Mesa, A’s show off Hohokam Stadium progress

With two months to go before completion, A’s ownership and the City of Mesa did a tour of Fitch Park and Hohokam Stadium today, emphasizing all the  improvements A’s players and fans will get to enjoy in a few months. I visited back in the summer. I should have a chance to check it out again in the coming weeks. Until then, take a look at tweets by local media showing the project’s progress. The new clubhouse isn’t quite finished yet, but the seats and scoreboard appear to be complete.

Think about that for a moment. Over the span of six months, the A’s are installing new scoreboards at Hohokam, the Earthquakes Stadium, and the Coliseum. That’s a lot of blinking lights!

As much as I loved the old school, laid back intimacy of Phoenix Muni, I’m looking forward to attending games at Hohokam, which is a fairly short bike ride from my brother’s house in Mesa. The spring pilgrimage looks to become an annual rite for me.

90 Days Or Bust

The last post had some fortuitous timing, as a breaking Chronicle item came in just as I was about to hit publish. That was followed by articles in the Tribune and SF Business Times, so read those to get the full (for now) scoop.

In short, the City Council voted 6-1 to approve a 90-day extension. That’s a marked departure from the 6 months that was previously expected. Motivation for moving up the deadline is unclear. It could be confidence on the new investor group’s part. It could be the need for Oakland to show something before the February NFL relocation window opens, which only a 90-day timeline would accomplish. Perhaps it’s a little of both. In any case the City of Oakland and the new working group, New City Development LLC, will have until MLK Day to prove itself.

Raised park concourse that runs through Coliseum City

Raised park concourse that runs through Coliseum City

New City will be headed by Floyd Kephart of Renaissance Companies in San Diego. Renaissance is a consulting and advisory firm. Kephart’s main task will be to bring in the remaining money required to bridge the funding gap. He’s also responsible for signing up a master developer to oversee the entire 800 acre project. There are only a handful of companies that have experience doing projects of this size and scope. Forest City was expected to be the master developer originally, but they backed out when they saw the costs and potential returns. Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross runs Related Companies, another experienced firm for such work. Related is heading up the massive, $6.5 billion development north of Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. What does Kephart see that Forest City didn’t? We should soon find out.

The lone dissenting vote was CM Rebecca Kaplan, who pointed out that several deliverables are still missing, including the deal terms and financing model. Both of those items were expected over the summer, and when BayIG was pressed for them, were promised again in August (and apparently not delivered). Kaplan’s ties to the A’s extension and Lew Wolff’s recently returned campaign contributions make her moves somewhat suspect, but lack of follow-through on BayIG’s part is rather disappointing and unsettling when you consider the lead time they had to assemble the deliverables.

A big surprise to come out of the session was CM Larry Reid’s complete 180 on the project. He has been a fervent critic of the plan for at least a year now, and his effusive praise of Kephart is quite startling. That said, the project is in his district, so he stands to benefit if it comes through. He’s also not up for reelection this year, so he doesn’t have to back either Kaplan’s or Mayor Jean Quan’s visions. Reid remains Vice Chair of the Coliseum JPA Board.

Three months is an awfully short time to get the deal done. It’s not a matter of tying up loose ends. There are major deal points that have to be addressed.

  • Sign at least one tenant, preferably the Raiders to start
  • Engage the A’s and Warriors (even though neither team is interested)
  • Provide deliverables and reports that haven’t been completed yet (deal terms, financing, 2nd phase market analysis)
  • Bring in a master developer
  • Line up needed capital for stadium phase and ancillary development phases
  • Figure out who pays for the remaining debt at the Coliseum and Arena (if necessary)
  • Gather support of the JPA and Alameda County

It all feels like it’s going to get severely rushed, which could end in a horrendously bad deal for Oakland if they’re not careful. Quan’s calling the announcement a victory, though she neglected to mention that she said several times throughout the year that a team – the Raiders – would be a signed partner, at first during the summer, then late summer, then fall. Problem with trying to sign the Raiders is that because of the lack of concrete information on financing, investors, and viability, there’s no reason for the Raiders to sign on, and national reports echo that. Every time someone in Oakland talks up how the Raiders are getting ready to officially be a part of this, Mark Davis knocks that notion down. With the season almost half over and the NFL’s relocation window looming in February, there’s no reason for Davis to commit to anything before he feels it’s the right moment. The best deal for Davis comes with having the most options open, and that includes Oakland, Los Angeles, and maybe even San Antonio. He at least has limited leverage in that scenario. As for the the A’s, Lew Wolff is standing as far away from this as humanly possible, not wanting to make it anymore complicated, and not wanting to draw the short straw.

