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Dramatic Major League Soccer stadium plan faces dramatic challenges

An artist’s rendering of what a Major League Soccer stadium in downtown Raleigh might look like if North Carolina Football Club plans for a public-private partnership to build the facility come to be.
An artist’s rendering of what a Major League Soccer stadium in downtown Raleigh might look like if North Carolina Football Club plans for a public-private partnership to build the facility come to be. Courtesy of North Carolina Football Club

The renderings are dazzling. The potential is staggering. The logistics are foreboding.

As dramatic as Wednesday’s unveiling of plans for a new soccer stadium off Peace Street in downtown Raleigh was, actually getting the thing built could create even more drama.

Because the fate of the gorgeous, $150 million stadium – the keystone of North Carolina FC’s MLS expansion bid – and everything it could do for downtown now hinges on the whim of the N.C. General Assembly, which will have to sanction the sale of the state land where the stadium will go while welcoming a new, imposing neighbor to the state government campus.

North Carolina FC has hired a lobbyist and, working in partnership with North Hills developer John Kane, can dangle $750 million in development including two new office buildings for the state, but getting the fractious, contentious, capricious legislature to agree on anything is never easy.

“The tenor so far has been good,” NCFC president Curt Johnson said. “We’ve gotten to the point where we felt comfortable publicly showing our preferred site.”

This is a considerable pivot for NCFC owner Stephen Malik, who originally proposed and was seriously considering a non-downtown site that would have required little government buy-in of this sort. As plans moved forward, though, Malik said the push for downtown was too strong. This is what he wanted, what his fans wanted, what MLS wanted, all along.

“Part of the challenge was that as downtown Raleigh leaders heard about our plans, there was a groundswell of support for putting the stadium downtown,” Malik said. “There was some belief that if we had a downtown stadium there would be a lot of additional development around it and it would help catalyze us to take our place on the next level.

“So many people jumped on board with helping us, we really had to give that some attention. Frankly, it’s the harder path, right? There are more challenges in working through the downtown option. But we’ve chosen to take on that challenge, because so many people believe it’s the right thing for Raleigh.”

Working out the land is one challenge. Another, in that location, is traffic. By the time it’s actually built – 2020 at the earliest, but probably a few years later than that – there should be enough progress with the Capital Boulevard corridor and Wake Transit’s planned rail system to alleviate some of those issues, or at least that’s the hope.

“By the time this is up and running, that transit plan will be much further along than it is now and I think people will be able to get in and out of downtown a lot more easily than they can now,” Wake County commissioner John Burns said.

Then there’s what to do with all those cars once they get downtown. Parking should be fine for weekend events, somewhat troublesome on weeknights, issues faced by downtown arenas and stadiums worldwide, whether there’s robust public transit or not.

But all of that is putting the jam before the traffic at this point.

There are two big hurdles here. The first, the MLS expansion process, is nothing new. No matter how promising the Triangle’s bid may be, it faces stiff competition from 11 other cities that have been working on this for years and have compelling cases to make. The second, the legislature, is a complete wild card, given the complicated partisan and urban-rural dynamics at play in the General Assembly.

Beyond that, there’s a lot to like about the site and the vision for the stadium. The renderings by Gensler, the architecture firm behind the new MLS stadium in Los Angeles and Toronto’s BMO Field, are flashy and modern. If there’s a complaint, it’s that the stadium is a bit lacking in unique character, a little could-be-anywhere. But just about anything would look good in that spot, and this plan does.

That corner of downtown has always been underwhelming, and some of the state buildings aren’t exactly state of the art at this point. The spillover effect, west toward Glenwood South into Smoky Hollow, has the potential to kickstart an entire segment of downtown that have been passed by in recent years.

“You can’t help but be overwhelmed,” MLS president Mark Abbott said, although he later clarified his comments to say he found the vision for the comprehensive nature of the redevelopment compelling.

Downtown Raleigh has always needed something like this – a cornerstone, a social focal point – and if the timing wasn’t right when the Carolina Hurricanes got here, it certainly is now.

The right timing, though, is the easy part.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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