A Tale of Two Soccer Stadiums
Will Austin get both, one, or none?
It's been hard keeping up with the whirlwind of soccer stadium news this week. First came Precourt Sports Ventures' statement on Monday that it considers Butler Shores, the parkland behind Zach Theatre, as a "virtually perfect" site for a 20,000-seat stadium, into which to relocate the Columbus Crew FC here to Austin. Then the next day, a group known as Austin Sports & Entertainment announced plans in conjunction with Rodeo Austin – and with apparent buy-in from city and county officials – to build both a 40,000-seat stadium as home for the Crew, and a 15,000-seat arena to replace the Erwin Center, on private land next to the Travis County Expo Center, itself to be reinvented as a multi-use, public-private "East Austin District." But PSV has stated repeatedly that they only want to be Downtown, and specifically that they don't want to be at the Expo Center, and today the third shoe dropped: PSV confirmed that they're indeed working toward a Butler Shores proposal, and have developed the first tentative site map and artists' renderings of what such a stadium could look like (see "Headlines"). So where do we stand? Here's a thumbnail outline of the two proposals.
If they can make it work, there's no doubt that this would be PSV's first choice. The Crew is in a suburban setting in Columbus, and that's what they're trying to get away from. But that's a big "if" – or a number of them, really. For starters, the site is city-owned, dedicated parkland; and while city officials might be okay with trading four "underutilized" Little League fields for a vibrant new cultural attraction, the fact that it's parkland means that the plan would have to go to city voters, most likely in a May special election (shades of Uber and Lyft), which isn't a lot of time to put together a campaign, and introduces a big question mark and a sizable delay into the process. (PSV attorney Richard Suttle is still sniffing around for ways to circumvent a vote, but there's no way that would pass any smell test.) There's already entrenched environmental opposition to major construction right at the mouth of Barton Creek (see Bill Bunch in "Feedback," p.6), but on the other hand, PSV has hired longtime neighborhood/enviro consultant David Butts as an adviser – he says he's advised them the project can't use public money, can't impinge on the hike and bike trail or the trees on either side of it, and ideally ought to be no higher than those trees. Check, check, and kinda check; PSV says that at 69 feet in height, the preliminary stadium plan comes in shorter than the adjacent Barton Place Condos (85 feet) or Zach Theatre itself (71 feet).
The other major "if" has to do with the site's size and accessibility. The preliminary drawing of the site plan shows the stadium nestled in the site pretty comfortably, with room for plazas and green space, and indeed, it's easy to find examples around the world of much larger urban stadiums on even smaller footprints. But what has worried many observers thus far – on and off the Council dais – is the access issue: With zero on-site parking, and a dodgy transit corridor in South Lamar that's also a pedestrian impediment, how are 20,000 people going to get in and out of there every game day? On the other hand, ACL manages. Expect that to be the next major set of talking points.
Travis County Expo Center
Austin Sports & Entertainment has been planning in the background for a long time – since well before PSV announced their relocation plan – and sprung from the gate this week with a clear plan for a stadium built on private land, a dramatic set of artists' renderings (posted with this story online), and enthusiastic backing from City Council Member Ora Houston and County Commissioner Jeff Travillion. Their proposal makes an attractive package for a lot of stakeholders, because it could set a lot of desired improvements in motion: The county's been wanting to make better use of the Expo Center; the city's been wanting to push more development that direction, and support its new Colony Park project just across Decker Lane; and everybody's been wanting to open up Walter Long Metro Park, which has been largely fenced off and desolate for about a half century now. The only thing this plan doesn't have is a team. ASE Principals Sean Foley and Andrew Nestor say it can go ahead without the Crew, but clearly they've been angling for them to be the major tenant, and may not have a deal without them.
PSV, conversely, has thus far refused to even meet with the ASE guys, but if their Butler Shores plan were to evaporate, through environmental concerns, voter backlash, or whatever, perhaps they'd take a look out East.
Or perhaps they'd stay in Ohio: As we go to press Wednesday comes news that Ohio state Rep. Mike Duffey has asked the state attorney general to look into taking legal action to keep the team from leaving. Clearly there's more to come.