The MLS promenade: Whether Sacramento’s best step is toward downtown or the suburbs

Developers broke ground on Elk Grove’s Promenade Mall project in 2007, but it sits unfinished off of Highway 99.

The housing collapse led some observers to declare the end of suburban sprawl as the population gravitated back toward urban centers.

One of the high-water marks of that sprawl sits just off Highway 99 at the southern edge of Elk Grove. The Promenade Mall was intended to be a 1.1-million-square-foot outdoor shopping center when developers broke ground in 2007.

Six years later, it retains an open-air quality as wind sweeps through the skeletal structures of a project that halted in 2009. Surrounded by chain-link fences and no trespassing signs, hemmed in by brown fields stacked with hay bales, the Promenade Mall represents a failed past. Elk Grove’s mayor and city council hope it also provides promise for a successful future.

This spring, the city council unanimously voted to pursue acquiring land around the Promenade project to build a soccer stadium and lure a Major League Soccer team to the region. Using a combination of bonds, ticket sales, parking, naming rights and lease payments, Elk Grove sees the lure of MLS as its ticket to not only build a stadium, but also finish a mall.

* * *

Eighteen miles north of the Promenade project sits a similar unused stretch of land that represents a different viewpoint. In the rail yards behind the Amtrak station and the Robert T. Matsui Federal Courthouse in downtown Sacramento, backhoes occasionally push dirt back and forth as work continues. In July, the site changed hands, with local developer Larry Kelley buying it from a Illinois-based investment company.

This is one of the locations Warren Smith and his ownership group have identified for their own MLS dream. Smith and company own Republic FC, which begins play in USL Pro next summer. To the Republic FC group, the Promenade project is a warning, not an opportunity.

“The demographics that define MLS soccer tickets is 18-34,” Smith said. “This generation is living in the downtown core.”

Smith believes that entertainment options and existing infrastructure in the urban core make downtown stadiums more attractive destinations and more feasible.

* * *

So is the Promenade a warning or an opportunity?

Eighteen miles away from the Sacramento city center, the Elk Grove stadium would be further away from the urban core than all but two MLS stadiums — New England and Dallas, which are both 28 miles away from their respective downtown areas.

Of the top six teams in the MLS in attendance this season, five are less than five miles from their respective downtowns, and Houston, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver are each less than two miles from their urban cores.

This reflects an MLS trend. Four of the MLS’s last five expansion teams chose a location within five miles of downtown, and this trend goes beyond the MLS. Sixteen of the last 21 NFL stadiums were built in downtown districts.

But while the trend points toward downtown, suburban success stories are not necessarily from a bygone era.

Sporting Kansas City was built on the western edge of the city in the Legends Outlets, 15 miles from downtown. And yet fans still pack Sporting Park, which averages nearly 20,000 fans a game and has hosted 28 straight sellouts.

The Philadelphia Union built in Chester, Pa., 18 miles southwest of downtown, and has averaged about 18,000 fans a game during its first three MLS seasons.

Of course, Sporting Park — with a $200 million price tag — might be the nicest soccer stadium in North America and sits in a well-developed shopping center next to a NASCAR racetrack and minor league baseball stadium. It wasn’t the impetus for the development, but, rather, a nice addition. PPL Park in Chester has perhaps the best view in the MLS, with the Delaware River and the Commodore Barry Bridge providing the backdrop.

But when downtown stadium proponents make their case, they often point to FC Dallas as the cautionary tale.

When the FC Dallas Stadium opened in 2005, soccer-specific venues were the exception, not the norm, in the MLS. FC Dallas chose to build in Frisco, a far-flung, northwest suburb of Dallas. The land was cheap and plentiful, allowing FC Dallas to construct an entire soccer complex around the stadium that includes some of the nicest facilities in the MLS. However, the support hasn’t consistently matched the quality of the venue.

“(FC Dallas) wanted to have their own area to work with and build their brand in a city where it’s a family atmosphere,” said Kasey Baker, president of the Dallas Beer Guardians, the largest supporter group of FC Dallas. “It didn’t really work out for soccer. Not many people in Frisco are (all) about the team.”
Instead, people like Baker make the 35-minute commute to support FC Dallas. And while Baker said the city shows up in force for marquee games involving the LA Galaxy or the New York Red Bulls, the support isn’t consistent.

