Coliseum City: The campus that wants to be a downtown

Quick – can you guess how many downtown ballparks are in Major League Baseball? Downtown ballparks?

Would you guess there are 18?

Well, you’d be wrong. There are 15 downtown ballparks, half of baseball. They are:

  1. AT&T Park, San Francisco
  2. Busch Stadium, St. Louis
  3. Chase Field, Phoenix
  4. Comerica Park, Detroit
  5. Coors Field, Denver
  6. Great American Ball Park, Cincinnati
  7. Minute Maid Park, Houston
  8. Nationals Park, Washington
  9. Camden Yards, Baltimore
  10. Petco Park, San Diego
  11. PNC Park, Pittsburgh
  12. Progressive Field, Cleveland
  13. Rogers Centre, Toronto
  14. Safeco Field, Seattle
  15. Target Field, Minneapolis

All of these parks have one thing in common besides being located in a city’s central business district: they opened in the last ~25 years. Some are considered part of the portfolio of new classics, such as AT&T, Petco, PNC, Camden Yards, and Safeco. The rest, while perfectly good venues, are outclassed in one way or another. Many were anchors of large-scale redevelopment projects. Some were wildly successful (AT&T) while others couldn’t quite deliver on their promise (Comerica, Busch). Some are on the fringes of downtown. Others were placed on land that had a hard time being developed into more common uses (residential, office).

Missing from the above list are the most iconic older ballparks and their replacements. Fenway Park is in the Fenway-Kenmore neighborhood, 1.5 miles west of Boston’s compact downtown or central business district. Wrigley Field is 4 miles from Chicago’s Loop. Yankee Stadium is 8 miles from the southern tip of Manhattan, progenitor of the term downtown. Instead, these parks are in established neighborhoods.

5.2 miles from the Coliseum to downtown Oakland

5.2 miles from the Coliseum to downtown Oakland

Having legacy parks built away from the urban core was largely an economically driven decision, since it was often easier for team owners to assemble land away from downtowns. A century ago up through the end of WWII, parking was not a major issue, so the complications of having huge parking lots or garages didn’t come up. It was the pre-NIMBY area, with no environmental impact reports or CEQA. To say it was a simpler time would be an understatement. The ballparks thrived, gave the neighborhoods character, and became the landmarks we know today. Some of them at least. More likely, peers like Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field or Crosley Field in Cincinnati were phased out because they were too small, lacked parking for postwar suburban fans, or other reasons. In those situations, owners often turned to big, modern multipurpose stadia, usually in downtowns. As those modern replacements turned into ugly relics, they were themselves replaced by “retro” ballparks that harkened back to that simpler era. But they were situated in downtowns, not neighborhoods, so they didn’t quite have that magical character Wrigley and Fenway have. To date there hasn’t been a neighborhood park concept developed anywhere in MLB during the modern era.

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An early rendering of Coliseum City

An early rendering of Coliseum City

Which brings me to Coliseum City. Throughout this entire Coliseum City process, backers have been selling the idea of this new, exciting, urban landscape, marked by glittering venues and tall high-rises. It looks like a second downtown for Oakland, doesn’t it? That’s a sentiment I had been hearing a lot since renderings by JRDV were released. Today this was confirmed by Andy Dolich, who wrote in an excellent piece at CSN Bay Area that the A’s have a good bargaining position for a future Oakland ballpark. The thing that bothered me was this:

Oakland is a gritty yet highly competitive city with suburbs, exurbs, and even far away counties with fans, businesses and broadcast entities that will support a coherent stay-at-home strategy for the Raiders and A’s. The desolation of China Basin turned into the Miracle of Mission Bay with AT&T Park as its nucleus. That same dream can turn into reality in and around the Oakland Coliseum site.

Let’s be clear about something. Coliseum City is not China Basin. Any attempt to draw similarities between the two is fanciful. China Basin is less than a mile from downtown and only 1/4 mile from South Park, long the ground zero for startups in SF. Combine that proximity with the touristy allure of the Embarcadero and you create that “miracle.” Oakland has a lot of land available at the Coliseum, but it doesn’t have any of those factors. The Coliseum complex is more than 5 miles from downtown Oakland. That’s nearly the length of Alameda, or longer than the Bay Bridge.

Coliseum City was conceived as a grab bag of everything a city politician might want to see developed on his/her watch: high quality office space, high-rise hotels, a fancy transit hub, housing, and yeah, those sparkling new sports venues that will keep the teams from escaping to other markets. Other than the presence of the existing BART station, there’s little to truly propel development. The complex is not a downtown, it’s an industrial area, so convincing developers and financiers to take a chance on the project has proven exceedingly difficult.

Take a look at the road plan below. The complex is somewhat screwed, because it’s hemmed in by a creek, railroad tracks, and the Nimitz Freeway on three sides. The lack of streets feeding into it creates a handful of major chokepoints. Tying them all together is a new loop road that traverses the complex. Downtowns don’t have loop roads. They have main streets. A loop road is something you’d find at a campus development. The infrastructure in place in and around the Coliseum is more suited to a theme park than a downtown.

