Category Archives: Editorial
Giants President/CEO Larry Baer slipped a rather shocking note into the festivities surrounding the spring training opener, when he said that he’d be willing to allow the A’s to play temporarily at AT&T Park.
Of course, there are conditions. From Merc scribe Alex Pavlovic’s article:
“They’ve got to come up with a long-term plan. Once that’s arrived at, then maybe you’ll take a step back and say, ‘Is there something we can do to be helpful?’ As a neighborly thing.
“Obviously, they’ve got to come up with what their plan is and we’ll go from there.”
The A’s have a long-term plan, but that’s in San Jose, the city that Baer is loathe to give up. That means that Baer is perfectly willing to be neighborly, as long as the A’s stay in Oakland.
If you want to read between the lines, you can consider this a memo to Oakland ballpark backers to get off their asses and get something done. He’s willing to be neighborly, up to a point. He’s willing to appear magnanimous in his willingness to share the jewel at China Basin, up to a point. As long as there’s some motion towards a ballpark in Oakland, it helps Baer’s cause.
Strategically, it’s easy to see why Baer is going this route. Now that the Giants have practically paid off their ballpark, they need another rationale for preserving the split territorial rights regime currently in place. They can talk about protecting their fan base in the South Bay, but frankly, the issue is Oakland. Simply put, can a ballpark be built in Oakland? If it can – and it pencils out for the A’s financially – then the current T-rights scheme can remain in place, whether Lew Wolff and John Fisher are the owners or someone else takes their place. If Oakland can’t be done, which Wolff has been arguing, the East Bay itself is done, and MLB will be forced to consider an alternative method of drawing up territories. Immediately that means the South Bay is the only other place in the Bay Area, with Wolff preferring that as opposed to leaving altogether, which Baer has hinted in the past he’d be okay with.
Baer’s little nudge should provide motivation for Oakland boosters, though Baer can’t make it easier to build in Oakland. Nor is it likely that the Giants will help Oakland out monetarily. News coming out of Raiders camp can’t be encouraging, as Raiders owner Mark Davis indicates that nothing is happening with Coliseum City, at least as he sees it. Davis characterized Coliseum City as perhaps Oakland’s last chance to keep the Raiders. By NFL rules, Davis has to make a good faith effort to keep the team in its current market, and Davis has certainly done that so far. If Coliseum City breaks down, the Raiders could leave for LA as early as a year from now, and Roger Goodell can’t say much about it. Sure, the NFL holds the purse strings, but by that point they’ll know full well the challenges of building a stadium in Oakland as much as LA. Like the A’s situation, if it doesn’t pencil out in Oakland, there may not be an East Bay alternative. Already he’s backing away from the Concord Naval Weapons Station and Dublin’s Camp Parks, which makes me wonder if he’s only feigning interest in those sites in order to appear thorough.
Davis also referred to the impact of the Oakland mayoral race, indicating that developers wouldn’t get off the fence until after the election. That runs counter to the idea that the various mayoral candidates could make Coliseum City progress by stumping for it along the way. The project has its own schedule and milestones, with the next big one, the Market Data Analysis, due in March. By spring we’re supposed to find out how feasible Coliseum City is, and by summer teams are supposed to be signed on to be partners – at least according to Mayor Jean Quan. Movement will come from making the numbers work, not magic. Davis is not the only person to wonder what exactly is happening with Coliseum City. We’re going through these phases with CC, where some small amount of progress happens, followed by a huge informational vacuum, then a sobering dose of reality, and then another small step forward. Eventually that cycle will be replaced by real discussions, actual reports, and true political and financial support (or a lack of it).
Going back to the Giants and Baer, I suppose that since he’s offering his place as a 1-2 year airbnb stint for the A’s, we can start talking about what that would look like. That’s for another day. For now, it makes the most sense to focus on Oakland. In the near term, that’s where the only future for the Raiders and A’s lies.
One of the emerging narratives I heard when the A’s started playing well in 2012 was
The A’s are playing well, they don’t need to move, they may not even need a new ballpark.