“It takes a lot of hard work to get 15,000 people in that stadium for Portland,” said Baker, who added that he and his fellow supporters often joke about airlifting the FC Dallas Stadium to the site of the old Texas Stadium in Irving, about eight miles from downtown Dallas.

A supporter of a suburban team, Baker is a believer in urban stadiums.

* * *

Jeremy Harden regularly commutes 30 minutes to watch soccer — on TV. The Elk Grove resident travels to Midtown for American Outlaws watch parties for the U.S. national team.

“I don’t think it’s that bad,” said Harden, who added that he thought Sacramento fans would make the reverse trip for live soccer.

Harden pointed out that Elk Grove’s vibrant soccer community would provide a solid foundation for an MLS team at the Promenade site, supplemented by the surrounding communities.

But believing a suburban situation could work is not the same thing as believing it’s the best option.

“If we have more fans in Sac, I wouldn’t mind driving,” Harden said. “Whatever is better for the fanbase.”

That gets to the core of the issue. The MLS could succeed in Elk Grove, thanks to Elk Grove’s extensive soccer community, coupled with the thousands of soccer fans in the region who no doubt would make the trip regardless of distance.

If the MLS and the Elk Grove stadium were a sure thing, then Elk Grove would be the better choice. After all, Smith and his group admit they still are looking at ways to finance a $100 million stadium in downtown Sacramento.

However, the Promenade sits as a reminder of what can happen to the best-laid plans, and this isn’t a competition between Smith’s group and the Elk Grove group for a MLS franchise. Building a stadium — whether at the Promenade site or downtown — is no guarantee of acquiring a team.

Orlando looks likely to become the MLS’s 21st franchise, and Miami is gaining steam as well. That leaves only two spots in MLS commissioner Don Garber’s stated goal of 24 MLS clubs by 2020.

Sacramento is competing against San Antonio, San Diego, North Carolina, Atlanta, Minneapolis, St. Louis and Indianapolis, among others. An abandoned mall project that sort of evokes a post-apocalyptic landscape on the southern edge of town does not bolster Sacramento’s bid.

Urban growth is finally outpacing suburban growth — both in Sacramento and in cities across the country. Kansas City is a unique situation, while in Chester, PPL Park — a gem in its own right — has done little to transform a surrounding community that has one of the highest poverty rates in Pennsylvania. PPL Park certainly isn’t a sparking mall construction, and attendance, while solid, has dropped in each of the Union’s three seasons in the league. The Union rank 11th in attendance this season in the 19-team MLS, with 17,543 fans a game.

Compared with the successes of downtown stadiums in Houston, Vancouver, Portland, and Vancouver, an urban option emerges as our best offer to bring the MLS to Sacramento.

As Baker noted, in Dallas, many of his supporter group’s members simply don’t come to every game because of the distance.

To best the other cities vying for an MLS expansion franchise, Sacramento needs every fan it can get to come out. A central location provides the best opportunity to achieve that goal.

  • The obvious solution is a downtown soccer specific stadium and a state of the art training ground, including indoor practice pitch, in Elk Grove. Win win for the rival groups bidding to become MLS team 23 or 24 These groups should be smart enough to know they must unite to survive or perish together ….There is really no other option for top flight soccer in Sacramento.

  • The writer says “The housing collapse led some observers to declare the end of suburban sprawl as the population gravitated back toward urban centers.”

    The population in the downtown grid has not changed in 7 years. Can the writer show us where the population has gravitated back toward urban center? At 7th & H the city has built a low rent midrise to house the cities down and out population. Not sure if thats the kind on neighbor most people to live next to.

    • I agree that building is a waste of money. We should be building low income housing in the burbs where its cheap. Not on prime down town land that will be worth allot one the rail yard and arena are built.

    • Ryan Schauland (f.k.a. ryuns)

      The evidence is clear that downtowns everywhere are reviving and becoming generally more pleasant places, but here are some statistics, which includes the Sac metro area.

