A soccer-specific stadium — once written off as dead (or at least unlikely) — took two big steps toward reality Wednesday.
First, initial architectural renderings of the proposed stadium were released by the owners of Minnesota United, the group that has been given the rights to bring a Major League Soccer expansion team to the Twin Cities. The second step was the approval by the Metropolitan Council of a lease between the transit agency and the city of St. Paul.
There are many steps remaining, of course. But after a false start in Minneapolis, a flirtation with St. Paul that was considered by some a ruse, and the ultimate selection of the capital city as the stadium’s host, the MLS franchise and new stadium seem assured.
Minneapolis may get to host the team for one season if the franchise begins play in 2017, as some MLS officials would prefer. But the long-term home will be in St. Paul. That was reinforced with a well attended press conference at the former Minnesota Club in downtown St. Paul, where the renderings were unveiled to the public.
A stadium that will cost ‘a lot’
The plans, prepared by Populous, one of the world’s primary stadium designers, shows a modernist structure, glowing white and wrapped in a thin, translucent polymer skin. Principal team owner Bill McGuire said the skin will be equipped with LED lights that can change color depending on the events inside. The stadium itself would be sunken down 16 feet below grade to reduce its apparent height to between 70 and 75 feet.
Though the field itself will be uncovered, a canopy will protect most — but not all — fans from the weather. The inside of the stadium will feature a traditional soccer seating setup: square and snuggled close to a grass playing surface, with a large standing section in the south end, behind one of the goals.
Standing sections are popular in European (and some U.S.) stadiums, offering a place for the most ardent fans to gather. Members of team supporter groups like the Dark Clouds — who obsessively follow Minnesota United in the North American Soccer League — rarely use seats anyway, so the design caters to them. (The standing sections, sometimes called terraces, will likely have railings to separate the crowd and protect fans from the sort of mass crowd movements that once plagued such setups.)
The stadium cost was estimated by McGuire to be “a lot, $150 million or more.” That is compared to earlier estimates of $120 million. And it will seat upwards of 23,500 supporters, including the 3,000 spaces in the standing section. “Our conceptual idea was to bring a facility to the community that could stand up to what anyone thought was a great and wonderful facility,” said McGuire.
As per the ownership group’s pledge, the team will pay to build, operate and maintain the stadium, even though it will be given to the city once completed.
McGuire, a former CEO of UnitedHealth Group, was joined at the announcement by St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman.
“From the beginning we have said this is not just about soccer,” said Coleman. “This is not just about a stadium. This is about redevelopment.”
Coleman estimated that the taxes that would be collected when the redevelopment of the RK Midway is completed could be 10 to 12 times what is collected on the property currently. The St. Paul City Council will consider a development agreement between the city and the team at its meeting next Wednesday.
In addition to the stadium plans, development plans for the remainder of the 35-acre site were also unveiled. Rick Birdoff, who owns the ’60s-era shopping complex known as RK Midway, showed what he hopes it will become: a mixed-use neighborhood of midrise buildings in lieu of the big-box stores and fast-food outlets that now occupy the property at the intersection of University Avenue and Snelling Avenue.
At the center of the development — stretching from University Avenue to the entrance of the stadium — would be two large parks that would remain open space. City officials said Wednesday it is possible that at a later date the park land would be given to the city but still maintained by the team and Birdoff. There is also a possibility, said city Finance Director Todd Hurley, to eventually exempt that portion of the site from property taxes. As of now, the city will ask the Legislature to exempt only the land beneath the stadium. In addition, the city will ask lawmakers to exempt the project from sales taxes on construction material and to provide a liquor license to the stadium.
11 months, two cities, three governments
The release of the renderings comes 11 months after the announcement that Major League Soccer had awarded an expansion franchise to Minnesota United. That announcement was made at Target Field in Minneapolis, near the site initially proposed for the site of a new stadium, the Minneapolis Farmers Market.
That deal fell apart — or never actually came together — after opposition from Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges to the two tax breaks sought by the team. There was also a lukewarm-to-hostile reaction from state legislative leaders.
The team’s attention turned to St. Paul as early as May of 2015. After visits from to league officials, the announcement for a tentative deal to play in St. Paul was made Oct. 23. Putting the land deal and construction agreement together led to a three-government arrangement involving the Port Authority of St. Paul, the city and the Met Council, with the Federal Transit Administration and the state playing supporting roles.
That deal received its first approval Wednesday when the Met Council moved forward with finalizing a long-term land lease with the city. In a Monday briefing about the terms of the lease, Met Council’s Lucy Ferguson Galbraith said the land deal is structured to ensure that the property continues to benefit transit. The lease of the land — purchased with Federal Transit Administration grants — will be for 50 years with lease payments of $556,620 a year.
The long-term lease will actually be between Met Council and the City of St. Paul. The city will in turn enter into a shorter-term sublease with the owners of the team. Once the stadium is built, it will be owned by the city. Senior city officials have said the team will make lease payments to the city, which will in effect be reimbursed for the rent it will pay to the Met Council.
According to the deal between the Met Council and the city, the rent will begin being charged on April 1 of this year, but will not be paid until the first game is played in the new stadium, sometime in the early spring of 2018.
‘A lawyer’s dream’
Galbraith said the Met Council will cover no ongoing costs on the stadium site but will be responsible for environmental remediation on the land, which was used as a bus-storage and maintenance facility until 2002, and has since been used for construction staging for the Green Line light rail line and the A Line bus rapid transit service.
The cost of that environmental cleanup, capped at $4.5 million, will be shared with the city, which will cover up to $1.5 million of the costs. Both governments hope to be at least partly reimbursed from state and federal environmental cleanup grants, Galbraith said. The Port Authority of St. Paul will serve as the project manager for the remediation work.
A recent change in plans for the stadium has moved its location slightly to the east and the north, onto land now owned by Birdoff. According to pending agreement between the team and the city, Minnesota United will purchase the land it needs from Birdoff and give it to the city.
Birdoff said Wednesday he also will seek to sublease from the city land on the western edge of the bus barn site, along Snelling, for additional commercial development. That land would not be part of the city’s request for tax exemption and would be required to pay so-called PILOT taxes (payment in lieu of taxes), which are equal to what would be paid if the private building was on private land.
Birdoff quipped about the complexity of the transactions needed to put the project together. “It’s a lawyers’ dream,” he said.
He expects the first development to be an office building with ground-floor retail at the corner of Snelling and University Avenues. He said United Property, whose owners, the Pohlads, are also part of the team ownership group, will likely be involved in that development. The building will not be built until tenants are lined up, Birdoff said, but that there is interest in the project from them.
On Monday, the City of St. Paul issued something called the Scoping Environmental Assessment Worksheet, which sets out what will studied as part of the environmental review of both the bus barn and the shopping center. People can submit comments suggesting additional development scenarios and other issues that should be studied.