As the team continued to succeed through the 2013 season, the narrative changed to
The A’s are winning in Oakland, they have to build here. The fans are coming out!
If the A’s win the World Series, they’ll get their new ballpark in Oakland.
That lingered with me for a while. Other than the bandwagon factor on attendance, what does winning have to do with getting a new ballpark built? Turns out that winning has very little to do with getting a ballpark built. One idea often thrown out there is the notion that a team can ride the momentum of winning seasons, pennants, and rings to build the public goodwill necessary to seal a stadium deal. Over the past 20+ years, that generally has not been the case. Most ballparks are built absent of significant on-field success, the deals forged by behind-the-scenes political planning, not so much the optics of celebrating fans.
I wasn’t aware of how little winning mattered until I did the math. I took a look at all of the ballparks (not multipurpose stadia) built in the modern era, starting with US Cellular Field (New Comiskey) in 1991. Then I added up their respective home teams’ records and attendance going back 7 years. Why 7? A ballpark usually takes 3 years to build, an additional 2 to plan and approve, plus another 1-2 years depending on political and economic climate, legal hurdles, or other obstacles.
Out of 22 new ballparks built and 138 seasons – 129 full seasons when accounting for strike-shortened 1994 – played prior to opening of those parks, teams have combined to accrue a grand total of 1 World Series championship, 7 league pennants, and 29 postseason appearances (division crowns or wild card spots).
The astounding thing about all this futility is that the sole World Series was won by the Braves, a team that didn’t need to win to build support for a ballpark because they were getting a free ballpark after the 1996 Summer Olympics ended. In the run-up to the Games, the Braves were folded into the venue scheme when the Centennial Olympic Stadium was conceived in such a way that it could be converted from a track-and-field stadium to a ballpark after the Games ended. Since the funding was provided entirely by sponsors, there was no need to sell the stadium to the public. The Yankees experienced 2 World Series losses in the years before the new Yankee Stadium. Only 2 other teams even made it to the Series during their pre-ballpark runs.
What happened more frequently was that teams were quite terrible leading up to their new digs. The Tigers were atrocious by design, as Mike Ilitch chose to use that period for rebuilding and to help pay for what would eventually be Comerica Park. The Marlins were built to tank until a park came, as were the Brewers. The Pirates chose to rebuild in their post-Bonds period, an era that lasted much longer than anyone envisioned. And Cleveland was continuing that great legacy of ineptitude that spawned a movie franchise. Two teams in the above list were expansion teams. The Rockies played at Mile High for two years while Coors Field was being completed, whereas the Diamondbacks were deferred until 1998 when Chase Field opened. A third team, the Nationals, effectively acted as an expansion team because they were sold by MLB to the highest bidder and Washington was granted the franchise move conditionally upon completion of a ballpark deal.
The Giants, whose new ownership made a big splash in 1993 by signing Barry Bonds, was often said to have started working on their downtown SF ballpark plan once they took the reins. Even so, the team split its time between being competitive but not good enough to win the division (late 90′s) and nearly unwatchable (mid 90′s). Winning didn’t build the park, Bonds did.
Some teams tried to follow the formula of building a team to coincide with the opening of a park. The Giants are certainly one of those. The Indians are a classic example, going to the postseason in 6 out of the first 7 full seasons at Jacobs Field (Progressive). The Twins tried to anticipate such a window by signing local superstar Joe Mauer to a long contract extension coinciding with opening of Target Field. Injuries to Mauer, Justin Morneau, and a slew of pitchers severely crippled the franchise, which is still trying to get back to relevance after its successful opening season outdoors. The blueprint worked for the Orioles and Rangers, and more recently the Phillies. In all of these cases the franchises anticipated major revenue growth upon moving to their new homes, which is exactly what happened.
Going into the recent winter meetings, Billy Beane talked about not having a “five year plan,” code for the kind of rebuilding phase we’d normally associate with the run-up to a new ballpark. That’s a very different stance than he had taken in 2007 or 2010, when he was more likely to speak in terms of planning for the future, with a ballpark in Fremont or San Jose in mind. Now that the competitive window is wide open and the future of the franchise is in flux, there’s no need to be in that mode. It’s as pure a win-now mentality as we’ve seen with Beane at the helm.