The JPA is busy getting ready for life after the Coliseum too. Last week they were ready to hire Republican Guy Houston, but the vote on his hire was delayed amidst renewed scrutiny into legal issues Houston had while in the State Assembly. The JPA did make a hire on Tuesday and his name will be familiar: former Oakland City Manager Robert Bobb. Bobb’s consulting firm is consulting the JPA on stadium and other development at the Coliseum, whether it’s Coliseum City or a Wolff-developed alternative. The cost to the JPA? $25,000 a month. Check out this org chart showing Bobb, Houston (or someone else), and the JPA.

Org chart supplied by The Robert Bobb Group

Org chart supplied by The Robert Bobb Group

The JPA doesn’t have the power to make any planning or zoning decisions. Only the City does. The County is co-owner of some of the land and could provide resources, so it also has a say in whatever happens. All I can say is that when you look at the above chart and all the different parties involved in Coliseum City, it’s a lot of cooks for one kitchen.

Coliseum City ENA likely to be extended at closed session

Update 5:30 PM – Looks like this turned into a nice pre-election announcement for Mayor Quan.


Original post:

Today’s the “big” deadline day for Coliseum City. Or maybe not. Consider the following closed session agenda item, to be taken up this afternoon:

b) Property: Coliseum City properties (various properties bounded by San Leandro Street, 66th Avenue, Edgewater and Helgenberger)

City Negotiators: Fred Blackwell, Gregory Hunter, Larry Gallegos, Daniel Rossi

Negotiating Parties: Bay Investment Group, JRDV Architects Inc., HKS Architects, Inc.

Under Negotiation: Price and terms for disposition of the property

Not much to go on, is there? We know that the deadline is there thanks to previous documents about Coliseum City which specified 10/21:

ENA Timeframe: The Negotiation Period under the ENA is hereby extended to run until October 21, 2014, and may only be extended an additional six months with administrative approval.

October 21 also marks the 360-day point of consideration of the project, during which BayIG was supposed to provide a set of deliverables. A quick recap of some of the major deal points:

  • Tenant sign-on from one, two, or three current sports franchise tenants (Raiders, A’s, Warriors) – None so far
  • Market Data Analysis – The lengthier second part was supposed to have been released by now, has not been made publicly available
  • Infrastructure Study – Completed
  • Investor Business Case – Reportedly late, not publicly released

Last week there was news that a new, previously unknown investor may come in to save the project. Word was that it would be Perry Capital – a hedge fund with two recent executives who have a minority share of the Raiders – they and the City are going to great pains to keep their involvement under wraps until/unless the ENA is extended. Now Matier and Ross report something different:

Council members privately told us they were encouraged by the team’s 11th-hour addition of new deep-pocket investors being represented by San Diego asset manager adviser Floyd Kephart, chairman of the board of Renaissance Cos. Kephart is expected to take the lead role in the newly reconstituted group, New City Development LLC.

So goodbye BayIG, hello New City Development LLC? Okay.

Also last week, we saw a new website promoting the project, Coliseum City Now. I looked into it and found out that the domain was only acquired on September 26. A companion Facebook page started up during the summer. Assuming that both are under the purview of BayIG/JRDV, the timing seems a little suspect. Coliseum City never bothered to have an website outside of the City’s project page for a year. Why have one now? There’s also a Twitter feed, which has never made a post and has less than 20 followers. Chances of a post coming after 5 PM today? Excellent.

birdseye-view_north

Coliseum City in full buildout

In anticipation of the extension, some unnamed City officials reached out to Raiders fans to make a show of support at the open session at 5, during which the decision is expected to be announced. Keep in mind that it’s basically up to the City Administrator, not the City Council. Also understand that not extending the deadline would effectively kill the project, giving Mark Davis every excuse to go to Los Angeles. What other choice does Oakland have?

If the City announces the ENA extension and the new investor, the mountain to climb for them will be steeper that the Mt. Davis upper deck. They’ll need to wrap up the basic terms of the deal, have the Raiders sign on before they decide to move, and start work with the JPA and Alameda County to put together the DDA (Disposition and Development Agreement), which would allow the project to move forward in earnest, in whatever form it takes. In reality, Coliseum City has 4 months to work out the details, not 6.

On a related note, the comments period for the Draft EIR expired on Friday, October 17. The City will take all the comments and get questions answered from stakeholders and other groups that need to provide answers (Caltrans, PG&E, and the PUC for starters). The EIR runs on a separate track from the business side of the deal, though both need to be resolved/approved before any dirt can be turned.

