Residents worry as pro soccer officials eye St. Paul Midway site

MLS executive Mark Abbott
Mark Abbott, a Twin Cities native and president of Major League Soccer, answered questions from reporters at CHS Field in St. Paul about the possibility of a new soccer stadium in the city's Midway area Tuesday.
Laura Yuen | MPR News

Residents of St. Paul's Midway neighborhood are watching closely as the city dangles a property at Interstate 94 and Snelling Avenue as a possible soccer stadium site.

Tuesday night, they raised both concerns and hopes for the project.

Just a few hundred feet from where St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman showed Major League Soccer President and Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott the site of a potential new soccer stadium, people who live in the area gathered around tables and talked through the pros and cons of the development.

There were questions about sound, about adding density and quite a few concerns about traffic.

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Eric Molho chairs a task force that's trying to figure out how to develop a place that everyone calls the Bus Barn site. It was where Metro Transit had a garage, but now it's mostly a vacant lot.

"Things are moving very quickly, it appears, particularly from the stadium perspective," Molho said. "So we're very nervous that things could quickly result in a proposal that's a done deal without having taken the opportunity to ask the neighborhood."

Just a few months ago, the Minnesota United soccer team — led by owner Bill McGuire — made a pitch to build a stadium in Minneapolis. The proposal didn't get suitable financing before a July 1 deadline — so the group started talking to St. Paul.

St. Paul's pitch? Put the stadium on a 10-acre plot owned by the Metropolitan Council. The plot is adjacent to an even larger, 25-acre area with several strip malls and stores.

Molho said he wants the city to take input from neighborhood residents on development there.

"We hope and we believe that the neighborhood has an opportunity to influence those decisions," he said. "Certainly, we're not going to have any influence if don't at least put our concerns on the table."

Stephanie Digby, who lives in the Hamline-Midway area of town, worries the city is moving too fast. She's concerned that the stadium will get property tax breaks. But she's most worried about the traffic.

"It's only going to get worse: 18,000 people all coming out at the same time?" she said. "It's a residential neighborhood with some strip malls. You can't do it, you can't do it to the neighborhood."

Twin Cities soccer booster and coach Buzz Lagos disagrees. Lagos once led the now-defunct Minnesota Thunder soccer club.

"There's ways to overcome a lot of the problems that some people foresee," Lagos said. "I think this can be really different. This could really be a building that brings the community together. They rally around it and take part in different events at this stadium and the stadium somehow engages the whole community."

That was the message St. Paul Mayor Coleman gave reporters earlier in the day, as he showed the MLS president the new Saints stadium. Coleman credits the ballpark with helping revitalize Lowertown.

The city has long wanted to fix up its Midway neighborhood, too.

City Councilman Russ Stark represents the ward across the street from the possible stadium site. In the past, he's heard some in the neighborhood say they'd like high-density, transit-oriented development and outdoor public space.

"The thing that most interests me about the stadium concept honestly is the potential for expediting the remainder of the site," Stark said.

Pro soccer president Abbott told reporters Tuesday that he has not closed the door on developing a stadium in Minneapolis, but said MLS is not trying to play one twin city off the other.