Some will look at this and talk correlation not implying causation. What I’m saying is that historically, winning isn’t associated with teams and new parks until after those parks open. My point is to drop any hint of causation in the run-up because there is no correlation. If you are looking for causation, consider that 5 World Series (and 10 pennants) have been won by teams in the first 7 years after a modern era ballpark opened (NYY 1, PHI 1, STL 2, ARI 1).
That said, could winning help make the case for the A’s? I suppose there’s a small chance, if winning gooses season ticket and premium sales sustainably to the point of funding the ballpark to a similar amount seen with other ballparks. That would mean hitting around 20,000 season ticket subscriptions or more (the A’s are under 10,000 currently). It might also mean PSL sales, or locking in several dozen businesses to sponsorships and suite contracts. But is that realistic? There’s a disconnect here, as the big corporate deals tend to run in the 5-10 year range if not longer. Winning is much more fleeting than that. The Yankees, Red Sox, and Cardinals can leverage winning tradition better than most because they’ve proven it repeatedly. It’s a form of currency for them. The A’s don’t have that. If the A’s aren’t competitive this year for whatever reasons, look for the attendance and sales gains seen in the past two years to quickly recede. By winning, I don’t mean getting to the LDS or even the LCS. I mean winning the last game of the season. That’s our legacy, whether we’re talking Finley, Haas, Schott, or Wolff. To look to winning as an elixir to solve the ballpark dilemma is to trivialize winning. Anyone who watched the A’s in the late 90′s, late 00′s, and late 70′s knows full well how difficult winning is. My advice to fans is to not worry about winning creating momentum. Enjoy the on field exploits as they occur, and let the ballpark business unfold on its own. You can’t count on winning being a big part of the solution.
Mark Purdy has a new column. It’s designed to get San Jose supporters to buck up, keep a stiff upper lip, hang in there, what have you. It has a bunch of quotes from the likes of San Jose Councilman Sam Liccardo and A’s managing partner Lew Wolff that trash Oakland. It’s a counterpoint to Marcus Thompson’s column from over the weekend that was meant to breathe life into the Keep-the-A’s-In-Oakland movement. Purdy laid odds, a generally weak tool to use for complicated situations like this:
Odds of the 2020 Athletics playing in a new Oakland ballpark: 25-1.
Odds of the 2020 Athletics playing in a new San Jose ballpark: 10-1.
Odds of the 2020 Athletics playing at AT&T Park: 50-1.
Odds of the 2020 Athletics playing in another part of the country: 80-1.
Odds of the 2020 Athletics still playing at decaying O.co Coliseum, with everybody still arguing about where they should move: 2-1.
Perhaps Steven Tavares from the East Bay Citizen spent too much time at Oakland’s City Council session tonight (the A’s lease extension was approved, BTW), but something in Purdy’s column flipped Tavares’s wig, leading to a litany of entertaining, rant-filled tweets. Among them:
Re: the A’s at AT&T, future feasibility of Howard Terminal, @mercpurdy is confusing his wishful thinking with reality.
— Steven Tavares (@eastbaycitizen) December 11, 2013
On the “new thinking” comment: have the A’s finally opened a dialogue with the city, county after all these years of avoiding them? #oakmtg
— Steven Tavares (@eastbaycitizen) December 11, 2013
On the ground in Oakland is a sense the city has gained a small lead with its stadium situations. Now, can they maintain and grow it?
— Steven Tavares (@eastbaycitizen) December 11, 2013
You see, here is the problem. You have one guy laying odds, and another characterizing one party as in the lead. The brutal truth is that this type of narrative is completely useless. It’s bullshit. If you scratch the surface even a little bit, any oversimplified telling like this crumbles to dust. And there’s a simple reason for this.
There is no race.
