A lot of people in the western half of the metro area have argued that it is obvious that the best place for a new Major League Soccer stadium is in the city of Minneapolis.
Had Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges just shown some leadership, the story goes, that’s where it would be going. Instead, it looks headed to the long-vacant site of a streetcar maintenance shop along the freeway in St. Paul.
Maybe on this project the public officials of Minneapolis really did miss a wide-open net on a free kick. But you couldn’t help but wonder if the case for putting it in the city wasn’t mostly driven by the fact that it would be closer to the west metro homes of far more of the swells who think of themselves as the region’s “thought leaders.”
If it’s about picking the best open site, the right call really is a transit-connected piece of real estate that sits in an area of the Twin Cities that for generations has been called the Midway. The municipality in which it lies just happens to be St. Paul.
It’s not like there was no real estate case to be made for the proposed Minneapolis site, behind Target Field and near the Minneapolis Farmers Market. It’s close to an entertainment district and many new apartments filled with young professionals.
On the other hand, the site is also smack in the middle of one of those areas just outside of downtown that’s really meant to be passed through quickly, or maybe passed over. It’s clear that’s what the highway planners of 40 or 50 years ago had in mind when they laid out the roads.
Looking up from the Farmers Market, Interstate 94 doesn’t look like a neighborhood asset. It looks more like a massive concrete fence.
Even the transit access in Minneapolis came with an asterisk. Right next to where the soccer stadium was supposed to go is a planned station of the Southwest light-rail line. At this point, though, it’s probably safer to write “if the Southwest light-rail line opens” rather than “when.”
And while it’s certainly true that the Minnesota Twins’ gleaming ballpark is just a short walk away, the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center is an even closer walk. And yes, it’s still called the garbage burner.
This is the way a colleague described this area earlier this year: “Long isolated by freeways, dead-end roads and a railroad trench, the area is a quiet home for businesses that make modern life possible — selling store fixtures, uniforms, auto parts, electronic components and heating and air-conditioning systems.”
To be fair, the area around the proposed site for soccer over in St. Paul, at Snelling Avenue and I-94, isn’t known as a garden district. The simplest way to describe much of that site today is simply vacant lot.
But at a minimum, the road and transit systems have been set up to get people to this location, not quickly get them through it or around it. And it’s hard to beat putting a metro-wide attraction in an area known as the Midway.
It would be a little over 22 miles’ drive to the Maple Grove government center in the northwest Minneapolis suburbs. In the opposite direction, the city hall of Cottage Grove lies at the other end of a 21-mile drive.
Fans driving from the east side of the metro area will exit I-94 at Hamline Avenue. Fans from the west will get off at Snelling Avenue, just like they do now to get to the Minnesota State Fair.
That’s if fans choose to drive. We know from fans of Major League Soccer in other cities that they will be far younger than fans of other major sports and far more likely to be first- or second-generation immigrants. That suggests a lot of them here will get to the stadium on transit.
In Oregon, home to the popular Portland Timbers soccer franchise, the regional transit system estimates that about 45 percent of fans get to the matches on public transportation.
Fans could get to the St. Paul stadium easily on the light-rail Green Line, stepping out of the cars at a University Avenue station that’s about as convenient as the light-rail station now dropping football fans at TCF Bank Stadium. Last fall the Metro Transit agency said up to one in four fans were taking the Green Line to Minnesota Vikings games.
The soccer site here will also be served by the first arterial bus rapid transit line in the Twin Cities. Coming in 2016, it will really be a new form of transit service for this region. It will have stations and a ticketing experience that’s a little like light rail, and on buses that look a little like train cars.
Fans can climb aboard in south Minneapolis, cross into St. Paul and up Snelling Avenue to the stadium, or come down Snelling from suburban Roseville. Having fewer stops than a conventional bus line is one way Metro Transit plans to make it a quicker ride, but one of the planned stops happens to be right at the proposed site for the soccer stadium.
The biggest selling point to the St. Paul site is not transit or its central location, though. It’s its size. It’s about three times bigger than the proposed site in Minneapolis, at about 35 acres. It’s a very big blank canvas for the team and its partners to create whatever kind of gameday experience they think fans will want.
A new soccer stadium in the Midway is not a done deal yet, of course. What appears to be necessary next is for the soccer league to close its deal with the local group in line to get the new major league franchise, led by investor Bill McGuire.
McGuire was familiar with the Snelling Avenue site from having given it a close look a couple of years back, but a lot of work still has to get done between now and the grand opening of any new stadium. Hopefully that work goes well, because if a new MLS stadium doesn’t happen there, it’s certainly far from a sure bet that a stadium project re-emerges in Minneapolis. It’s just as likely to go to a place like Miami.
That, of course, would be worse than any location in St. Paul.