    • I have lived on 7th street for 12 years.On the week-ends and after 6:30 during the week its like a ghost town around here.So I havent witnessed any “population gravitating back” especially families .with children.The Mercy building on 7th and H does provide housing and a clinic so I dont think its a waste of money.

    • I would also like to point out that the Elk Grove area is growing. There are still new residences being built and sold along Elk Grove Blvd, between Bruceville and Hwy 99. There is also the development underway just northwest of Elk Grove, along I-5, that will be bringing a lot of new residences in the Freeport area.

    • Bill Albertson

      Echoing Loochowmu’s sentiments, I and my family just moved away from midtown/downtown. There were no desirable public schools nearby. While having farmers’ markets in walking distance was nice, that was offset by ramshackle rental units at twice the rate per square foot compared to nearby areas, along with a dearth of family ready units. Home prices are ridiculously high for lacking the kind of environment that attracts families. Street crime had been a weekly and sometimes daily presence. Also, there was a huge surge in drug dealing and stolen goods traffic in our old neighborhood as well, which the police would *NOT* address.

      So, even with all of the good things about living in mid/downtown, it isn’t worth it with a family. I’m now in College Greens near a good school, paying less for twice the living space, and nobody has tried messing with our property or my wife or kid. I might consider “gravitating back”, but that would only be if my kid was grown and gone, and I was buying a place to live… wait, still too expensive, could just move to Davis instead.

    • William Burg

      The latest census in 2010 showed a drop of about 1000 people between 2000 and 2010 in the central city–but that represents the loss of several group quarters downtown, and the counts took place during the depths of the housing crisis. There has been an explosion of new infill growth in the central city, with more on the way. Unfortunately, almost none of it has been in the downtown core. That will hopefully change soon–there is a plan just submitted for 90 or so new houses on the north end of Alkali Flat atop the old Crystal Dairy site (single-family small lot homes, a lot like the existing Midtown housing stock if a bit less dense) so I wouldn’t be surprised to see a big jump in population by the 2020 census. We still have a long way to go to reach our 1950 downtown population…but a lot of that depends on getting rid of the “Not In My Business District” attitudes of the Downtown Partnership and Metro Chamber types.

    • Ryan Schauland (f.k.a. ryuns)

      Not sure what cherry-picking data about housing developments, prices, and demographics has to do with soccer. (There are plenty of developments in mid- and downtown to point to if one so desires. One could also point out that building more single family residential homes on the edge of town doesn’t make the point that it’s a better soccer town, but I digress.) The point was that an urban environment is where MLS wants to be. That’s where more of the fans with more disposable income want to live, that’s where the transportation options are better, that’s where you can support local businesses before/after games.

      Edit to add stats on urban vs suburban growth in cities around the country. Sac is included. Super limited time scale, but still kind of interesting:

    • Ryan Schauland (f.k.a. ryuns)

      That Crystal redevelopment was news to me. Sounds like a cool project.

  • Hugh mistake for FC Dallas. Strong fan base south of Dallas. North of Dfacingallas busy families with soccer chieastldren. HOTMarketing is still a WIP, TV broadcasting focussed on Latin community. Rarsurroucommunitiesoverage on local TV. And the list goes on. Dallas Cowboys are going to move practice field and headquarters to Frisco as of yesterday. Maybe a deal between the two teams. The FC Dallas facilities are world class. Academy program excellent. But fan draw, only strong when a team visiting brings leaders or famous player.

    Last issue is the temperatures during the season. The field’s goals are facing North and south, which leaves the east in the HOT sun. So most matches are played Saturdays @ 7:30PM. To late to draw the local communities.

  • Bread and circuses, people. Keep the masses fat dumb and happy with junk food and watching over-payed men play with balls, and they will let you control what really matters with nary a peep. Humans are so gullible.

    • With the average player’s salary in the range of $160,000 and the league minimum at less than $40,000 it is hard to say they are over-“payed.”

  • EG is not a real city. Its Urban sprawl Commuter land where everyone has 3 -4 cars and you cant walk anywhere. Its not central to anything and just south of the city is nothing. No one except for a few people in EG will go to the games.

    Like the author said, Soccer in America is watched by the young generation. They want to city in midtown and they don’t drive anywhere except for Tahoe or SF.