We know what a horse race looks like. The showcasing of the Expos when MLB bought the team out from Jeff Loria is proof of that. Las Vegas and Portland were used in the process, and DC was taken. We’re not seeing that here. That’s not to say that MLB and either Commissioner Selig or his replacement will end up choosing between Oakland and San Jose at some point. They well could. The problem is that MLB doesn’t like either city’s plan, so it’s not going to choose either city. You can’t have a race when the judge thinks the two competitors don’t qualify. MLB would rather intervene only when it has to, say, when the A’s lease extension talks hit a snag. Then it can breath a sigh of relief, stretch it out a couple more years, and hope that a solution materializes.
Guess what? Oakland and San Jose pols are hoping for the same thing! Oakland is hoping that Wolff gives up and MLB kills off San Jose, so that they’re the only horse left. San Jose hopes that Oakland exposes itself as incapable of getting a deal done, forcing MLB to deal with San Jose. (At least San Jose is trying to force the issue with the lawsuit, but that’s a long shot at best.) None of these rather similar hope-based strategies are predicated on getting a site and pulling together financing.
Unless San Jose and Oakland provide something MLB wants ($$$ or an equivalent), MLB doesn’t have to listen to either one. When MLB negotiated the Coliseum extension, it didn’t set a deadline for Oakland to get a deal done. Selig didn’t tell Oakland to get Howard Terminal ready ASAP – hell, he didn’t do that for Victory Court either. If any substantive talks for a new ballpark are going to take place, MLB will have to be at the table brokering everything because of the intense mutual distrust between Oakland and A’s ownership. That’s exactly what happened in Miami (hello again, Loria!), and we know how badly that turned out. Yet do you hear about something like that happening in Oakland? Nope.
Now maybe MLB’s hand will be forced if Oakland decides to go with the Raiders’ preference of demolishing the Coliseum and leaving the A’s with no obvious place to play. Then it could support Wolff and say to Oakland, you made your choice. It could explore Howard Terminal further, though I suspect it has plenty of information on which to base a decision by now. It could go to San Jose, which would mean it would have to untangle the mess made by the Giants – who I hear have spent eight figures on legal work trying to derail the A’s and San Jose so far. As far as the A’s are concerned, MLB probably views them as an unstable Third World country on another continent. It would rather not get involved.
So until MLB actually decides to give a damn, let’s dispense with this horse race narrative. It’s not helpful and it only provides false hope to fans on either side of the divide, or even those who don’t particular care for a city and just want to keep the team in the Bay Area. It’s not fair to fans, and it’s a total distraction.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’re probably already familiar with my stance on public subsidies for sports teams. It has perhaps become more hardline over the years, as civic coffers have dried up and redevelopment died out. The ideas are pretty simple, and I don’t expect everyone to think the same way I do:
- Public money for stadia in the form of cash, loans, or bonds – whether or not secured by upfront taxes or fees – should never happen in this day and age.
- All new or renovated venues that do not require public money are generally good, as long as they don’t come with significant kickbacks for the team and developers.
- Any public assistance that goes beyond processing permits or planning work (providing land, money, or other benefits) should require a public vote over the terms of the deal.
Note that I haven’t specified dollar values for anything. That means that it doesn’t matter if a municipality provides $1 million or $1 billion in assistance - any assistance merits a referendum. There is no gray area at work.
As currently structured right now the Sacramento Kings’ new arena will not go to the ballot box. The City Council and Mayor Kevin Johnson have argued that a referendum isn’t necessary isn’t because no new general taxes are being levied. Councilman Steve Hansen (no relation to Seattle investor Chris Hansen – we’ll get to that in a bit) even argued in a forum earlier this week that because Sacramento’s airport received $1 billion in publicly-funded improvements without a vote, the arena shouldn’t either. That is utterly absurd. First of all, an airport in a major city is a pretty important piece of public infrastructure, incomparable to an arena, which is a luxury. Secondly, it’s foolish to use third grade-level reasoning to justify a political move such as this (“My friend’s parents let him stay out late, why can’t I?”). Not voting on airport improvements was arguably a bad move in the first place. Not voting on an arena would only compound that error.
