Friday, September 28, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

Petitioners seek public vote on city’s soccer stadium deal

The activist group that worked to derail the city’s CodeNEXT land use code update has set its sights on preventing the construction of a 20,000-seat soccer stadium in North Austin.

IndyAustin has started gathering signatures on petitions that would call for a referendum and voter approval of any use of city property – in this case the tract known as McKalla Place – for the construction of the stadium that is intended to be the eventual home site of a Major League Soccer club beginning in 2021. In August City Council voted 7-4 to direct the city manager to finalize a lease agreement with soccer ownership group Precourt Sports Ventures that will see the group pay roughly $8 million in rent over 20 years to use the property for the privately financed stadium.

The petition asks signees to “support a proposed ordinance by initiative requiring that any sale, lease, conveyance, mortgage, or alienation of City-owned land for a sports facility, sports arena, and/or concert stadium shall require City Council and voter approval before it can become effective.”

The group is working to gather 20,000 signatures to put the question on the ballot in May 2019.

The possible ballot initiative is not the only possible hurdle to a soccer club coming to Austin. The Travis County Commissioners Court recently voted to have its legal department look into the possibility of a legal challenge to the city preventing the county and other entities – including the city itself – from collecting property taxes on the parcel following the construction of a stadium expected to cost more than $200 million.

Local attorney Bill Aleshire, one of the organizers of IndyAustin, has also informed the city he intends to file a lawsuit against the city as soon as the lease deal is finalized.

“Lawsuit will happen if the City Manager signs a contract with the terms approved by the 7-4 Council vote,” Aleshire wrote in an email.

“The petitioned-ordinance could be effective after a May election. When it becomes effective, if there has not been an approved Precourt site plan approved by then, then the site plan requires a 3/4 vote of Council and voter approval. If the County succeeds in challenging Precourt’s tax exemption, my understanding is that Precourt will withdraw their proposal. Bottom line: Precourt and (Mayor Steve) Adler should not pop the Champagne cork just yet.”

Representatives from Precourt Sports Ventures did not respond to a request for comment on the petition drive and possibility of a public vote on the stadium deal. That group is looking to relocate the Columbus Crew SC team to Austin from Ohio, where an ongoing lawsuit from the city and state has caused further questions about the fate of what would be Austin’s first professional sports team.

Months of debate preceded the Council vote in August, with neighborhood groups near McKalla calling for the city to conduct a full request for proposal process to allow hopeful developers to submit their plans, almost all of which would have brought a mix of housing and property tax revenue to the city.

In a prepared statement, Francoise Luca, president of the Gracywoods Neighborhood Association, said the city gave preferential treatment to PSV beginning last fall when owner Anthony Precourt first publicly floated the possibility of moving the team to Austin.

“It is outrageous that the Mayor has facilitated this special deal while homeowners are expected to carry the burden of increased property taxes in a city that’s unaffordable as it is,” she said. “The stadium deal is the biggest corporate subsidy in Austin history, and voters should have a say if the Mayor and City Council shifts the tax burden away from a billionaire business owner and onto our local businesses, homeowners and renters.”

Council Member Leslie Pool, who was the most vocal critic of the stadium proposal, said the petition points to ongoing dissatisfaction with the terms of the lease agreement.

“The text of the petition reveals continuing public reservations about the city giving publicly owned land to a private business,” she said. “It speaks to a desire for full disclosure and transparency, and I echo that concern.”

Rendering of the proposed soccer stadium courtesy of Gensler, TBG and CAA ICON.

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