As for the news impact on the A’s – as I’ve said for some time, the funding gap ($600 million) makes the inclusion of a ballpark extraordinarily difficult to pull off in a way that would satisfy both the baseball team, the public sector, and the private investors who are looking for a healthy return. Moving to more far-off forms of financing makes the likelihood of a ballpark even less.

I’ll be checking into the live stream of the open session while watching the World Series. The mix of tweets promises to be entertaining and at times quite confusing.

Kaplan returns Wolff campaign donations; Coliseum City courts hedge fund

Last week the Trib’s Matthew Artz asked Oakland City Council member and mayoral candidate Rebecca Kaplan about $2,100 in donations that came from Lew Wolff, his wife and daughter. There was a suggestion of impropriety, as an Oakland law prohibits campaign contributions from any party that has done contract negotiations with the City during the prior six months. After huddling with her staff over the legality of the donations, Kaplan decided to return the checks. Wolff appeared to be unaware of the law. You may remember that Wolff donated a much more eye popping sum of $25,000 to a committee backing Don Perata’s mayoral campaign during the 2010 election, a move that may have helped cost Perata the election. Perata admitted that he wasn’t going to waste time or money trying to keep the A’s in town.

That’s a much different stance than Kaplan today, as she has staked a claim to helping save the A’s by spearheading lease extension talks. Kaplan has also supported Coliseum City, though the project is considered Mayor Jean Quan’s baby, at least politically. The now returned donations are under investigation by the California Fair Political Practices Commission, as is another $1,000 that was donated to a Kaplan committee whose fund has been liquidated under similar concerns.

Kaplan has been the frontrunner in recent polls, beating Quan in a projected ranked choice voting scenario. It’s unclear what damage the donation investigation could cause the Kaplan campaign, which is only three weeks from the election.

Matier and Ross reported over the weekend that Coliseum City is getting cozy with yet a hedge fund to potentially finance the project. The SF Business Times revealed that the target is Perry Capital, a fund managed by Paul Leff and Dan Golding. They purchased a non-voting, minority share (20%) of the Raiders for $150 million from Al Davis before his death. The fact that Perry already owns a share of the team gives the story more credence than previous stories about the Crown Prince of Dubai. Then again, let’s keep in mind the rather unimpressive amount of financial support for the project so far:

Forest City backed out because they didn’t see the numbers working out. Colony/HayaH has purportedly been hesitant to fully commit for similar reasons. The Dubai story was just that, a story, and Perry Capital? Well, at least there’s an existing relationship there. There’s a $500-600 million funding gap that needs to be addressed. If Perry is going to assume a large percentage, they’ll want their pound of flesh in return. That could mean a larger slice of the team, though Mark Davis is reluctant to drop below a controlling percentage, which in the NFL has been 30% for a family and 10% for a controlling partner in that family. Davis and his mother own 50-51%, so there’s some room to drop. The NFL may also be looking to lower the requirements for legacy family ownerships.

It’s hard to judge based on the limited information we have, but we can assume that trading in a share of the team for a private stadium subsidy (to be paid back by a rise in team equity and development revenues) is an option available in both Oakland and Los Angeles, and perhaps in San Antonio as well. Leff and Golding have seen their investment appeciate 29% since their 2007 purchase, which seems impressive enough except when compared to the skyrocketing values of many other NFL teams. The Raiders for now are a low revenue team in a low value market, with the only obvious recourse being the construction and selling out of a new stadium. Leff and Golding could push hard and try to bring in even more partners to spread out the risk. The problem is that Coliseum City is clearly a long game, with significant profits going to pay for the stadium and ancillary development. Rental and real estate sales revenue are the prize that will take years to materialize.

The struggle to attain financing for Coliseum City highlights how different Coliseum City is from other NFL stadium development plans. The NFL and the Raiders at first wanted to focus on the stadium, with further development coming down the line and not necessarily tied to stadium loans or bonds. The league has a very sophisticated financing structure in place. It gauges the size of the stadium project, assesses the ability of the applicant team to pay for its share, and doles out loans from its G-4 program. The league also plays matchmaker, hooking team owners up with huge financial institutions like Goldman Sachs and BofA. Those banks are there to manage that funding gap, the same kind that Coliseum City is trying to fill for the Raiders. When Oakland decided to move in their own direction, the NFL decided to play wait-and-see with the project. If JRDV and the other CC principals can pull it together, the NFL can give the project its blessing and untie the G-4 purse strings. If not, Oakland’s future will look very bleak on the Raiders front. It makes one wonder why they’re going to so much trouble when there is a tried-and-true method to financing a new NFL stadium. It limits the number of potential partners in favor of a high-risk strategy with a low chance of success. And if they’re having to resort to working with a hedge fund, the usual avenues for funding may all be exhausted.

