Soccer stadium in Boston remains elusive goal for Kraft
All it took was one comment from a Miami businessman to revive a question some local sports fans have asked for more than a decade: Why doesn’t Boston have a soccer stadium?
In an interview last week, Jorge Mas, co-owner of Miami’s new Major League Soccer franchise, said New England Revolution owner Robert Kraft will soon build a long-planned stadium “near, or next to, Boston Garden.”
“They’re in,” Mas told the Miami Herald.
The Krafts, whose team helped launch MLS in 1996, have searched for a stadium site for years — including in Somerville, Roxbury, and Dorchester, among other places. So far, it’s failed to score.
But why? Blame it on Boston’s costly and complex real estate market, its thorny neighborhood politics, and the economics of stadiums in a city where taxpayer-funded subsidies are a tough sell.
No one has built an outdoor stadium in the core of Boston since the Braves opened Braves Field (now Nickerson Field) in 1915, and if the Krafts succeed in doing so, they certainly aren’t likely to put it in the crowded blocks around TD Garden. (Boston College’s Alumni Stadium, at the city’s border in Brighton, opened in 1957).
A spokesman for the family shot down the Miami report, saying there’s no news on the stadium front, and a spokeswoman for Mayor Martin J. Walsh said city officials haven’t met with the Krafts about a stadium in more than a year.
Regardless, the rumor was cheered by Revs fans on social media and fan websites.
For 22 years, they’ve been traveling to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, 27 miles from downtown, to watch their team play. The stadium was built for 66,000 New England Patriots football fans, not a soccer crowd that averages one-third that size. Meanwhile, 16 of the MLS’s 23 teams have built soccer-specific stadiums, designed with overhangs and close-to-the-action seats that trap sound and help make a modest-size crowd sound massive. The newest one opened this month in Washington, D.C., where D.C. United spent more than $400 million to build cozy Audi Field.
There have been glimmers of hope for fans of the local team that they, too, might one day have a stadium to call their own. Last fall, Revolution co-owner Jonathan Kraft said the organization was “as optimistic as we’ve ever been” about securing a Boston site for a stadium. Wednesday, following Mas’s comment, Kraft told radio station 98.5 The Sports Hub he was confident the team and the Walsh administration could, finally, pull off the project.
“We really have been working very diligently on it,” said Kraft, who through a spokesman declined an interview request from the Globe. “We will get the stadium done.”
A few years ago, when they were considering a site near UMass Boston, the Krafts hired investment bank Goldman Sachs to devise a financing plan and brought on Populous, an architecture firm behind soccer stadiums from Sydney to Houston.
But moving beyond the conceptual stage will be a challenge. The Red Sox considered replacing Fenway Park for more than a decade before current owner John Henry — who also owns The Boston Globe — began a series of renovations in 2002 to instead upgrade the existing ballpark. TD Garden, home to the Celtics and Bruins, took nearly 30 years to get done, from its conception in the mid-1960s to the indoor arena’s 1995 opening.
“You’re building a retail operation, a food court, a TV studio, and an advertising platform,” said Larry Moulter, who spearheaded the new Garden project and is now an executive-in-residence at UMass Boston. “Outside, you’ve got neighborhood issues, taxes, traffic to deal with. It’s like a multiple-corner shot in pool.”
A soccer stadium also would require a lot of land— 10 to 20 acres, real estate experts say — in a white-hot market. That makes it difficult to justify the economics of a facility that will sit empty most of the year, especially compared with potentially more lucrative uses such as office and retail development.
The Krafts were among rumored bidders for the former Flower Exchange in the South End, a 5.6-acre parcel that fetched more than $40 million in 2015. Its buyer, The Abbey Group, is planning an office complex that is expected to cost $1 billion or more. Other locations for a stadium that were once under consideration — such as Assembly Square in Somerville and the old railyards now known as Cambridge Crossing — are being turned into huge complexes stuffed with shops and restaurants, office buildings, and housing.
Talks with UMass Boston about a stadium on the site of the former Bayside Expo Center broke off early last year amid concerns from South Boston officials about traffic and tough negotiations with the Boston Teachers Union, which owns a key parcel next door.
The latest speculation centers on Widett Circle — a 20-acre food distribution center tucked between South Boston and the South End where planners envisioned a stadium for the 2024 Olympics — and an adjacent 18-acre public works and tow lot owned by the city.
The New Boston Food Market, a wholesalers cooperative that owns Widett Circle, put the site up for sale and will soon decide between a handful of bidders, sources familiar with the deal say. It’s not clear whether the Krafts are working with any of those potential buyers.
The tow lot, just to the north, has better access to the Fourth Street bridge and the nearby Broadway Red Line stop, which could make it more appealing for a stadium. But it’s also home to much of the city’s transportation and public works departments. The Walsh administration recently hired planning firm Utile to study how those services might be improved or operated somewhere else, with recommendations due later this year. In a recent interview, Walsh said there are no plans to turn the public works yard into a soccer palace.
“Not right now,” he said. “If we found the place, potentially, we would have to go through a community process and see what the community thinks about it.”
Neighborhood opposition has stymied past proposals for stadiums in the city. In the mid-1990s, South Boston residents and elected officials helped shoot down Kraft’s plans for a Patriots stadium in what is now the Seaport district. They also helped quash Kraft’s soccer plans for Bayside.
Residents of almost any neighborhood would be expected to initially react with skepticism to a stadium proposal, Moulter said. That makes community outreach, and political leadership, crucial, he said. If Walsh is on board, said Moulter, Kraft could finally stand a good chance of getting his stadium.
“The stars are beginning to align more favorably than they have in 10 years,” he said.