Can soccer stadium plan gain traction at Bayside?

BBVA Compass Stadium, home of the Houston Dynamo is located in Houston’s East Downtown neighborhood, two stops away from the city center on the area’s light rail. It seats 22,039 and opened in 2012. Getty Images/mlssoccer.com

Columbia Point is once again the center of stadium-sized speculation this week as talks between the New England Revolution and UMass continue to weigh the merits of building a professional soccer venue at the former Bayside Expo Center site.

Sources familiar with the discussions say that the idea has traction among the key stakeholders— and that team owners Robert and Jonathan Kraft are keen to create a Major League Soccer venue in the city of Boston.

The Columbia Point peninsula is the latest— but not the first— city location scouted by the Krafts. As recently as last spring, the father-and-son team floated the idea of building a home for their soccer franchise in South Boston on land adjacent to Widett Circle now used by the city as a tow lot. The industrial-zoned Widett property was the preferred location for an Olympic stadium in the now-defunct Boston 2024 proposal.

Chatter about the South Boston location has since quieted and the waterfront land now owned by UMass in Dorchester has become the focus of meetings. A source within UMass told the Reporter that a decision to move forward with more aggressive planning for a stadium deal is likely in the next week.

If an agreement is reached to plan a stadium on the Point, proponents will face a series of obstacles that would seem to make its mission daunting.

Thirteen of Major League Soccer’s 20 franchises now host games in soccer-specific stadiums––which generally accommodate capacity crowds of around 20,000. But many of these venues originally faced fierce opposition from surrounding communities and laborious negotiations with local officials.

Congressman Stephen Lynch and local lawmakers responded to the initial reports about the Expo site last week with a range of skepticism, much of it focused on concerns about insufficient infrastucture.

Corcoran-Jennison, the longtime Columbia Point development firm that owns substantial property adjacent to Bayside Expo and the Boston Teachers Union, would hold a strong hand in any negotiations.

Other thorny questions remain: Would construction of a new soccer stadium be funded publicly, privately, or by mixed money sources?

Some MLS clubs, like the Chicago Fire and Sporting Kansas City, successfully milked state, city, and county budgets to cover all building costs for soccer-specific stadiums. Still others – the Philadelphia Union, for instance –coaxed partial payment from taxpayer money.

That is highly improbable here.

Sam Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, points out that in the early 2000s, Kraft covered construction expenses for Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, home of the Patriots and Revolution, breaking from industry norms in other regions of the country.

“There is a precedent in other states where the state and city have approved funding for the building of the stadium,” Tyler said. “But I don’t see that happening at this time in Massachusetts. The precedent set by the Kraft family is that it’s privately funded in terms of the stadium.”

In 2010, MLS’s Houston Dynamo reached terms with Harris County and the city of Houston on a $95 million deal to make way in the East Downtown neighborhood for what is now BBVA Compass Stadium. Per the deal, Dynamo owners footed the $60 million bill to build the stadium while $20 million for infrastructure renovations was put up by the city and county, which jointly own the property.

That last bit is crucial.

“The way most modern stadium deals are working, even if it’s a privately financed stadium, you try to figure out a way to make the stadium owned by the public,” explained Victor Matheson, an economics professor at Holy Cross and an authority on stadium deals and public financing. “Deals like this have fairly significant tax benefits for the folks building the stadium. … I’d be very surprised if the Krafts weren’t following that same model.”

Other considerations would need to be ironed out, too. The JFK/UMass T station, a stone’s throw from the potential Bayside stadium site, would likely require massive dollar sums to update the facilities to support the flow of fans on game days.

In Chicago and Houston, to pinpoint two examples, new MLS stadiums and public spending on infrastructure for the surrounding area served as two halves of the same walnut. It is doubtful Boston or Massachusetts lawmakers would stomach such costly measures, even though mayor Martin Walsh has indicated a “big project” like this could set the wheels in motion for much-needed improvements.

Representatives of the Dorchester area have already sounded the alarm over infrastructure costs, reflecting parallel obstacles staring other MLS owners in the face.

In Miami, famed English footballer David Beckham has jockeyed for more than two years to build a 25,000-seat downtown stadium that will house the expansion team he bought for $25 million in 2014. He has thrice been rebuffed. But now, having successfully purchased roughly six of nine targeted acres of space in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood, negotiators have hit a snag with Miami-Dade county over transportation concerns, according to a Miami Herald report in March.

If the reported conversations continue, Kraft’s ownership group will have to dispel similar worries about increased car volume, especially at Kosciuszko Circle, the nearby traffic rotary that brings drivers to a daily standstill even without special events.

Congressman Stephen Lynch said in a statement last week that any stadium proposal would face “significant opposition because of the massive traffic choke point it would create in the Dorchester and South Boston neighborhoods.”

He added, “The situation is getting progressively worse as the South Boston waterfront development has greatly increased the volume of traffic along the Morrissey Boulevard corridor. So basically it’s a bad idea.”

The trend in MLS toward soccer-specific stadiums has been a boon for league business, according to a Forbes report from 2013.

Ray Butler, who owns The Banshee, a popular Irish pub on Dorchester Avenue with close ties to the Revolution’s organized fan club, the Midnight Riders, says he would gladly welcome the influx of customers on game days. He also thinks a Boston home would foster growth among the team’s fan base, specifically among millennials.

“If you want to attract families and young supporters, it’s difficult to travel long distances, but if the stadium’s in Dorchester, it’s so much easier,” he said. “I go to two games a year with the stadium in Foxborough. I’d go to 10 games at least if it were in closer to the city.”

Miles of bureaucratic minutiae and red tape separate the Krafts from a soccer-specific home for the Revolution in Boston, and this process will almost assuredly drag out or stall as local officials and their constituents get their hands on more information.
Let the debate begin.

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