CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority granted exclusive buying rights for more than 60 empty lots in the city's West End to FC Cincinnati Tuesday night.
The CMHA board, which did not debate the issue, voted unanimously during a Tuesday meeting to sign off on a one-year option agreement for the vacant land with FC Cincinnati.
In exchange, the soccer club will pay CMHA a $100 fee for rights to the property.
FC Cincinnati leaders say they want to build houses on the land, but the option agreement still raised speculation that FC Cincinnati is planning to build its $200 million stadium in the West End if the club is awarded a Major League Soccer franchise.
Tuesday's meeting was the latest twist in a months-long debate how much money the public should kick in for FC Cincinnati's stadium and where that stadium should be built.
In November, Cincinnati City Council agreed to kick in $37 million for the project, while the Hamilton County Commission offered to build a $15 million parking garage. The team's wealthy investors have committed $200 million for the stadium and $150 million for the franchise fee.
Then, last week, FC Cincinnati President Jeff Berding reached out to Cincinnati Public School board members to discuss a partnership in the city's West End. Stargel Stadium and Taft High School sit in that neighborhood. The next day, a WCPO public records request revealed FC Cincinnati submitted an agreement to CMHA for more than 60 vacant lots in the West End on Jan. 16.
Berding wasn't present during Tuesday's meeting to discuss his intent for the land.
The team won't build the stadium itself on the land, Berding said through a spokeswoman.
"FCC has no interest in building a stadium on these parcels," Berding said in a statement read by representative Anne Sesler. "The team’s interest is to take parcels that have been vacant since the initial housing development and put energy behind getting new homes built here. That is it."
The team also wants to see new offices, retail and entertainment pop up around a potential soccer venue, according to the statement.
Berding has not signed the option agreement yet, Sesler said.
The lots CMHA owns are bordered by residential houses, many of them low income units also owned by CMHA, and is zoned residential. The 2018 CiTiRAMA site, where 54 new homes are expected to be built in the West End, is not included in the option agreement.
“It’s zoned for (residential) and it’s not enough room to build a stadium,” said Gregory Johnson, the CEO for CMHA.
That's enough assurance for the CMHA board that FC Cincinnati has no interest in tearing down homes or putting the stadium on that land.
Only one member of the board asked a question about the property agreement during Tuesday's meeting. Board Chair William Myles refused to answer questions from reporters following Tuesday's meeting.
However, people who live in or grew up on the West End had questions Tuesday. They had a chance to weigh in before the CMHA board's vote.
"How many of your residents knew this was going to be on the agenda tonight?" asked Allie Graff, a staffer for the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition.
Carol Brown, a Taft High School graduate, said she was worried how a stadium in the West End might change the neighborhood.
"Please don't go for this," Brown said of a stadium. "It just doesn't fit in a residential community like this."
If FC Cincinnati proceeds with purchasing the CMHA land, a final purchase price will be negotiated, according to the agreement.
FC Cincinnati still needs to win the MLS bid and narrow down the three potential stadium sites before any new soccer complex is built.
The club also has a memorandum of understanding with owners of a property in Newport. Last year, it signed an option agreement for the Cast Fab site in Oakley.
The club submitted Oakley as its stadium site when it presented its bid to MLS for an expansion franchise on Dec. 6.
Since then, however, MLS has delayed a decision on Cincinnati's bid.
Berding told WCPO during an interview this weekend that he expects to hear about the bid sometime in February.