Thursday, June 9, 2011

Red Bull Arena Development: Frozen in Time

An Island of Beauty in an Industrial Wasteland
As Sporting Kansas City prepares to open MLS' next cutting-edge, soccer-specific stadium against Chicago Fire, an article appeared today on Bloomberg that raises concerns about the viability of the development project originally envisioned to surround the league's other sexy show palace, Red Bull Arena.

The piece, written by Romy Varghese, is apparently the product of several weeks of digging. RBNY General Manager Erik Stover is among those interviewed (Varghese met with him at the Colorado home game), but the bulk of the article focuses on efforts by local officials, including longtime Harrison mayor Raymond McDonough, to cover the debt load for the 2006 bond issued to purchase the land on which Red Bull Arena sits. The sharp economic downturn, which resulted in a halt to the development of the shiny Riverbend District project and the payments associated with it, is the main culprit, but the Town of Harrison is also haggling with the Red Bulls over a $1.4 million property tax it says the club owes.

The Red Bulls claim that they do not own the land on which the stadium sits and therefore should be exempt from paying tax on it.  But with Harrison planning to lay off cops and firefighters to cover the shortfall in their debt payment, Red Bull's refusal to pony up has naturally come under scrutiny. Rightly or wrongly, the Austrians are being set up as the villain in this particular play. Along with the Town's clampdown on game day street parking and its aggressive towing of lots in proximity to the Arena, it's yet another sign that Harrison has torn down the welcome banners and bunting. Though economic conditions, a lack of appropriate planning and overly aggressive development plans all have played their part in the Town's budget conundrum, the easy story is one of (yet another) community selling its soul to a greedy sports franchise.

Like most Red Bulls fans, I recall the original vision of a glimmering residential/commercial development that would surround Red Bull Arena. In fact, I still have my original seat selection brochure, which mentioned a mixed commercial/residential development in front of the stadium and, in due course, improved transportation links. None of these promises have yet come to fruition or even begun. The project is frozen in time. Instead there's a gaping hole in front of the Arena - a series of ugly, trash-strewn empty lots surrounded by chain link fence - and a PATH station far too small and cramped to accommodate large crowds. The stadium itself is a marvelous place to watch a match, but in the midst of so much ugliness it's like a beautiful girl with a several giant pimples on her face. Meanwhile, deprived of any kind of dining or drinking options in close proximity to RBA, supporters have naturally taken their dollars elsewhere - mostly across the river to Newark's Ironbound neighborhood.

The Red Bulls have talked previously about building a training facility in Harrison, and there's a chance that this could eventually offer a solution to the property tax impasse. Of greater concern to those, like me, who want to see a bustling match day atmosphere directly around the Arena, is doing away with the chain link fences and weedy vacant lots. Sadly, nothing in the Bloomberg article would lead one to believe that development along Frank E. Rodgers Boulevard will happen any time soon. For the time being we'll just have to put up with the pimples and hope they clear up. It could take years for them to disappear completely.
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