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How a new generation of U.S. soccer stadiums fit into the urban fabric

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A new proposal for the forthcoming St. Louis team showcases ‘MLS urbanism’

A rendering of the proposed stadium for the new St. Louis Major League Soccer team.
Courtesy HOK

The city of St. Louis was awarded an expansion franchise for Major League Soccer (MLS) this past August. While the new owners of the league’s 28th team have yet to finalize the name and colors—they won’t begin playing until the 2022 season—they have announced what the team’s new home will look like. And, like many other recent, soccer-specific stadiums designs for the growing U.S. and Canadian league, they offer a more urban, neighborhood-sized sports arena that stands in sharp contrast to the mega-stadiums built for other sports.

Located on 31 acres in the Downtown West area of St. Louis, the forthcoming MLS stadium, designed by HOK and Snow Kreilich Architects, will anchor a mixed-used district that unites numerous neighborhoods. Running north-south and connecting businesses on Olive Street to Union Station, a former transportation hub turned commercial district, the development—which includes a 22,500-seat stadium, training facilities, and team offices—also lines up with the Gateway Arch to the east, expanding a band of parks and public spaces that run through the center of the city.

A view of the Downtown West neighborhood in St. Louis.
A view of the proposed stadium and training fields, looking east toward the St. Louis Arch.
Courtesy HOK

Built to be a multi-use facility, it’s an emerging example of what could be called MLS urbanism; stadiums with smaller footprints that offer better integration into the neighborhood fabric, a more intimate fan experience, and the perfect size to anchor economic development without requiring massive infrastructure shifts or investments.

“This won’t be a stadium surrounded by a sea of parking,” says Eli Hoisington, design principal for HOK’s St. Louis office. “We’re taking advantage of what’s around the city.”

Part of what appeals to Hoisington about the soccer stadium is the footprint of the project, and the ability to remake a slice of St. Louis. Built on land that used to be partly covered in highway ramps, the combination field, office, and training facilities can quickly cover a large portion of Downtown West and provide a year-round location for sports, concerts and events. The field will host collegiate and high school games, and the vendors at ground level will have stands and stalls that face outside the stadium, providing street-level access. An adjoining East Side plaza will offer space for fans to gather before and after games.

Hoisington says the team will still add parking, expanding from 600 to 1,000 spots across the entire site. But it’s not like traditional professional or collegiate U.S. sports stadiums, which can have three times the capacity and in decades past, landed in suburban locations, destination sites that require fans to drive and park. This is a stadium that’s “extroverted,” and closely follows the ownership’s vision of being a venue of and within the city.

“I don’t know of another development that provides the scale of planned sports facilities as close to downtown as this one,” he says.

Site plans for the St. Louis MLS stadium and related developments.
Courtesy HOK

Other recent MLS stadiums proposals reflect similar visions for intimate, neighborhood-size fields, a league focus on building near city centers and public transportation. In Sacramento, which was also just awarded a new MLS franchise, the proposed new home for the Republic F.C. will feature a similar rectilinear shape and will help anchor the new Railyards development, sitting near a light rail stop and retail. Cincinnati’s forthcoming MLS stadium will fit inside the West End neighborhood, surrounded by retail. At one point, a stadium proposal for the Miami MLS team, co-owned by British star David Beckham, included a layout without any new parking.

The MLS’s smaller-sized stadiums and fanbase, compared to both American football and soccer clubs in Europe, makes the facilities very unique architecturally. Stadium design has matured as the league has grown, starting out as more sparse soccer-only parks compared to “glorified high school stadiums” in the 1990s to a new generation of plans from this decade featuring high-tech arenas inspired by European design and occasionally boasting bells and whistles such as retractable roofs.

Hoisington points to stadiums like Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, which opened in 2011 with tiered seating and premium sections, as symbols that a smaller scale doesn’t mean giving up great design or amenities. New soccer-only parks are also in the works for Nashville, Austin, and Columbus, Ohio.

Hoisington sees the St. Louis project as part of an overall evolution of stadium design, including Sacramento’s Golden 1 Basketball arena, that reflects better on, and fit into, the urban realm.

“It’s not like an NFL stadium that’s a destination,” he says. “It’s part of the city.”