There is some historical symmetry to this effort, as the original Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Complex was privately financed after Bob Nahas and others went to some far-flung places to secure that funding. The ENA deadline is October 21, and news of a new partner may allow Oakland to extend the period six months, though such a transparent move isn’t likely to gain Mark Davis’s support. The development team has spent three years and $5 million on Coliseum City. What do they have to show for it? So far, not much beyond the 3,500 pages in the EIR.

Levi’s Stadium: A nice place where football happens to be played

Friday’s high school doubleheader was an opportunity to showcase Levi’s Stadium to the public with a much cheaper cost of admission. Tickets were $20 for adults, $5 for students. Plus you got two games for the price of one, the first matchup kicking off at 5. I got to the stadium at 4. Temperature was 70 degrees in the stadium, with the sun ready to set behind the suite tower. Somehow the weekend avoided the “roasting” temperatures felt during earlier games, which is too bad. I was looking forward to experiencing it, seriously.

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The tour on Wednesday didn’t allow me to traverse the big seating bowl opposite the suite tower. The games on Friday did, though not without their own limitations. Seats were sold as General Admission, which meant that fans could sit in any section that was open. Initially, that meant sections 110-119 along the east sideline, which includes club section at midfield (although the clubs themselves weren’t open). Stairs to the second seating deck were roped off. The entire southern concourse after section 120 was barricaded, which meant that fans entered through Gates A & F on the north side. That’s not really a problem considering the expected turnout at the event, which was at most 12,000. Eventually additional sections were opened towards the north end zone.

Ironically, although the lower concourse is the widest and most open of any in the NFL, the stadium is not set up for fans to walk around completely around the concourse, since every public space on the west side suite tower is some sort of limited access or VIP area.

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Still, the lower concourse is enormous, as much as 150′ wide in some spots. It serves both “halves” of what the 49ers call the lower bowl, which is just a marketing gimmick. The 49ers call the first two decks the largest “lower bowl” in the NFL with over 45,000 seats. Only in the NFL can this go unchecked. I suppose they can get away with this because along the non-tower bowl, there is no publicly-accessible mezzanine concourse, only a level of suites. It’s a cheat, and only someone pedantic about such things (like me) will notice. It’s a cheat nonetheless.

The concourse is split in two, similar to the layout at Columbus’ AAA Huntington Park, except doubled in size. There’s the drink rail standing and wheelchair row area, then 60 feet of mostly unobstructed, walkable concourse, then another 60 feet of concessions and restroom facilities, and then another 30 feet of concourse on the exterior of the stadium. Concession stands are on both sides, while entrances to the restrooms are mostly in the alleys. It would all be a nightmare in terms of missing huge portions of the game, if it wasn’t for the 49ers placing great faith in the ability for fans to order food with their smartphones and pick them up in 5 minutes at an express lane. There’s even a $5 delivery charge if you don’t want to walk up to the concourse. The service was available during the doubleheader, but I wasn’t going to try it because the stadium was charging full priced concessions for a high school game. Come on, Santa Clara and the 49ers. Give fans a break. When I went to Dodger Stadium for the LA baseball championships two years ago, they sold hot dogs and popcorn at a cut rate, basically at cost. You’re already making bank off the NFL games and numerous other events guy, no need to gouge for this one. This is a CIF event, not a NFL event.

As I walked back and forth along the concourse several times, something about the paint and textures and fonts struck me. I couldn’t put a finger on it at first, then I understood immediately what it was. Take a look at the picture below for a few seconds, and figure out what’s missing.

levis_stadium-54-concessions2

We see:

  • Bright red and stark white columns providing contrast
  • A well-lit, easy-to-read description of the stand’s offering with no branding
  • Wayfinding signs
  • A pleasant picture of a marina (South Beach?) on the upper wall
  • A small Verizon logo in the distance

