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Built for a New Era: How the Railyards Project is Making U.S. Soccer History

If all goes according to plan, the Railyards will continue to be an historic site, but for a different reason: for the first time in the U.S., a soccer-specific stadium will serve as the focal point of a community development project.

Sacramento Republic FC/Douglas Taylor

Shakespeare famously wrote that people are the stuff dreams are built on. For Sacramento, its dreams of Major League Soccer will be built on 244 acres of undeveloped land in the city’s downtown Railyards.

The historic site, a pocket of low-lying, swampy land located where the American and Sacramento Rivers meet, was once the western terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s, but has lain dormant since Union Pacific Railroad workers ceased operations in 1995. A proposed effort to redevelop the area in 2007 was foiled by the economic recession that struck the country at the time, but true to the city’s indomitable spirit, a new group of investors has resumed the task of bringing life to the area.

If all goes according to plan, the Railyards will continue to be an historic site, but for a different reason: for the first time in the U.S., a soccer-specific stadium will serve as the focal point of a community development project.

According to the 3,700-page Subsequent Environment Impact Report (SEIR) that was recently made available for public comment by the City of Sacramento, up to 10,000 housing units, 3.8 million sq. feet of office space, over 500,000 sq. feet of retail space, over 700,000 sq. feet of mixed used space, almost 500,000 sq. feet of cultural and recreational facilities, along with 1,100 hotel rooms, and the Kaiser Permanent Medical Center, would join the Republic’s 25,000-person capacity MLS stadium at the historic site.

Sacramento Railyards Project Site Map from the Draft SEIR

Such is the magnitude and projected impact of the project that The Sacramento Bee has called it a "city within a city." City Council Member Jeff Harris said it will "transform" Sacramento. Major Kevin Johnson predicts it will be "a national model for how to build cities in the 21st century." Perhaps, too, it will become a model for how to build a soccer stadium in the U.S.

MLS stadiums have gone through an extensive evolution since Columbus Crew SC built their humble home, the first soccer-specific stadium in the country, in 1999. At the time, the main concern for the league was survival, and once the Crew demonstrated that soccer could thrive in its own venue, other teams began to follow suit, beginning with the LA Galaxy’s Stub Hub Center in 2003.

As more stadiums filled the league, the focus shifted from function to form; stadiums were designed with great views, noise-enhancing canopies, and ample space for suites, press boxes, and supporters groups. They began to reach a new aesthetic level that provided an iconic image representative of the club, something inherent in Republic’s own proposed stadium design.

Republic’s MLS Stadium Conceptual Site Plan from the Draft SEIR

Now, as domestic soccer enters its latest phase of growth, the top brass at MLS have turned their sights on another factor: location, location, location. The closer the stadium is to a city’s urban core, the better. In that regard, there’s not much more MLS can ask of Republic. The proposed stadium, which would be located on an approximately 14.7-acre site on the eastern end of the Railyards, will not only be able to draw and engage fans from a hyper-local community of over 20,000 residents within the site, but also from the neighboring Downtown, Midtown, and West Sacramento communities. And that’s just the immediate one-mile radius; the site’s proximity to I-5 will also make it easily accessible to the rest of the Greater Sacramento region. Throw in the fact that Republic will have the Kings as their neighbors a few blocks south and the River Cats right across the river, and Sacramento is more than built for MLS.

As for the project’s next steps, the SEIR will be open to public comments until July 27th before a final SEIR is submitted to the City of Sacramento City Council for their consideration in October. It’s worth noting that the current Draft SEIR includes alternative options for the proposed stadium in order to mitigate the potential environmental impacts, such as game noise and lighting, on the surrounding community. One option is moving the stadium location within the Railyards further away from the Alkali Flat district to a site bounded by 7th Street on the east, Railyards Boulevard on the south, 5th Street on the west and the embankment on the north. Other alternatives include reducing the stadium’s capacity to 18,000 (like San Jose’s Avaya Stadium) or building the stadium in Natomas at the site of the Sleep Train Arena.

While Republic fans continue to wait for the official word from MLS, it's amazing to think that, as Republic’s VP of Marketing & Communications, Erika Bjork, recently told KCRA, it was only two years ago that Republic played its first match. History is being made again, and what was once the "end of the line" for westward travelers might soon be start of a new era for Sacramento and U.S. soccer.