An anti-arena group, STOP, emerged as the only entity with enough cash to fund a petition drive that would’ve put the arena on a ballot. STOP’s origins were murky, as it was connected to Loeb & Loeb, a Southern California law firm associated with the Maloof family (former Kings owners). Initially that led to accusations that the Maloofs funded STOP. It turns out that the aforementioned Chris Hansen had actually funded STOP to the tune of $100,000. The non-disclosure and solicitation of the contribution(s) were all state campaign-reporting violations. Hansen eventually admitted his part in the subterfuge and apologized, explaining that he wouldn’t fund the campaign further. Arena advocates are rightly incensed and not satisfied with Hansen’s apology, going as far as asking the hedge fund manager to pull back all gathered signatures. In addition, STOP pulled some shady tactics in misrepresenting aspects of the arena plan, which has caused several thousand petition signers to request their names be removed.
Messy, right? This brouhaha didn’t start with Hansen or pro-arena forces. It started with the need for a referendum. Since the City decided the arena didn’t need one, the anti-arena political machine geared up to get enough signatures to force one. That got another group going in defense of the plan, trying to head off the petition drive at the pass. All of it, and I mean all of it, is unsavory. There’s a very simple, easy way to resolve this once and for all: just allow the referendum to take place. Even if the delay counts for several months it shouldn’t materially impact the construction plan, which has numerous pieces to work out including a potential eminent domain land acquisition. If the pro-arena forces are as confident as they say they are about the plan, there’s no reason to skip this crucial civic step. Mayor KJ has called the arena the biggest project in the City’s history. Shouldn’t the biggest project in the City’s history be confirmed by plebiscite? Forget the dirty politics, the real and phony outrage. Let it all air out in a real campaign. Sacramento voters at least deserve that amount of respect.
Plus, let’s not forget that one famous Sacramentan was caught on the other side of this divide. Last year I wrote about Gregg Lukenbill’s plot to kill the original China Basin ballpark in 1989 with mailers targeting San Francisco voters, all part of a plan to coax the team northeast along I-80 to land next to ARCO (Sleep Train) Arena. (An even more revealing account can be found at The California Fix.) Why no outrage? Because that’s part of the game. It’s also part of the past. After all, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan certainly picked up a few votes after the revelation that Lew Wolff donated $25k to presumed frontrunner Dom Perata’s campaign in 2010. How’d that work out in the end for Oakland?
Eventually, San Francisco got new ownership in that were willing to spend their own money on a ballpark, with minimal city assistance (land, infrastructure). Even that plan ended up in a referendum, one that won in a landslide. Santa Clara’s 49ers stadium plans received legitimacy thanks to their victory at the ballot box, as did San Jose’s arena plans. Meanwhile, Oakland pushed Mt. Davis (and arena renovations) through without a city or county vote to disastrous effects, and pols are hinting at even more stadium plans that won’t require referenda. Are these people nuts? Have some respect for your citizens, politicians. Allow for campaigns. Allow the citizens and fans to be fully educated on the issues. You owe them that much. Sure, campaigns are expensive. The billionaires and millionaires who want these projects can afford campaign costs, they’ve seen and done it before. Chances are that they’ll outspend opponents 10:1. They have the resources. That’s fine. That’s the way the process works. The track record, at least in this state, is that allowing proper vetting of stadium projects is good for all concerned. If stadium and arena proponents aren’t willing to accede to a referendum request, it’s worth wondering what they’re hiding.
Last week, Zennie Abraham teased with one of his video blogs, this one about Coliseum City. In it, he claimed that a financing plan for Coliseum City fell apart recently.
Abraham, who is still connected with Oakland City Hall to an extent, made a few other points:
- Mega-developer Forest City Enterprises (responsible for Uptown among other projects) was/is to be the master developer.
- A businessman from Torrance wants to bring the Raiders south.
- The Raiders pushed for a cheaper, open-air stadium ($900 million)
Last night Abraham elaborated on the story, filling in some of the gaps.
- The “Torrance businessman” is in fact Ed Roski, he of the City of Industry stadium plan.
- Roski attended a Clippers game in april with Raiders managing partner Mark Davis, who may be willing to split with 17% of the team to take care of some inheritance tax obligations after Al Davis passed away. In the past Roski has wanted a 30% share, large enough to be managing partner.
