Welcome to Butler Shores Metropolitan Park, city-owned lakefront parkland near Zilker Park that could be ground zero in the debate about helping a Major League Soccer team move to Austin.
The well-worn tract with 15 buildable acres at 200 S. Lamar Blvd., a preferred choice of Precourt Sports Ventures, owner of Columbus Crew SC, conjures up vastly different images, depending on who’s describing it.
PSV, which announced Oct. 17 it is exploring a move to Austin, sees an energizing $200 million, privately financed stadium that will allow national TV to offer panoramic views of the waterfront and downtown skyline while fans stroll out of the complex into nearby restaurants and bars.
Some Austin politicians and neighborhood entities see 20,000 fans fighting traffic every step of the way just to get downtown and then dealing with parking hassles in a tightly confined, already congested area that is home to a hike-and-bike trail and Texas’ oldest Little League. Butler Shores, not to be confused with the similarly named Butler Park adjacent to the Long Center, is just west of Lamar Boulevard, between Zach Theatre and Zilker Park.
“I have grave concerns about that site,” Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen, whose district includes Butler Shores, told the American-Statesman. “It’s a difficult spot for things like traffic, noise and the current use of that land.”
The City Council on Nov. 9 unanimously approved a resolution to identify city-owned land suitable for the soccer team. Austin is the largest city in the United States without a major league franchise. The city land report is due by Dec. 14.
“We are hopeful there will be several sites considered by city staff for the stadium and practice facility,” said MLS Austin lobbyist Richard Suttle, working for Precourt Sports Ventures. “Our initial thought is 200 South Lamar seems virtually perfect for a modern, urban MLS stadium as long as it is compact and designed with minimum traffic, light and sound impact as a priority.
“In addition, if the 200 South Lamar site becomes the preferred site, we are fully aware of the importance of taking care of the South Austin Little League and working to improve their situation. We are still doing a tremendous amount of due diligence to make sure a site that appears ideal proves out.”
Three of the oldest Little League fields in Texas are there, dating to 1951, accommodating about 250 families, according to Paul Purcell, president of South Austin Baseball.
“We’re proud of our tradition and love our location,” Purcell said. “We don’t want to move unless it was to somewhere very close and an upgrade in facilities.”
Mayor Steve Adler, who said he is excited about the possibility of the Crew moving here, noted there are pros and cons to any location near downtown, including Butler Shores.
“The cons center around the traffic, how you would move people in and out, and what you could do with sound direction with existing technologies,” Adler said. “The pluses of Butler Shores are the people it could bring downtown.
“I listened to one of my council colleagues, Greg Casar, talk about how there was something he found attractive about a downtown facility in our park system frequented by people from his district that don’t currently come downtown frequently. In some respects, it would kind of democratize the downtown-scape, and that made sense to me.”
Kitchen, who said she would like to see the Crew move to Austin, is worried about the effects of a Butler Shores stadium on nearby neighborhoods.
“Of course, I can understand why it would be desirable to (PSV), and I don’t blame them for asking it to be considered,” she said. “We’d have to talk through issues like traffic, use of the parks, light, noise, a lot things. That area already experiences lots of impact from the ACL (Music Festival). Now, a soccer stadium would be fewer people, but it is still a major use, especially considering other events that may be held there.
“I’m hearing from folks who live in that area who are concerned. But I’m still listening. I don’t see us going forward unless we have a clear community consensus to do it.”
Council Member Ora Houston said congestion and parking issues make Butler Shores nearly untenable.
“I just don’t see how it’s going to fit, shoehorning 20,000 people in and out of there,” she said. “I want to see the soccer team here, but we can offer a lot more space in East Austin.”
Adler noted: “We know the league and the team have expressed a keen desire for something centrally located. At this point, it’s very early in those conversations.”
Lonnie Limon, a member of the Hispanic Alliance board and a native Austinite, is throwing his weight behind Butler Shores.
That site “holds a special place in my heart. I played T-ball there, and my family and many of Austin’s old Latino families used those fields for softball tournaments,” he said.
“As the core of Austin proper has become more and more gentrified and cost-prohibitive, there are fewer reasons for Latino families to come to the downtown area. But with soccer, there is unifying appeal to bringing all aspects of Austin’s various communities together in one place where Latino families have a long-standing history.”
Bill Oakey, an Austin resident who blogs about affordability, said precedent dictates an election would be needed if parkland is used.
“I think it is a great opportunity (to bring MLS here), but since it would be a major shift in current policy, it should be approached with a great deal of citizen input,” he said. “If we have a good public involvement process, the city can move forward with a lot less controversy.”
Suttle, a lawyer for Armbrust & Brown, said it is his understanding that a city-owned MLS stadium built entirely with private funds can be located on parkland without an election.
He also suggested that Precourt Sports Ventures can improve Butler Shores, which hasn’t aged well.
“It is tough to think of the 200 South Lamar site in its current condition as quality ‘parkland,’ ” he said. “I recently walked through and found trash, encampments, offensive graffiti, drug paraphernalia and more.
“Parkland should be a benefit for the entire community, and it’s hard to see it as such in its current condition. If 200 South Lamar becomes a preferred site, you can rest assured it will remain as city-owned parkland and it will be an improved and enhanced park experience for all Austinites.”