What’s missing? A 49ers logo. The only thing in this picture that might lead someone to believe that this is the home of the 49ers is the gold in the way finding sign, itself distinctly labeled “Levi’s® Stadium.” There’s no SF or 49ers logo, no vinyl poster of a great past 49er, no electronic signage for the team or anything else. Sure, during the game some of the screens will show the game. Other signs along the concourse are emblazoned with the Levi’s Stadium logo. Some of the wayfinding signs point to the locations of the 49ers Team Store, but that’s it. It feels like the 49ers’ branding is being suppressed in favor of Levi’s, which is strange. It’s not like there’s a Levi’s Outlet store in the stadium. Levi’s and the 49ers aren’t competing for anything, they’re partners. Yet the naming rights sponsor is definitely getting the higher profile. Perhaps the idea is to separate the branding between on-field and off-field, but even then it’s somewhat skimpy. I counted five 49ers logos – two in opposite corners along the field walls, one flag each in the north and south ends above the stadium, and one large logo at midfield below the east bank of lights. That midfield logo is in line with the rest of the non-Levi’s founding sponsors for the stadium, including Brocade, Yahoo! and United Airlines. That’s it. That nice marina graphic is matched by pictures of redwoods, SF row houses, the signature Bay Area bridges, and the Lone Cypress along 17 Mile Drive. It’s all very nice and pan-NorCal, as if people really cared much about being pan-NorCal. Celebrating the team and its previous exploits is for those who visit the museum, a relative rarity among NFL stadia. While the museum can be appreciated, it’s not necessary to create this weird church-and-state separation. The vast majority of major events that will be held at Levi’s will be 49er games. No need to hide it.

levis_stadium-57-rails_drinks_seats

Seats on rails, padded seats for the more privileged

How’s the stadium as a football venue? Pretty darned good. I ended up sitting in Row 4 near the 25 yard line, thanks to the Santa Clara High School band vacating their bank of seats. With only one-sixth of the stadium open there was no opportunity to walk up to the upper deck and check out the very last row to see what it was like compared to Mt. Davis. From my calculations the highest seat up there is 295′ by line-of-sight to midfield at the near sideline, compared to 334′ at Mt. Davis. Either is much further than the top of 317 at the Coliseum. The seating bowl is extremely swept back, with little in the way of overhangs. That makes the bowl less vertical than some others, about 20 feet better than in Cincinnati, Baltimore, or Philadelphia, whose multiple suite levels contribute to a greater overall viewing distance. Sweeping the bowl back so far helps create the massive concourse area. The approach wouldn’t be practical in a domed stadium, where architects usually try to conserve on overall footprint to reduce construction cost and keep operating expenses like air conditioning in check.

I was right next to the midfield club seats, which were served by one of the two BNY Mellon clubs. The club seats were nicely padded and high backed, my seat was not. Like AT&T Stadium in Dallas, the seats were mounted on rails, which allows the team to add and remove seats at their discretion. The system was devised by Camatic of Australia, the seat surfaces built in Hayward.

The place doesn’t feel cheap. It feels very precise. As the sun set and the stadium lights took over, I was astonished at how bright the place was. Without having any measurements, it looked much brighter and intense than the ‘Stick, Coliseum, or Stanford. The reflections off the skyboxes lent the suite tower a shiny, jewel-like appearance. Few suite holders were on hand to watch the festivities. Only a handful of people sat near the field on that side, making the SAP Tower look like an exclusive mall that was closed to the poor plebes. Go to a 49er game or the upcoming Cal-Oregon matchup to experience that.

Every column is double and triple supported by I-beams and diagonal tubes, playing up the “erector set” look.

We get it, it's earthquake country

We get it, it’s earthquake country

The scoreboards are labeled Sony, but we know that they come from South Dakota’s Daktronics, as Sony has vacated the LED display and scoreboard market since pioneering the CRT-based Jumbotron decades ago. They work as advertised, providing live feeds and replays, a huge sponsor panel on the left (the event the sponsor was Black Bear Diner), and a minimalistic score panel on the right. That panel showed score and time, but not down and distance. If you wanted to see that you had to look at the ribbon board at midfield, a constantly frustrating routine. Thankfully there’s only one ribbon board along the fascia of the upper part of the lower bowl (see how that falls apart?). There’s certainly potential for another ribbon board about the suites if the 49ers wanted to install one there.

The lack of another along the upper fascia highlights yet another omission: there’s no Ring of Honor. At the ‘Stick the Ring of Honor was painted under the vestigial roof rimming the upper deck. It didn’t carry over. The old roof rim wasn’t the most ideal place to put such a feature, but they did it and it worked. Now there’s nothing. I expect that the team will introduce something over time, having a great ceremony for each unveiling over then next few years. Yet again it’s another example of the 49ers’ brand being strangely muted or suppressed. It makes little sense. As someone from another team once said, “We’re not selling jeans here.” Oh, I guess we are.