- A big stumbling block is the potential of seat license sales, which continues to plague the original Mt. Davis project but is also considered a requirement for new NFL stadia due to the enormous cost.
- Redevelopment funding alternatives are under consideration, such as the establishment of a Mello Roos or Community Facilities District (CFD). It’s not clear how that would work in the case of Coliseum City where a large swath of land is publicly owned. Normally, property owners all choose to vote to tax themselves to fund public improvements, such as infrastructure.
Here’s the thing about Roski’s plan: it’s about as sexy to the NFL as Coliseum City is to MLB. The main draw of Industry was Roski’s advertised low cost to implement, thanks to cheap land, a cheaper stadium design (built into a hillside), and redevelopment money that could’ve paid for new infrastructure. The state’s RDA raid claimed $180 million that was to be earmarked for the project. If, as expected, the funds go away, Roski might have to lobby local legislators to pass a bill that creates a carveout on his behalf, which is a step further than what the Warriors and AEG were seeking in their venue efforts. Regardless, you can’t blame Roski for trying. He waited until the Farmers Field deal fell apart. He can do the same for Coliseum City.
The interesting outside angle for Roski is that last week St. Louis declined to pay for $700 million in improvements for the Edward Jones Dome, setting the stage for negotiations on what would probably be a new outdoor stadium somewhere in the metro. Of course, a new NFL stadium is guaranteed to cost more than $700 million, so it’s hard to know what kind of deal the city/county/state could offer Rams owner Stan Kroenke. A situation involving the Rams and Raiders at Roski’s Industry with Roski getting smaller minority shares could be just the ticket. Now there’s no speculation of this deal happening, but it’s definitely an option, if remote.
Going back to Coliseum City, I’ve said for over a year now that the financing for the project, whatever the scale is, looks iffy at best. That’s expected to be borne out in a feasibility study that should come out latter this summer/fall. What we’ve been told so far has not made the financing picture any clearer:
- City Administrator Fred Blackwell said in February that the Raiders stadium may not end up with a NFL G-4 loan because of difficulty getting the revenue backing for the loan (club seats). The G-4 money may not be an issue moving forward since the Falcons are getting the last full slice.
- Contradicting Blackwell, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan has said that she wants the NFL’s loan. She also said she wanted a retractable dome stadium, which appears to be a nonstarter at this point.
- The “preferred” open air stadium will still cost $900 million, which isn’t chump change, and if the 49ers’ stadium is any guide, destined to grow in cost. In most current stadium development agreements the team is on the hook for cost overruns. How could the Raiders agree to that when Mark Davis doesn’t have the cash?
- If it’s not a dome it can’t be used as a convention center or an otherwise flexible facility. What incentive is there for Oakland and Alameda County to invest limited resources for a limited use stadium? Is it just because the Raiders are playing nice right now?
Another interesting element about the financing piece is that investors are focused on the area currently known as the Coliseum complex, plus the Malibu/HomeBase lots. In the Coliseum City study, an alternative will include a ballpark in the northern corner of the complex. But what if Forest City recommends that additional commercial or retail development go there instead to help pay for the cost of the NFL stadium? That would be something. Forest City helps kill two Oakland ballpark plans (even if no one cares for Coliseum City for the A’s). Why not get them to develop Howard Terminal while you’re at it?
Speculation about who outside investors are or which country they come from is neither here nor there. The problem is that whoever it is, they need to be able to make money off this plan. We’re starting to see far more realistic discussion of the revenue generating capability at Coliseum City, not some pie-in-the-sky projections. This is a good thing, because it will eventually lead to the adult conversation about what it’ll take to keep one, two, or all three teams in town. Until now every party involved in Coliseum City has been looking to get someone else to pay for their stadium, their resurgence. Soon, we’ll finally find how much it’ll cost everyone, including the public. That’s a lot more honest than the discussion that led to Mt. Davis.
