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.

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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.

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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.

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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.