The Crew want to move to Austin – but does Austin want the Crew?

Tom Dart in Austin on 21 February 2018

It could have been the day when the Columbus Crew’s planned move to the Texan capital evolved from possible to probable.

Instead, 20 local activists gathered at the lectern during last Thursday’s Austin city council meeting and demanded that one of the team’s preferred stadium sites be ruled out. They brandished placards pleading: Save Guerrero Park. Such vocal dissent is complicating the already messy attempt to relocate one of Major League Soccer’s original clubs from Ohio to Texas. A couple of weeks ago, protests scuppered Crew ownership’s hopes of building an MLS stadium at Butler Shores, an enviable location that’s easy staggering distance from downtown’s ever-expanding throng of bars - not to mention restaurants, hotels, offices and glassy high-rise apartment blocks.

Attention switched three miles east to another public parkland site along the banks of the Colorado river. Here, next to woodland on Pleasant Valley Road, are softball fields, administrative offices, parking lots and a fire department training tower. And views of water and the downtown skyline that would be telegenic and seductive for fans if those modest facilities are razed and replaced with a 20,000-seat venue. But a presentation of options to the council scheduled for last week was postponed after the Parks and Recreation Department asked for more time to conduct analyses, ensuring the process will drag on for months. The protestors took the opportunity to say their piece.

A Precourt Sports Ventures (PSV) representative was not available for comment. It is easy to imagine, though, that the CEO of the Crew’s ownership group would feel at home in Austin. After all, Anthony Precourt is based in San Francisco, another prosperous, fast-growing, youthful and liberal-leaning technology hub.
However dubious the sporting ethics of the Crew’s mooted relocation, there is a box-checking logic to bringing a professional side to the city, even if the Formula One circuit and the high-profile outfits of the University of Texas – notably the Longhorns football team, with their 100,000-capacity stadium – ensure there is no shortage of action.

“Austin is quickly becoming a very international destination city, it’s growing very fast, all of these people are coming typically from the coasts, New York, LA,” said Josh Babetski of the MLS in Austin supporters group as he sat in the bleachers behind one of Guerrero Park’s fields.

“Austin is lacking those key art and entertainment venues for a populace that’s growing this big and ... wants to have these kind of services and opportunities. When you look at us not having a major league anything and soccer being really the only realistic candidate for that, it really feels like a no-brainer to support bringing that into the city.”

Austin appears to possess the same kind of demographic, cultural and economic ingredients that have made Portland and Seattle into MLS hotbeds – save, that is, for a storied soccer tradition.

It is one of the most rapidly expanding metropolitan areas in the country, now numbering more than two million people, having doubled in two decades. The region is more populous than San Jose, Nashville – just awarded an MLS franchise – and Columbus.

Austin is a huge college sports town - does it need an MLS team
Austin is a huge college sports town - does it need an MLS team? Photograph: USA Today Sports / Reuters/USA Today Sports

But Austin’s culture and politics breed anxieties about the environmental impact of big projects, a commitment to preserving green spaces and mistrust of pervasive corporate influence. A short walk from the park, workers in fluorescent vests swarmed over a lakeside site where the Silicon Valley giant, Oracle, is building an office campus surrounded by new apartment complexes targeted at young professionals – signs of the gentrification wave surging from the now-pricey centre of town to the cheaper south and east.

“They’re traditionally very affordable lower income neighbourhoods. Building a stadium there would speed up the gentrification and displacement of people that are there now,” said Bill Bunch of the Save Our Springs Alliance environmental advocacy group, which wants to protect public parkland from exploitation by for-profit companies.

Babetski, though, believes a stadium could spur growth that might benefit underprivileged areas. “I think it’s better to have a conversation about managing it better than it is to just try and dig your heels in and just stop it, because what is the alternative? Nothing’s ever going to move in here and rents are never going to go up? Those are just unrealistic plans.

“Build a better plan. Say, OK, great, we’re going to carve off this little bit of space and gentrify, but use some of the economic benefits of that to help other parts of the surrounding areas,” he said.

There are alternatives to Guerrero Park, but it would seem foolhardy to uproot the Crew avowedly because they struggle economically in Columbus without a downtown stadium, only to inject them 1,200 miles away into a characterless and distant suburb of a city that scorns blandness and has serious traffic problems.

Amid reports that the team could play in a temporary venue in 2019 and 2020 before a permanent stadium opens in 2021, PSV will be desperate to avoid the travails of David Beckham’s Miami ownership group, whose expansion franchise was announced last month. They spent four years seeking a home, initially focusing on a prime waterside setting before picking an inland site in the largely African American district of Overtown that is inspiring opposition from residents who fear congestion and being forced out by redevelopment.

Guerrero Park is east of Interstate 35, the freeway that historically has symbolised a dividing line between west, white, Austin, and the mainly black and Hispanic neighbourhoods on the other side. A racist strategy was formulated by city planners in the 1920s who plotted to shift African American people out of the centre.

“There is one side of the tracks and the other. It’s a history, and it’s a constructed history of systemic racism all over the country. And here we have our own version in just the fact that we have an east Austin,” said Daniel Llanes, an artist and activist, after the council meeting.

Llanes noted that the Butler proposal was quickly abandoned but the Guerrero Park idea is being taken seriously. “I’m not against the soccer stadium and all of the economic benefits that it would bring. What I don’t want is to locate it in Guerrero Park and I especially don’t want it if they’re protecting west Austin and they’re not protecting east Austin,” he said.

“The stadium would be a blight to a park that everybody around it worked so hard to create,” he added. “I’m a Chicano so my heritage is Native American, it’s earth, you know? So I go: why is it that white people cannot leave a space alone? They cannot leave a big open space with wildlife and trees and water and nature. They can’t just leave it alone, they want to pave it over.”

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