    • There are plenty of areas in Elk Grove with anything you could need in walking distance. I understand there are plenty of people who don’t even feel like walking to the curb to get their mail, but there are also plenty of us who don’t mind walking less than a mile for a shop.

      Also, I don’t know anyone personally in Elk Grove with more than two cars. Do you have any statistics on the number of cars owned in Elk Grove or was that just an attempt at a generalized jab?

    • I have zero data to back up my claim. It is based on my observations when I am forced to leave my palace of arrogance I purchased in Midtown and head down to the burbs.

  • James

    Whether its MLS, Triple A baseball or a new downtown entertainment and sports complex; it’s about much more than what goes on inside the arena/park or stadium. Personally I can’t stand baseball but I love the experience before during and after a River Cats game. I live in Sacramento’s Cabrillo Park (District 8). I’ll usually dine before a game and have a couple drinks after and many times I just make an evening out of it and stay at a hotel downtown. Elk Grove simply cannot provide the same kind of experience. Hopefully Warren Smith and MLS decide Sacramento would be the logical choice. There have been so many promises and dreams unrealized for the Rail Yard. A new MLS stadium would be a nice fit (somewhere on the 240 acres) if the ownership groups can find the property and a workable financing plan, downtown is where it belongs.

  • Liked what Bill Albertson said- thumbs up! :-)
    However- Davis is beautiful, rural, a college-town, and also an expensive place to live!
    And ParX- seriously doubt that “everyone in Elk Grove has 3-4 cars”-
    I grew up in Elk Grove and for the most part, people had 1 or 2 cars per family
    and if you had teens, with the exception of some spoiled kids, whom got brand new cars with they
    turned 16 from good ole mom and dad, most teens had to share the family vehicle or vehicles.

    • What often happened is that the teenager would get the “hand me down” car, older and sans costly collision insurance.

      Initially, parents would say “NO!” to a car, but after having to drive the teen to one too many extracurricular activities, evening shift jobs, and private school across town if the public one nearby was godawful, the parents threw in the metaphoric towel and decided to treat themselves to a new car.

      I know; I lived it. :-)

  • Ryan Schauland (f.k.a. ryuns)

    Rather than wade any further in to the treacherous city/suburb debate, I’ll limit my rant to make this comparison. The Sacramento contingent has a minor league team starting next year. They already had a kickoff event which attracted 14,000 fans to an exhibition game. They have a supporters group, with flags and bullhorns and membership fees. They’re already selling season tickets. They have a world-class coach and team manager. Warren Smith is long associated with probably the most successful minor league baseball team in history, which built a great stadium near the urban core with no taxpayer dollars. They’re building a fan base and a grassroots effort to convince the MLS to make Sac one of their new franchise teams.

    Elk Grove has a couple politicos and a promise to pour a bunch of taxpayer money into a stadium on the very edge of an urban area. But they do talk loudly enough to weigh on the MLS’s mind that we would not be a unified market.

  • Wait–there was no room for a basketball stadium in the Railyards plans, but there is room for a Soccer field?

    • Soccer-specific stadiums generally cost less than basketball stadiums. I believe the magic number thrown around for a soccer stadium on the railyard site was $100 million.

    • William Burg

      aperitif, Curmudgeon is addressing the issue of space, not cost. Soccer stadiums cost less than basketball arena, but require a larger physical footprint. Putting an arena on the city-owned intermodal depot site in the Railyards (last year’s plan) was a tight squeeze at best–it would have sat directly between the depot and the tracks, with part of the arena cantilevered over the tracks. A soccer stadium just plain would not fit. However, the Railyards site as a whole is much larger than just the city owned portion: there is a suitable spot on the north end of the Railyards, the site originally considered for the Measure Q/R basketball arena and currently designated as a 10 acre park. But the city doesn’t own it–Inland is selling the site to a new master developer.

  • “The demographics that define MLS soccer tickets is 18-34,” Smith said. “This generation is living in the downtown core.”

    An assumption that denies aging. It may turn out that these people will mature into “soccer moms” (and dads) and have soccer kids. And when they do that, they will go out to the burbs like previous generations of families did, for the same reasons.

    That said, Dsirias’ solution above is optimal. A training ground in Elk Grove would be a hit with the soccer kids.