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With the crowd expected to be only a fraction of a pro football crowd, there were no special trains running to the stadium. Tasman Drive north of the stadium was not closed off. All in all it seemed like a typical Friday afternoon near Great America, with a good deal of the usual commute traffic but little gridlock except for the arteries leading away from the stadium before the game. The parking charge was $15 in only the nearest lots to the stadium. It would’ve been easy to scope out free parking if I was interested. I took light rail with a $4, 8-hour pass. Understandably, this is not comparable to the gameday problems many have experienced at games. However, the second game involved two teams from the Sacramento area – Jesuit of Carmichael and Elk Grove. I asked fans of both teams about their experiences coming driving to Santa Clara on a Friday night. All of them said that traffic was not an issue, the trip took about two hours, and for those who were also 49er fans, generally better than the area traffic for 49er games. I noticed that the same bag restrictions employed for NFL games were in effect for the doubleheader. That strikes me as a venue policy, not just an event policy. We weren’t allowed backpacks during the tour either.

In the effort to attract as many diverse types of events as possible, it feels that the image of the 49ers has been subsumed at Levi’s Stadium. It doesn’t need to be all rah-rah, gag-me-with-legacy tributes like many ballparks, but it shouldn’t be barely evident. The 49ers and Levi’s have time to achieve that better balance. Perhaps that will happen after Super Bowl 50, which isn’t scheduled for another 16 months. The NFL has a tendency to exercise tight control over potential Super Bowl venues. Personally, I’m much more a Levi’s fan than a 49ers fan and this is out of whack. Levi’s Stadium is the home of the 49ers, now and into the foreseeable future. It should act like it’s the home of the 49ers, not merely a place where 49er games are occasionally played.

Levi’s Stadium Tour

These days, there’s no such thing as a comprehensive stadium tour, at least not for Joe Public. Inevitably, some important feature is missed or glossed over. Most every stadium tour visits the luxury areas (clubs, suites) to show the public where their money went and to sell the occasional business owner on the merits of a package. Visits to a locker room/clubhouse and the press box are requisites. If the stadium has grass, you’ll get to see it. You won’t be able to step on it. Some operators allow fans to step on an artificial turf field, some don’t. If there’s a museum or historical monument, some time is usually spent there. The 49ers didn’t stray far from the formula at Levi’s Stadium, and in doing so the tour I took there felt like it came up a bit short.

At midfield

At midfield

The team provides two versions of the tour, a $35 ticket that includes a 49ers museum entry, and a $25 version sans museum. I took the latter. If you’re not aware, I’m not a 49ers fan, so while I have an appreciation for their history, I don’t feel the need to spend an extra $10 to see it. Besides, I already visited the Pro Football Hall of Fame earlier in the summer. I’m good with the history stuff for now.

Tickets for the tour and other events can be bought at the main box office along Tasman Drive near the Toyota Gate F (northeast end). A small valet parking lot is provided there, otherwise you can park near the golf course across the street or on non-event days, the main lot to the west. The Tasman Drive side also has the entrance to Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak restaurant at Gate B. Move west towards Intel Gate A you’ll see doors to the museum and Comcast Sportsnet’s in-house studio. All the while you’ll be shaded by the bulk of the stadium, its huge angled steel columns reaching skyward and touching down close the street. The whole package takes up about 17 acres between the 49ers’ preexisting headquarters and San Tomas Aquino Creek, which was left undisturbed during construction. A set of 3 new pedestrian bridges link the stadium to the main lot.

Having worked in the tech industry for 15 years, I instantly recognized the tour guide’s initial talk as a sort of startup pitch, and I wasn’t surprised by that in the least. He made sure to use “technology” and “fan experience” several times in his spiel, emphasizing the excellence within. It makes sense, especially if the team is trying to get fans to spend money to buy such an experience instead of hanging out at home in front of their flatscreen TVs and with their much cheaper (and often better) junk food items.

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Instead of walking around the bowl, we took an escalator up to the Yahoo! Fantasy Football Lounge, an attempt to corral fans who need to get their extra juice by watching “their own” players on Sunday. It’s a good setup, with unassigned, get-there-early seats along the windows. Flatscreens are assembled into a seamless ribbon board to display stats per player and position. FFL has its own concession stands. If you’re a fantasy junkie it might be your kind of setup.

We weren’t able to visit the multi-level United Club as a private function was already underway there. Strangely, we didn’t visit any suites either. I suppose that’s just as well, since they’re all sold out for 10+ years. Usually there’s a community or city suite to visit. Then again, when you’ve visited as many stadia as I have, suites stop looking impressive and start looking like the same nice hotel hospitality suite with a view after a while.

