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Viewpoints: Why Austin voters may have the last say in MLS turf deal

In setting the table for Major League Soccer coming to Austin, we offer this advice to Precourt Sports Ventures, which owns Columbus Crew SC: Don’t pretend Central Texans don’t drive; don’t be stingy with community benefits; and let Austin residents vote.

Certainly, it’s easy to envision MLS in Austin’s core. Soccer is the kind of sport that fits with the city’s cultural and international profile. Austin is home to Formula One racing and the Austin City Limits and South by Southwest festivals — all attract a global following. With a thriving college, tech and entertainment scene and an ethnically diverse population, Austin seems ideal for MLS.

Some surveys show strong community support for the Precourt proposal that could bring world-class soccer matches to Austin by 2019. A recent poll by Austin-based Opinion Analysts showed that voters would most likely welcome the sport, with a majority approving the use of underutilized parkland to house a privately financed stadium.

NEW DETAILS: Austin identifies sites for viable MLS stadium or practice facility.

Even with such momentum, however, the deal is far from done because of practical details, such as Precourt Sports’ proposal to acquire city-owned land for its stadium instead of private property.

A Precourt spokesman told us that a move to Austin won’t happen without city land — meaning free or inexpensive property — because “the economics don’t work” if Precourt must buy land and finance a new a stadium. Precourt estimates it would cost about $200 million to build its stadium here.

Complicating matters further is Precourt’s desire to use dedicated parkland in downtown Austin – and specifically, Butler Shores Metropolitan Park – as the site on which to build its MLS stadium.

Those details trigger significant hurdles, starting with city charter provisions that address parkland in near-sacred terms. Practical challenges regarding traffic congestion cannot be overlooked, either.

As we contemplate those challenges, we want to emphasize that we support MLS coming to Austin. The question is whether Precourt and the city can effectively and transparently address challenges in ways that respect and benefit Austin residents. The issue comes back to the City Council in February.

GISSELA SANTACRUZ: Proposed downtown soccer stadium will need parking options.

The biggest hurdle is found in the city charter that directly empowers voters – and not the City Council, nor the city manager – to determine whether parkland is moved from public to private hands.

The charter states: “The council shall have no power to, and shall not: Sell, convey, lease, mortgage, or otherwise alienate any land which is now, or shall hereafter be, dedicated for park purposes, unless the qualified voters of the city shall authorize such act by adopting in a general or special election a proposition submitting the question and setting forth the terms and conditions under which such sale, conveyance, lease, mortgage, or other alienation is to be made.”

Three sites identified by city staff as potential locations for Precourt are dedicated parkland, and therefore, trigger an election. They are Butler Shores, Guerrero Metro Park in east-central Austin and the Travis County Exposition Center in far East Austin.

Though Precourt has signaled it would transfer ownership of the stadium to the city — in what could be interpreted as an attempt to avoid a referendum — such ownership is effectively nullified when the city transfers the property back to Precourt in a long-term formal arrangement. That would take the form of a lease or operations contract, which gives Precourt control – ownership really – of the stadium and its grounds for upwards of 99 years.

We do understand the lure of Butler Shores: It offers spectacular vistas of Austin’s skyline, borders Lady Bird Lake and is situated walking distance from bars, nightclubs, hotels and restaurants in Austin’s robust downtown.

But Butler Shores should not be considered unless Precourt or the city is able to mitigate traffic congestion that would come from shoe-horning a 20,000-seat arena in one of the city’s most-congested corridors.

So far, Precourt and its supporters have envisioned a stadium with no onsite parking and offering only vague concepts about what — if any — measures should be taken to prevent nearby neighborhoods from being overrun with parked cars from soccer events. In this city, people drive. Don’t ignore that.

To that point, the city and the public must insist on tangible plans vetted by city traffic experts that would mitigate congestion, no matter which site is considered.

ANALYSIS: Why downtown parking garages may be headed for extinction.

Our third concern is about economic reciprocity – what community benefits Austin residents would gain if they gave their approval to transfer or convey parkland to Precourt or if the City Council provided Precourt nonparkland for a stadium.

Along with the three parks, city staff identified city-owned properties near the Domain, at 10414 McKalla Place, and the former site of a Home Depot near the intersection of Interstate 35 and U.S. 290.

Austin has key challenges in maintaining its parks and libraries, amenities that benefit all residents. The council would be unwise to give or trade prime real estate for trinkets. The city has in the past been on the losing end of such deals that gave away too much for too little.

Some other for-profit companies, including the Austin City Limits Music Festival, that use parkland or public spaces for their annual events steer money to park improvements or public works in exchange for that privilege. Precourt would be wise to take a page from ACL — and city leaders should insist on it, too.

Since 2006, ACL has contributed over $26 million to the Austin Parks Foundation for improvements to parks, trails and green spaces — and in 2016 alone, it donated $6.3 million for maintenance and improvements to hundreds of city parks. ACL also pays for the yearly restoration of Zilker Park’s Great Lawn.

We’ve presented the challenges. If Precourt is serious about moving to Austin, it should not duck them.

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