A pitch for soccer in Somerville

N.E. Revolution seeks field in urban setting

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / October 16, 2008
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The Kraft Group is strongly considering whether to build a soccer stadium in East Somerville as a home for the New England Revolution, a move that would allow the team to raise its profile in the region and capitalize on a rich concentration of immigrant soccer fans.

Following the lead of other Major League Soccer clubs, the Kraft family wants to build a 20,000- to 30,000-seat soccer stadium - possibly in an industrial no man's land that Somerville leaders want to turn into a vibrant commercial and residential district - and move the Revolution from Gillette Stadium, also owned by the Kraft Group, said Stacey James, a Kraft spokesman.

In Foxborough, where the Revolution have played since the league's first season in 1996, the typical home crowds of 10,000 to 20,000 fans can feel swallowed up by the nearly 69,000-seat football stadium. Moving to soccer-specific stadiums has helped other MLS teams boost attendance and carve out their own identities.

And putting the stadium, which could double as a concert venue, near a proposed Green Line stop would allow the team to more easily tap into the fervent soccer fan base in the region's ethnically diverse urban neighborhoods.

"They make no bones about the fact that they want to be in the urban core, which is a smart move on their part, and we're excited about it," Joseph A. Curtatone, Somerville's mayor, said.

The Krafts contacted the city about a year ago, Curtatone said, but increased their interest in June by investing $150,000 in a planning study to work with Somerville and explore development opportunities for the Inner Belt and Brickbottom, a pair of adjacent districts between Interstate 93 and McGrath Highway.

Meanwhile, the state Executive Office of Transportation, which is legally committed to extending the Green Line beyond Lechmere to Somerville and Medford by 2014, announced in May that it would probably need to split the Inner Belt and Brickbottom with a narrow, 11 1/2-acre railyard to store and service 80 Green Line cars.

That proposal drew immediate opposition from Somerville officials, business leaders, and activists, who fear the plan would thwart redevelopment. Although the site is currently home to a sparse mix of mostly industrial and warehouse buildings, its proximity to Boston, future Green Line access, and location amid the "power triangle of MIT, Tufts, and Harvard" make it a prime candidate to attract a mix of technology and science businesses, shopping, housing, and amenities, Curtatone said.

A soccer stadium would be "a major focal point, an anchor that brings a lot of value and a lot of activity to that district," he said.

The mayor said his immediate goal is to persuade the state to relocate or shrink the Green Line yard and encourage transit planners to consolidate it with a more-than-30-acre MBTA commuter railyard in Somerville's southeasternmost corner. That relocation would allow easier redevelopment of the Inner Belt and Brickbottom.

But if the Green Line yard can't be moved to the commuter railyard, placing it in the midst of the Inner Belt area in a redrawn fashion could allow for development of a stadium on "air rights" above it, and facilitate additional development around it, Curtatone said.

That "conceptual possibility" of a stadium above a railyard has emerged from the ongoing study funded by the Krafts and led by planners Greenberg/CBT Architects, with input from pro bono consultants who have helped Somerville with sustainable, transit-oriented planning, such as former state development secretary Douglas I. Foy, city officials said.

Somerville officials have shared initial findings with leaders from the transportation office and the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development in an attempt to get state officials to consider not just short-term costs for constructing the railyard, but future development possibilities and long-term tax potential.

Asked about the stadium, Greg Bialecki, undersecretary of business development, said in a statement that Massachusetts is open to "all proposals that offer economic opportunities and create jobs in Somerville."

The Krafts are exploring multiple urban and suburban locations for a Revolution stadium, but the Somerville site is the only one that has undergone a planning study, James said.

Still, James said, the team has not committed to a particular community or site. "We're still in the process of considering all our options and selecting the option that is best for all involved," he said.

Auto magnate Herb Chambers, who has a Mercedes dealership and corporate offices in the area, invested the remaining $7,500 for the $157,500 study. He said he was attracted less by the possibility of a stadium than by the area's overall potential and what he called the proactive, business-friendly approach of Curtatone's administration.

"It's a great area, because it has such easy proximity to Boston," Chambers said. "When you think about it, where my office is, we are two miles from State Street, and we're a mile from the Museum of Science, the Charles River."

Not everyone has greeted stadium talk enthusiastically. William A. White Jr., an at-large alderman, said he and others on the board have reservations about the effect on traffic and doubts about whether a stadium would encourage additional development or generate the most tax revenue.

The aldermen also want to see the results of the Kraft-funded study so they can better respond to the idea, he said.

Stephen V. Mackey, chief executive of the Somerville Chamber of Commerce, is concerned that even secondary talk about combining a stadium with a modified Inner Belt railyard would distract from the primary goal of trying to move any railyard out of the district altogether, to maximize development potential.

"Once you take a rail maintenance facility, you're going to have it for 200 years," given that the commuter railyard, also known as the Boston Engine Terminal, dates to the 19th century, Mackey said. "The government's got to figure out where it's going to put the maintenance facility, and the soccer stadium is a separate issue."

Seven soccer-specific stadiums have opened for MLS teams in the past decade, according to the league; the latest opened last week in Utah, at a reported cost of $110 million.

The eighth, the 25,000-seat Red Bull Arena, is under construction in a transit-friendly New Jersey site as the new home for Red Bull New York, which plays in the 80,000-seat Giants Stadium.

Sean Donahue, a Franklin native who began rooting for the Revolution in grade school and once won a RadioShack contest as the nation's most "Xtreme Soccer Fan," said other clubs have seen attendance increase after moving out of multipurpose stadiums.

"When you're going into a game and there's 15,000 fans in a 66,000-seat stadium, the atmosphere is never going to be as good as it is in a soccer-specific stadium," said Donahue, a Bryant University student who now writes about the Revolution in print and on the Internet and hosts a weekly radio show.

Although a Somerville stadium would mean a longer commute for Donahue and other southeastern New England devotees, a T-friendly location would open a wider market, help the team, and enhance the fan experience, he said.

"It's just great to hear the Krafts are looking into it," he said.

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