The Club and Lounge are on different levels of the SAP Tower, the west stand that holds the those facilities, the press box, roof garden, and locker rooms at field level. It may not be inspirational in any aesthetic sense, but it is incredibly efficient. And yes, that’s the same SAP that has naming rights at San Jose’s arena.

Levi's Stadium has 9 levels within the SAP Tower

Levi’s Stadium has 9 levels within the SAP Tower

Our next stop was the Verizon Press Box on Level 8, which seems 10 times the size of its counterpart at the ‘Stick. There are multiple functioning elevators. The buffet area isn’t the size of a Manhattan studio. It’s wonderfully, blissfully air-conditioned. Now that might not sound like much, but the press box at the ‘Stick was terribly cramped, uncomfortable, and a death trap waiting to happen. A corridor behind special suites on the press level features old magazine covers with great 49ers of the past on them. The press box and its hermetically sealed environs are no place for cheering fans, which makes it great that the 49ers provided options that mimic press box-style views.

We walked up a few flights to reach the roof garden on Level 9. This area has gotten rave reviews for its flexible usage and its contribution to Levi’s Stadium’s LEED Gold rating, the first for a stadium in the US. Named the NRG Solar Terrace, the roof has a glass-fronted rails for those who want to watch the game, and hotel-like outdoor lounge areas towards the center. In the distance you can see the Bay to the north and the downtown San Jose skyline to the south. Various plant types are given reclaimed water, and in true California fashion there is an herb garden. The lounge uses reclaimed redwood from Moffett Field, a trick the San Jose Earthquakes are using at their stadium.

On the other side of the red rollup door is space for a 2nd home team locker room *cough* Raiders *cough*

On the other side of the red rollup door is space for a 2nd home team locker room *cough* Raiders *cough*

The last part of the tour was spent at field level. The grass looks ready to be torn up and resodded again, though it has gone through two games with few incidents compared to the first batch, which didn’t take. The 49ers’ next home game is on November 2, which will give 3 weeks for new sod to take hold if the work begins Sunday or Monday. Midseason resodding at least the areas between the hash marks is a common ritual for all NFL stadia with grass.

We entered one of two BNY Mellon clubs, which are located along either sideline at the 50 yard line. They’re swanky and feature the best food and drinks. The 49ers copied the Cowboys by incorporating the soccer-style midfield entrance from the locker rooms. The visiting locker room is on the north end, the 49ers to the south. Two auxiliary locker rooms are on the north end, as is the Gold Rush (cheerleaders) dressing room, a rarity among NFL stadia. The picture above shows a large rollup door that provides entry to a potential second home locker room, presumably for the Raiders if they every showed interest. I’ve heard the Raiders are interested in something else in the area temporarily, but that’s for another post. The locker room is not finished and would require a lease agreement between the 49ers, Raiders, the Santa Clara Stadium Authority, and the NFL before any substantive work could begin. That said, it shouldn’t take more than an offseason to get it ready.

Our tour group spent 90% of our time within the area defined by the SAP Tower, which is unfortunate. Every stadium tour should include a walk through at least half a concourse if not a whole loop. It makes it seem like there’s nothing to see in the other three-fourths of the stadium, when that obviously isn’t the case. I hope the 49ers incorporate that into future tours somehow. After all, they’re trying to sell seats and that’s where most of the seats are, right?

I’m headed back to Levi’s Stadium to take in the Friday Night Lights doubleheader. I’ll be roaming around, taking more pictures. If you have any questions, feel free to comment below or hit me up via Twitter.

University of Phoenix Stadium

I finally visited Levi’s Stadium on Wednesday. Took the tour and bought a ticket for Friday Night Lights, the rescheduled (and doubled) set of high school games. I’ll be roaming the stands this Friday, taking in both prep games. I’ll have thoughts on the tour and the stadium experience in posts to come.

Before that, I have some thoughts on the stadium of a 49ers divisional rival, the Arizona Cardinals’ University of Phoenix Stadium. Set to host the next Super Bowl in February, UoPS is a unique venue with both a retractable roof and retractable field. Despite the technological flourishes, in terms of amenities UoPS clearly belongs in the previous era of NFL stadia – modern and proficient but not as flashy and gilded as venues for the Cowboys, Giants/Jets, and 49ers became.

View of north end of stadium (via Flickr user MCSixth)

It’s not obvious from up close, but the façade is meant to evoke part of the desert environment, particularly a barrel cactus with a snake wrapped around it. It was designed by Peter Eisenman, with the stadium guts conceived by HOK Sport/Populous. On the north and east sides, the façade becomes two-tiered before abruptly ending with a gigantic Cardinals logo, itself meant to replace a snake’s head. It’s not uncommon to see this use of steel panels in airport architecture, and that’s what I expected when transitioning from outside to inside.

