Professional soccer is coming to Minneapolis, probably.
Sports Illustrated reported last week that Minnesota United is likely the next addition to Major League Soccer. This is exciting news for many. For others, it brings up the question: do we need another stadium?
I'll leave the politics to Alex Schieferdecker. Instead, I wanted to ask a different question: Should Minneapolis build an urban soccer stadium?
History has shown us that downtowns are great for stadiums, but stadiums aren't always great for downtowns. If this dynamic was a Facebook relationship status it would read "It's complicated." To use myself as an example: As a fan, I would much rather see an urban stadium. Yet, as an urbanist, the suburbs may be better suited.
In many ways, Minnesota sports fans are lucky. Let me rephrase that: Minnesota sports fans are lucky we don't have any mega suburban sports stadiums (tax bills aside). This reality becomes abundantly clear when you visit a stadium that isn't located within a downtown.
I had the pleasure of escaping the bitter Minnesota winter and visiting Florida's Gulf Coast. Conveniently, my beloved Minnesota Twins were in nearby Fort Myers for spring training and I picked up last minute tickets for the nearly sold-out game.
Hammond Stadium is a nicely designed small park that's lovely on a 70 degree Florida night. It fits a good crowd without being too crowded. But, there's a problem with the atmosphere outside the stadium; it's a suburban stadium in arguably one of America's most suburban cities.
Hammond Stadium is a long drive from nearly everywhere. You'll find yourself dodging "Florida Drivers" along the five lane stroad until you hit the Little League fields. A volunteer will take your $10 and instruct you which field to park on (important tangent, it is oddly exciting to drive and park on a baseball field). Then you've got a long walk through another parking lot. The view is good, in so much as you don't look left or right.
I must thank Fort Myers for allowing me to truly appreciate Target Field.
As a fan, the experience of the suburban stadium feels restrictive. It's a business model designed to capture every dollar akin to airport retail; you've gone through security so you're stuck with the flimsy $11 turkey sandwich and $4 bottle of Diet Coke. This model thrives in the suburban environment where a team can better monopolize parking revenues, food and beverage, and other miscellaneous sales, such as t-shirts, hats, and over-sized foam "#1" fingers. While it's a good business model, these stadiums operate as a near monopoly; prices are often higher and food choices lacking.
It's clear that the fan experience just doesn't compare to a good urban stadium, which when done well, puts the team on display as much as it puts the city on display. It is this element that is so appealing to city leadership. Yet, there is a dark side to urban stadiums. If they are built in a way that isn't context-sensitive, they're a mixed bag when it comes to urbanism, city finances, and future development.
Professional stadiums can be isolating places. Look around the former Metrodome (or the Xcel Center in St. Paul), they haven't produced great land use results. Stadiums, more times than not, neutralize the space around them and kill the streetscapes. Famous British urbanist, Charles Landry, once commented on Minnesota Public Radio regarding the Vikings stadium back in 2012;
"In general, stadia neutralize the space around them and kill the city- as an urban construct ... So really, the question is to think through in a physical sense - how the stadium is helping foster that sense that we're in a city, rather than there's a point occasionally where an event happens." [MPR]
The funding of stadiums is also controversial. In an era of limited municipal resources, it begs the question of priority. Furthermore, downtown stadiums that don't get financing will typically be tax exempt and take valuable downtown real estate off the property tax rolls.
I have been skeptical of stadiums for quite some time [you can read about it here, here, and here]. Stadiums are inherently a suburban style land use imposed on an urban core. Yet, this outcome still feels better than having stadiums in the suburbs.
Urban stadiums provide a much better all-around experience. It is for this reason that you can't blame anyone for wanting a stadium to co-exist amongst the exciting urban revival of most major American cities. That is to say, there appears to be something more to sports than just sport.
Yet, it's difficult to make the argument that city's always win-win by having an urban stadium. Their bottom-line may be better for something else. On all of these matters, there are always trade-offs; and it will be interesting to see where the Minnesota United will land.