    • William Burg

      On the other hand, not everyone moves to the suburbs to have kids. I’m seeing a growing number of young adults staying in Midtown with their kids, and know plenty of active seniors who raised their kids here and never left, or just didn’t have kids. Americans are having kids later in life, or not having them at all.

      But even if your theory is correct, if the current generation of 18-34 year olds grows up and moves out, won’t a new generation of 18-34 year olds move in, filling the market niche for those who “age out” of Midtown (if you ignore those of us who declined to renew at Carousel)?

    • There is a small percentage of young people who move to the cities and then stay. It grows each year but I think on average for cities like sac that are experiencing an influx of young people is 13%. I don’t know how many of that 13% have kids. Once nice thing about midtown is parts of it are blocks away from east sac. I’m only 4 blocks to McKinley.

    • William Burg

      Thing is, downtown/midtown Sacramento has been experiencing an influx of young people for the past 40 years. Some of those young people are senior citizens now and still haven’t left yet…

  • The discussion should focus on what MLS wants.
    1. It wants Miami for tv only. It knows Miami will have middling attendance
    2. It wants Orlando because hard data suggesrs Orlando will support a team the way a team should be supported in MLS 3.0 –downtown SSS , deep pockets willing to spend of DPs and established fanbase
    3. That leaves two applicants for the next round of expansion. These two teams must resemble portland and SKC more than the New England revolution , Colorado or Dallas. Not for a minute do I think the owners of Atlanta and Minneapolis pointy ball teams will give their putative soccer teams the respect that Seattle owners do. MLS knows that. That’s why San Antonio could easily slide in. San Antonio has it all — stadium, fanbase, and committed ownership. Sacramento has the fanbase with disposable income available for sports. That’s it. Hence this is all a pipe dream unless the two rival groups unite . I’ve discussed the only solution upthread

    • Agreed. Sacramento will be fighting for that 24th and final spot. All points which people promoting Elk Grove are oblivious to.

  • James

    Watch out William Burg, that’s two days in a row that we agree. Lol In all seriousness I agree within many of your points here. The Intermodal site as you noted simply won’t work. However other sites on the 240 acre Rail Yard site may very well be workable and serve as a catalyst for new residential, retail and pubs that appeal to the demographic that calls downtown (or might call the central city home). I’m hopeful Warren Smith can pull it off.

  • Ben Ilfeld

    OK, back to the city v suburb debate – sort-of.

    The biggest issue with Elk Grove has to do with the eastern suburbs in the region. If we had a large population in our central city only 20-30 minutes away from the new stadium, Elk Grove might work. I live in Midtown and I’d certainly drive. However, Elk Grove is impossibly far from Roseville, Granite Bay, Folsom, El Dorado Hills, Lincoln and so on. And it is uncomfortably far for Carmichael, Antelope, Citrus Heights, Orangevale and others.

    Our downtown is no longer at the center of the population of our region – that would lie somewhere to the east. But one thing that makes downtown a reasonable choice is that we built transportation infrastructure to bring people from our suburbs to downtown to work – and that means it’s a reasonable commute for most in our region to get to games downtown.

    It really has nothing to do with walkability – as people tend not to walk to or from games. It does not have to do with how tall adjacent buildings are or even crime rates. This has to do with taking advantage of the infrastructure that already exists to reach the largest market possible. And if a soccer team plays in a suburb, at least make it one to the east where population has grown consistently for a couple of generations.

    • You make a very good point ,the metropolitan area spreads out to the east.What happened to the plan for a highway connector from Highway 50 in Folsom/El Dorado Hills to I-5 at Kammerer Road?This would effectively link Roseville/Granite Bay/Folsom to Elk Grove.

  • nolongerinsac

    Sacramento is the first place I’ve lived where a 18-mile drive to Elk Grove is considered unbearably far. Talk about a small-town mentality – if I can’t walk or ride there on my fixie, I refuse to go. If you think 18 miles is bad, you should think about all those 49ers fans who will be driving to Santa Clara to the new Levi’s Stadium. If I were MLS, I’d put another team in the Bay Area before Sacramento. Sacramento has always been, and always will be, a minor league town.

