The city’s elected leaders approved a plan two years ago that envisioned a sports arena on the southern end of downtown Raleigh, making it clear they like the idea of an entertainment venue.
This week, the North Carolina Football Club announced it wants to build a $150 million soccer stadium downtown – but on the northern edge, where Raleigh’s 10-year growth plan calls for “small, sensitive adjustments to the existing neighborhood fabric.”
While the stadium plan conflicts with Raleigh’s vision, the city would have no control and little input over the project if it is built on state-owned property as proposed. The club wants to lease 13 acres off Peace Street across from Seaboard Station from the state government.
“The state can exempt itself from any and all (city) zoning regulations,” said Ken Bowers, Raleigh’s planning director, adding that Raleigh wouldn’t have a say over architectural design but could play a role in upgrades to roads and sidewalks.
If a stadium were built on private land, it would require a city-approved special-use permit, public hearings, approval from the City Council and generally a “higher level of public scrutiny,” Bowers said.
So far, Raleigh’s elected leaders aren’t saying whether they support the specifics of the stadium plan.
It is clear, though, that a sports arena won’t be built on the spot listed in the city’s downtown plan, which shows renderings of a venue about three blocks south of Red Hat Amphitheater. That site has since been purchased by Exploris School, which plans to build a new campus there.
Some residents in the Mordecai and Oakwood neighborhoods near NCFC’s proposed stadium site would surely welcome a professional soccer team, said Councilman Russ Stephenson.
“Others more interested in the enjoyment of their quiet neighborhood may feel this is going to bring a lot of new development impacts,” he said. “Peace (Street) is pretty tightly constrained as it is. Getting in and out would be a huge challenge.”
NCFC owner Steve Malik has said public money wouldn’t be used to build the stadium, but he sent a letter to state lawmakers on Tuesday saying he anticipates that Wake County, Raleigh and the state Department of Transportation would “contribute infrastructure improvements to provide expanded and appropriate transportation corridors to service the community.”
It’s unclear how much those improvements would cost, or whether the city, county and state would be on board.
“This is common in significant private investments like the one we are proposing,” Marco Rosa, the club’s spokesman, said of the mention of public help. “As we stated yesterday, this letter is simply our ask. We’re in the early stages of the process and a lot of details need to be worked out.”
Mayor Nancy McFarlane said she wouldn’t take a position on the proposal until she reviews more details.
“All economic development plans have pluses and minuses,” McFarlane said. “They have to be evaluated on the potential economic value versus the cost to the taxpayer.”
The Wake County Board of Commissioners earlier this year adopted a resolution supporting a local MLS team. Wake is in charge of funding bus and rail systems, which could play a role in discussions about traffic.
Commissioner John Burns said he wouldn’t spend money on a stadium when the school system needs money. But he said he would be willing to fund requested infrastructure improvements because they would help better connect the region and benefit the community.
“If this project somehow returns all those properties to the tax rolls, which currently have state government parking decks and contribute nothing, then let’s figure out a way to do it because that helps us build schools,” Burns said.
“If this project gets a northbound commuter line built more quickly, then by gosh we’ll try to get a northbound commuter line built more quickly, because we need it anyway,” he added.
Unlike the plan in Raleigh, Charlotte might spend $30 million in taxpayer money to help pay for a new $175 million soccer stadium. Charlotte and the Triangle are among 12 cities trying to get four spots in Major League Soccer’s expansion. Some Charlotte leaders are struggling with the wisdom of spending on the project.
In Raleigh, NCFC hasn’t provided estimates on how much public money it might need, including to accommodate bus systems, shuttles and bicycles that visit the stadium.
City staffers have only engaged in “introductory meetings” with club owners, Raleigh spokesman Damien Graham said.
“In those meetings, NCFC did not make any formal requests of the City,” Graham said in an email. “Now that NCFC’s vision has been identified, we are open to further discussions to learn more about the project.”
The state would have to agree to lease the 13-acre site for the stadium plan, which also includes new office space, residential units, hotel rooms and retail. NCFC wants to partner with Kane Realty for the project.
Last year, the state put part of its property on Peace Street up for sale, and LODEN Properties offered $4.85 million for a roughly 2-acre site. But the sale fell through, partly because it was lumped in with a separate developer’s controversial plan to buy Caswell Square, one of five squares laid out in the original plan for Raleigh in 1792.
That proposal drew plenty of criticism, and the state pulled the plug on both plans.
Russ Jones, a partner with LODEN, said his company had planned to build apartments and retail space on Peace Street. But he’s not upset, especially if it means Raleigh will get a soccer stadium.
“In this particular case, I’m thrilled this didn’t work out, because I would love to see a stadium there,” he said.