for each game. The team can become a source of civic pride, not simply by posting a winning record, but by providing a range of opportunities: soccer camps, clinics and scholarships for kids. Business for local vendors. Part-time stadium jobs for residents who may have struggled to find other employment.
It’s game time. Precourt must make this deal a win not only for the team, but for the city.