    • Ryan Schauland (f.k.a. ryuns)

      The biggest, most loyal fan base would rather not drive to the edge of the metro area and that equals small town mentality? I didn’t realize the distance between us and our cowtown brand was measured by miles we’d drive on the highway.

      In any case, NFL is completely different draw with completely different demographic. Also, Santa Clara is not Elk Grove. Elk Grove is a large suburb, yes, (~140,000 people–not too different from Santa Clara), but it truly is the edge of the metro area. Santa Clara is situated between sprawling (and extremely rich–another important distinction) South Bay cities–San Jose (900,000 people in the city limits alone), Mountain View, Palo Alto, and others.

      It also has mass transit access to the city. The blue line is already heading down that way, but I doubt it will ever really get into and through Elk Grove. Even if it did, there’s no way they’d spend the money to get to the stadium, which will be on the far side of where commuters want to go.

    • Pretty sure I’ll be riding the train to the games in Santa Clara in my nice new shiny PSL seats. Have some beers, enjoy the banter. How much more pleasant than sitting in traffic, getting to the game in a parking lot, then driving home through throngs of DUIers.

      I’d rather watch Div 3 soccer downtown than MLS in a field anywhere, not because of the game itself but because of the annoyance of getting there.

      Oh, and if you think Sac is a minor league town, says a lot about you, eh?

    • you are sitting around worrying about 49er fans you don;t even know and Sac is minor league? get a hobby

  • Dan Allison

    Actually, many of the 49ers fans will not be driving to Santa Clara, they will be taking BART and Amtrak. The new stadium was placed specifically to take advantage of public transportation. Which supports the points people have made in comments that any facility that draws large numbers of people needs to be placed where there is already or will soon be effective public transportation. The Pavilions location in Elk Grove does not meet that criteria.

  • William Burg

    I assume that the effort by Elk Grove to locate an MLS stadium on the zombie mall site is in order to justify more southward growth, into areas that are currently farmland just south of the mall site. That’s the role that Arco Arena played in North Natomas, after all: the arena and major league sports team were a means to turn farmland into suburbs. I guess you’d call it the “Farm to Cul-de-Sac Movement.”

    • nolongerinsac

      Speaking of which, since Fabian Nunez is from Southern California, why is he involved? Has anyone checked to see who owns those surrounding parcels? Could it be Nunez or his supporters?

  • Putting the stadium in Elk Grove would be a horrible choice. The league has said it wants downtown stadiums, the track record of stadiums success is downtown, the track record of stadium failures is the suburbs (Dallas, New England, Colorado), the demographics say downtown, the infrastructure says downtown, the fact that we would be competing with many other cities for the final spot in the league says it should go downtown. This is a very serious issue. Planning a stadium at the southern edge of Elk Grove could ironically be the very reason MLS decides NOT to give Sacramento a franchise.

    The city leaders in Elk Grove and Fabian Nunez’ group have no idea what they are doing. They still think the league is as it was 10 years ago – contracting, desperate for ownership groups, desperate for stadiums. That is absolutely not the case anymore. Sacramento needs to put the best, most attractive offer forward to the league. Elk Grove is not part of that best offer.

    Rail yards or West Sac are the only ways to go. Urban core, connected to mass transit, walkable/bike-able, closer to where MLS’ target demographic (young, urban, professionals, hipsters, affluent) are. The Elk Grove bid is little more than the civic leaders there wanting to spark more development and cover the monumental mistake (literally) that is their mall.

    • Couldn’t agree more. The Elk Grove team has absolutely zero personnel with any relevant experience building a sports franchise. They are looking at this issue purely from a monetary standpoint and what benefits it could bring to their city. In addition, the idea that there should be some partnership between Sac Republic FC and Elk Grove is absolutely ridiculous. Why would Sac Republic, who have actually made a ton of progress with building an organization and fanbase, want to have anything to do with some Elk Grove politicians? Warren has a strong track record and Joe has immense experience in leading sport organizations. What experience does the mayor of EG and Nunez bring to the table?

  • James

    William Burg hit the nail on the head. Attempts to locate an MLS stadium down near the abandoned Elk Grove Promenade is an attempt to push the urban services boundary and open up farmland to more sprawl.


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