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N.J. Soccer-Only Stadium to Be MLS Crown Jewel

Fri October 09, 2009 - Northeast Edition
Victor Epstein

HARRISON, N.J. (AP) An intimate, soccer-only stadium rising like a metal doughnut in northern New Jersey is expected to be the crown jewel of Major League Soccer and one of the keys to a wide-ranging redevelopment project in a careworn former industrial city.

At more than $200 million, the new home of the New York Red Bulls professional soccer team will be the costliest MLS stadium ever built when it opens in March beside the Passaic River in Harrison. Austria-based Red Bull GmbH is paying for everything.

The energy drink maker designed the 25,000-seat facility along European lines, with an emphasis on getting fans close to the field.

“It will be the premier soccer stadium in America,’’ MLS Commissioner Don Garber said.

Construction began in December 2007 on the arena just north of Newark’s largely Brazilian and Portuguese Ironbound neighborhood, approximately 10 miles from New York City. The seats circling the playing surface are close to the action for a professional sports venue of its size — just 21 to 158 ft. away. A partial roof will shield fans from the rain, but leave the natural Kentucky bluegrass playing surface open to the elements. It’s also expected to amplify the sound of the home crowd.

For tiny Harrison and its 15,000 residents, Red Bull Arena is the centerpiece of a 250-acre riverfront revitalization effort 12 years in the making. It’s been delayed by the recession and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which destroyed the PATH train station beneath the World Trade Center. Harrison can be reached directly from lower Manhattan via the PATH train.

The arena was first discussed a decade ago and scheduled to open in 2008. However, construction was delayed by the extensive cleanup required at the former industrial site, which included a pipe factory, and again by the need for a redesign after Red Bull GmbH bought out its partner in November 2007 and turned the arena into a soccer-only venue.

The mixed-use development project around the arena will produce 7,000 condominium and rental units when it’s done, according to Harrison Mayor Ray McDonough, who estimates completion in five years if the economy improves, 10 years if it doesn’t. The first 313 units are already finished and sold. Another 476 units have been approved.

Greg Kowalski, executive director of the Harrison Redevelopment Agency, estimated the total value of the project at about $1.5 billion. He said the mix of tenant and owner-occupied units is tilting toward the rental market as the recession makes mortgage financing harder. The location is popular with people who work in both Manhattan and Newark, a regional employment hub that employs about 140,000 people.

Harrison, once known as “The Beehive of Industry,’’ has stagnated since the 1950s, as factory closings have eliminated more than 50,000 jobs.

“It could more than double our population,’’ McDonough said of the riverfront development project. “It’s going to bring this town back to life.’’

Red Bull Arena will be the eighth soccer-only stadium for the 15-team MLS, which started in 1996. The strategy was adopted in 1999 to allow fans to bond with their stadiums much as New York Yankees baseball fans identify with Yankee Stadium and fans of the Manchester United soccer team in England identify with Old Trafford Stadium.

Early professional soccer leagues in the U.S. were at a disadvantage as tenants in stadiums meant for other sports, Garber said. And the Red Bulls have suffered from the lack of a home of their own. The team draws an average of 16,000 fans to its home games at the original Giants Stadium, which has seating for 80,064.

Zak Ivkovic of Queens, who has followed the team since its inception as the MetroStars in 1996, said soccer fans are impatient for a better team. Led by forward Juan Pablo Angel, the Red Bulls currently have Major League Soccer’s worst record, after losing in the finals last year.

“New York demands winners,’’ said Ivkovic. “I’m glad they’re building a great stadium, but at the end of day the Red Bulls have to consistently put a good team on the field.’’

Red Bulls spokesman Andy McGowan said the new arena is small by design.

“It’s really to create that soccer atmosphere so it’s an exciting event to attend,’’ McGowan said. “The one thing this team really hasn’t had before is a home team advantage. We’re kind of lost at Giants Stadium — it’s a big place.’’

Tickets are modestly priced by New York-area standards, at $20 to $45 a game. Season tickets for the 15 home games cost $272 to $585. The 30 skybox suites range from $65,000 to $75,000 each and hold 17 to 22 fans. The 1,000 club seats sell for $3,000 a season.

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