Walk in and the theme is clearly evident, though it’s most certainly not an airport. Lots of polished concrete, red signage, red and gray seats, and bits of white and yellow/gold throughout. The consistency of the theme is so thorough as to seem almost militaristic. The floors are clean enough to eat off, and the tour guide was very proud to brag about how every seat is cleaned off before and after every game. The biggest benefit of the retractable roof, besides climate control, is the prevention of desert dust buildup that would definitely occur if the stadium was not fully enclosed.

View from a corner luxury suite

View from a corner luxury suite

The seating bowl is as simple as a newer stadium gets. The lower deck has 40 rows of seats, followed by a 12-row club level, a suite level, and a split upper deck. Other than the lack of overhangs, it’s practically the same layout as a ballpark. It’s a layout that goes back some 20 years, since the rise of separate club and suite levels. Thankfully, the upper deck and roof don’t seem especially tall for a dome. All told there are 5 levels in the stadium, compared to 9 maximum at Levi’s Stadium.

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The grass field tray is a concrete tub on wheels filled with sand, dirt, pipes, and of course, grass. It stays outside most of the time to allow for its Bermuda grass surface to grow. Friday afternoon before a Sunday game a set of door on the south end opens and allows the 76 hp motors that control the field to ride on rails, smoothly and slowly into the stadium. The surface is 3 feet off the ground, so if any maintenance of the traction or irrigation systems has to occur, there are small passage built within for people to shimmy in and take care of any repairs. The seats are about 3 feet above the field, among the lowest seats in any new stadium. There are no field suites or clubs or other niceties down low, little public art on the concourses.

The roof uses BirdAir fabric, much like the inflatable domes of old. The use of the retractable field in conjunction with the roof allows for the roof opening to be smaller than other domes, since there’s no concern about growing grass inside the dome. The roof is supported by a pair of 700-foot long Brunel trusses, named after the great British civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who used the design to construct the Royal Albert Bridge in England. The trusses are anchored by four massive 17′ x 12′ concrete columns.

Industrial chic is one phrase that can be used to describe the aesthetic. The Cardinals and the Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority, which owns and operates the stadium, call their suite level boxes “lofts.” While they aren’t multi-level, they have exposed piping and no drop ceilings. The suite I saw on the tour didn’t have leather armchairs or hardwood tables or cabinets. As long as this level of amenities is acceptable to Cards’ suite buyers, there’s little to change except for the installation of HDTVs throughout, a badly needed upgrade. The only major changes made recently were the installation of a very good (IMO) WiFi network and the replacement of the scoreboards, which happened over the summer. One thing to keep in mind, A’s fans: the scoreboards cost $10.8 million. The bigger board in the south end is 164′ x 54′, whereas the smaller north board is 97′ x 27′.

If you want to get an idea for how much control the NFL has over its Super Bowl venues, check out the picture of the unpainted walls in the slideshow. The Authority had wanted to paint the walls on the service level prior to SB XLII (in 2008), but the NFL told them to wait until a decision came from New York. The game was played anyway without a final decision, and when the Authority asked the NFL again, they were told to wait further. Eventually the league allowed the lower walls to be painted team colors. The upper drywall remains dry to this day.

Having been in all of the recent new NFL Stadia (UoPS, MetLife, AT&T/Cowboys, Lucas Oil, NRG/Reliant), it’s rather amazing to observe the way these venues have grown in size, space, and spec in less than a decade. Another tour goer and I were comparing this stadium to the JerryWorld in Arlington. I said at the time that if UoPS is a nice Marriott or Hilton, AT&T Stadium is a Four Seasons. Luxury and opulence is on display there in Texas-sized proportions. It somehow seems twice as large as UoPS (it’s 25% larger in terms of capacity). While team owners continue to furnish these palaces in order to chase greater corporate dollar commitments, the simple fact that there’s a game being played is getting lost. The barrel cactus in Glendale holds 63,000, can be expanded to 78,000 if necessary, and has pretty much everything a team needs if not everything a team wants. That marks University of Phoenix Stadium as the end of an era. It’s very good, loud, and should last 40 years or more. The crazy thing is that I can look at it and not find that much different from a stadium like the Georgia Dome, now considered outdated by its tenant with a bling-bling replacement on the way. If a franchise ends up in LA in a new stadium, will the NFL abandon UoPS for future Super Bowls knowing that a much fancier stadium in a bigger market is on the way? Or will the league pressure Arizona to keep up in the stadium space race? Sometimes good enough just isn’t.