One key swing member of the Austin City Council expressed optimism Monday that a deal can come together to bring Major League Soccer to town.
“I’m excited about the opportunity and optimistic about the possibilities,” District 9 council member Kathie Tovo told the American-Statesman Monday. “That being said, I will evaluate this with as much care and diligence as possible. We need a better understanding of the true public cost and the real community benefits.”
Council will discuss at its Tuesday work session a proposal by owners of Columbus Crew SC to move their team into a privately financed, 20,000-seat stadium in exchange for use of city-owned McKalla Place in North Austin.
Soccer will not be on Thursday’s meeting agenda, Tovo said, and no action will be taken on it this week, but the work session is the first public opportunity to gauge where the 10 council members and the mayor stand.
“It makes sense for us just to have a presentation at the work session and the council members to discuss it and ask questions,” said Mark Littlefield, a lobbyist for Precourt Sports Ventures. “This will all build toward the June 28 meeting, where action can be taken. I think we are right where we’re supposed to be.”
Tovo sponsored a resolution last November for the city staff to evaluate city property that could work for an MLS team. She also co-sponsored a March resolution to conduct an analysis of McKalla Place as a potential soccer home. On the flip side, Tovo also has been described as a strong advocate of affordable housing and a neighborhoods-friendly voice.
“I don’t want to see a soccer stadium without affordable housing,” she said. “If we take McKalla out of the list of possibilities, I want a firm commitment on other tracts of land for affordable housing and I want that first project to start moving forward.
“But I’m supportive of the stadium at that site to this point, if the deal is structured in a way that provides enough community benefits and financial benefits to the city.”
Francoise Luca, president of the Gracywoods Neighborhood Association located 1.5 miles from McKalla, has another vision for the tract. She points out that the 24-acre site, under-utilized for more than 20 years, was tagged for a park in 2007 under the North Burnet Gateway Neighborhood planning.
The leader of one of the closest neighborhoods to the proposed stadium also was intrigued by plans offered by two developers last week for mixed-use housing and retail.
“My preference would be for a hybrid plan,” she said. “Something that would have a large park with more trails, maybe a dog park, a natatorium, a rail station and affordable housing. We also should have a fair bidding process, an RFP, not just give the place away to a soccer owner without vetting other opportunities.”
Tovo, who said McKalla Place-area residents have valid concerns about parking and traffic, is only interested in the land going to developers if they lease it.
“Regardless of what project we end of pursuing on it, I believe the city should maintain ownership,” Tovo said. “The city does better in the long run to hold onto strategically located tracts.”
Tovo said the Precourt proposal needs to be improved and better understood.
“There should be significant community use of the stadium, a lot more than I see in there,” she said. “I’m not sure I would support the city having to pay for utilities, police, traffic control and other things. When we have relationships with vendors on public land, typically we require them to pay for infrastracture costs. Why would we alter that kind of relationship? Not only that, but we don’t have any sense of how much these things would cost.
“We need an analysis of the property tax structure, what could be generated at this site. At this point I don’t understand what the public investment is and I have no clear estimate of what it would be.”
Tovo, who does not identify herself as a soccer fan, said a better deal is needed from Precourt.
“The elements are there. Now we have a conversation about the details,” she said. “I understand this to be a preliminary proposal. The fact that (PSV) is not exactly where I want them to be doesn’t dissuade me at all. I know this is a negotiation.”
Tovo said enough progress can be made this month to come to some sort of arrangement with Precourt.
“I think it could be a real exciting moment for Austin,” she said. “It could be a source of real civic pride, a positive unifying force.”
Editor’s note: The original version of the story was edited to clarify the location of the Gracywoods neighborhood.