Previous posts about Howard Terminal:
Later today the Port of Oakland’s Board of Port Commissioners will hold a meeting, during which an important settlement with SSA Marine will be discussed. This settlement is important as it should resolve the biggest legal obstacle hanging over Howard Terminal. The settlement discussion is a closed session item, so the terms weren’t made publicly available. Still, there’s no reason to think that the terms won’t be approved as the parties apparently have been in discussion for some time, and would probably prefer to avoid further litigation (which could run through next year).
During the Don Knauss interview, he mentioned that environmental concerns were overblown. To wit:
We’ve done the diligence there as well and been assured by experts that a ballpark can be built on that site without a substantial cost associated with cleanup. Basically we can build a ballpark on top of that site without having to scrape the site clean like AT&T was built on (China Basin).
Wait a minute. China Basin was built without having to scrape it clean? Actually, it was scraped clean. Site remediation was done by the Giants, not the City or Port, and reimbursed to some degree by the federal government via the Federal Brownfields Tax Initiative. Piles were driven deep into bay mud (fill) to provide a proper foundation. Knauss is suggesting that a Howard Terminal ballpark can be built without replacing the fill currently at the site or even piercing the asphalt cap designed to contain the site’s contamination. I’ve heard this claim before but not the plan behind it. Naturally I have to be skeptical of this claim. China Basin and Howard Terminal are similar enough that it’s hard to conceive of how this would work.
AT&T Park’s foundation was built the many expected: land was cleared, cleaned up, and piles were driven to support the stands and ancillary buildings. This was required because China Basin sits in an extreme liquefaction zone. Howard Terminal also sits in an extreme liquefaction zone, which would presumably mean similar measures to China Basin would have to be undertaken. The difference with Howard Terminal is that the State of California put the asphalt cap over the contamination over a decade ago instead of cleaning it up completely, a process which would’ve cost $100 million ($131 million in 2012). That cost has long been the biggest source of the site costs associated with Howard Terminal.
Then again, maybe Knauss and the Oakland backers have a clever, innovative plan that would not require piercing the asphalt cap, or at least minimizing the number of intrusions. That would probably require building a smaller number of larger sized footings at the site, then constructing an above grade podium on which the ballpark would be placed. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Bryan Grunwald proposed a similar approach at his 980 Park site. There’s no concrete estimate of the cost of such a podium, but I’d expect it to be at least $100 million given the the size and load it would have to carry. That could conceivably be cheaper than cleaning up Howard Terminal. Would it be that much cheaper? We’re talking about building a ballpark in a liquefaction zone. There’s no room to cut corners.
Another issue is the amount of planned infrastructure. Again, Knauss claims that costs are being overblown. But he also acknowledged that parking would need to be provided on site, which makes sense given the lack of parking in the immediate area (only 1,200 spaces within 1/3 mile). And if more parking is to be provided on the 50-acre Howard Terminal site, more infrastructure has to be built to bring cars into the site. I had previously suggested two overpasses, one for vehicle traffic and one for pedestrians. Add those to the podium, other site improvements, and additional improvements to the area north of HT, and we’re talking about an estimate north of $150 million. Maybe it’s less, maybe they’ve come up with something really innovative. The problem is that quality engineering is expensive and requires expensive materials. Heck, even bad engineering can be really expensive.
Finally, there’s the lingering question of Who will pay for it? The Giants paid for their site cleanup, got a tax credit from the Feds, and received a minimal amount of TIF funds for the surrounding area. If Knauss is suggesting the same kind of deal to Lew Wolff, it’s a nonstarter. That’s around $650 million worth of risk, 95% of it to be borne by the A’s, with little promise of the kinds of returns the Giants got at China Basin. (Note: Walter Shorenstein thought China Basin was so risky that he divested his share of the Giants, and many within The Lodge looked askance at the plan.)
Maybe, just maybe, Knauss and his people have this figured out. Maybe there’s a creative way to make this all work for everyone. Again, I’m skeptical. Many of the same claims were made about Victory Court, and that site was swept under the rug with barely a peep.
P.S. – We haven’t even touched the transportation gap at Howard Terminal (BART or the mythical streetcar). Or whether the City, Port, and County would create yet another joint powers authority. Or lease terms. Or the lack of redevelopment funds for surrounding area improvements.