Road plan for Coliseum City

Road plan for Coliseum City

A true downtown has a spine, a major arterial road through which transit and cars run. That’s not part of the Coliseum City, nor can it be. The major streets are a freeway plus San Leandro Street and Hegenberger Road, all of which form the perimeter of the core (downtown) area. BART also doesn’t run through, and it only provides one stop that can only access the “downtown” via a new pedestrian bridge. Downtown Oakland is served by two BART stations, both of which can be accessed from various streets and directions. Downtown SF has four stations.

plan

An elevated concourse serves as the spine of the plan and provides open space

See what I’m getting at here? The lack of multiple ingress/egress points makes this a complete nightmare in terms of access. Imagine a dual-event scenario at the Coliseum in which both the stadium and arena are in use (you could also use a 36,000-strong sellout baseball crowd as a benchmark). Both have events that start at 7 PM on a weeknight. Now imagine two-way traffic added to the mix: a few thousand office workers leaving while another few thousand residents arrive. That’s bustling, right? There’s another term for it: gridlock. Established downtowns have a street grid that by its very design can help mitigate that gridlock. Coliseum City doesn’t, and it shows in the EIR’s traffic study. Only small mitigation measures are identified, and some intersections have no mitigation at all. As a result, the main intersections or gateways all end up with Level of Service (LOS) F grades, the worst you can get. Traffic is a dual-edged sword. When in a neighborhood it’s a sign of vitality. It’s also a major annoyance. Expanding BART at the transit hub would help encourage patrons to use transit, but that’s not going to be for everyone.

The spine is an elevated grand concourse that connects the BART station/transit hub to the football stadium and extends to the rest of the development via stairways. It could even run across 880 to near the Estuary. While it will deliver people from the hub to the rest of the complex, it will also serve as a huge wall separating the complex in two. I’m sure the idea is to evoke the wildly successful High Line in New York, a former elevated train line that was converted into a greenbelt on the West Side. The concourse is going to be much wider and serve more uses than the High Line, which at most points is rather narrow. The High Line snakes through Chelsea, a little piece of heaven in a part of Manhattan that lacks parks. The thing about the High Line is that people generally don’t use it as a main way to move between places. It’s a diversion. CC’s concourse is meant to be a main drag, so much that it has a streetcar embedded within. I’m going to guess that if the development doesn’t expand much beyond the Coliseum complex, that streetcar is a nonstarter.

Concourse at Coliseum City

Concourse at Coliseum City

The High Line in Manhattan

The High Line in Manhattan at dusk

There’s a philosophical question to ask about Coliseum City. If so many people are talking about it in terms of a second downtown, what does that mean for the current downtown? Oakland’s downtown/uptown areas have survived the recession, riots and protests, and have gotten funkier and cooler in the process. It becomes a matter of how Oakland balances out the needs of a downtown that grew up on its own versus a planned campus development designed to resemble a downtown.

When you look at old parcel maps of the complex, you can see dotted lines where streets were supposed to be laid out. Originally the area was supposed to become a subdivision, carrying over the street numbering convention found on the other side of the tracks. I can’t help but think that the project would be more feasible and ultimately successful if its proponents tried to make it a real neighborhood instead of a planned campus. That would be the truly retro move: a neighborhood that works in scale with a ballpark, that doesn’t have pie-in-the-sky planning goals, that echoes the growth of other neighborhoods in Oakland. Yes, there would be parking as that’s a necessary evil piece of infrastructure. The plan would be complementary to downtown instead of competing directly against downtown. Chances are it would be more egalitarian than Coliseum City. If Oakland really wants to stand out, to make something special, it should stop looking jealously across the Bay for something to copy like a waterfront ballpark. A neighborhood ballpark, done the right way, would be that unique plan. Oakland could do that if it wasn’t so starry-eyed. Honestly Oakland, what would you rather have: a second competing downtown, or Wrigleyville/Fenway?

P.S. – When we saw the plans, Jeffrey (Editor at large) and I talked over some of the possibilities. One thing that we agreed on was that Oakland might have the best chance of developing the whole thing if Coliseum City attracted one or two major employers to take much of the office/R&D space. Say that a growing tech company in San Francisco wanted to escape the ultra-high rents there, but wanted space to expand on their own terms instead of leasing multiple floors in different buildings. Coliseum City presents one of the few opportunities to build a campus close to SF. It’s a potentially great deal for Oakland: high-profile company relocates to Coliseum City, leases a large amount of space, has its own BART station. In a way that feeds into the idea that Coliseum City is really a campus, because instead of 12 or 20 different companies taking up different amounts of space, you have one. The company has its own big commuter shuttle buses and a fleet of private Ubers coming in and out, just like Silicon Valley.

John Fisher and the Art of Equivocation

A’s and Quakes co-owner John Fisher was on hand at the Avaya Stadium ribbon-cutting ceremony in San Jose today. He was obviously there to celebrate end of the Quakes’ long journey to their own home. Fisher is known as the “soccer guy” in the ownership group, and Elliott Almond’s article sheds some light on that soccer background.

However, the Merc’s headline writer saw fit to make this about baseball with the title, “A’s owner John Fisher: Baseball team’s turn for new stadium.” Fisher was indeed asked about a ballpark for the A’s, and as you’d expect, he provided no new information. Instead he said this:

The Bay Area deserves great facilities. We live in the greatest area in the world and we have incredible teams that have performed tremendously well.

Whether you think Fisher was being intentionally vague or simply choosing to focus on the accomplishment at hand, it was Fisher’s first real statement about anything as part of the ownership group. That in itself is pretty big. I don’t necessarily expect more from him or a more visible role, though his presence at an earlier meeting with Libby Schaaf is perhaps promising. Keith Wolff was also at the Avaya Stadium ceremony, while Lew Wolff has been in Mesa for spring training activities.

Now take a look at these quotes.

This has been my biggest thing, ingress and egress for the (venue) and the parking are the two most important things to me.

In these focus groups we’ve had in there in the last week or two, the first question seven out of eight groups asked is, ‘Where is the parking?’

They’re showing all this grand building, a baseball stadium, there’s a football stadium there’s the arena, there’s all these residential things. And there’s no parking.

Did that come from Mark Davis? Or Lew Wolff?

And this one:

Parking is a key issue for us. We want surface parking surrounding the (venue) wherever we build it unless we’re in the heart of a downtown.

Davis? Or Wolff?

Now consider the the reaction to these quotes. The first set received little blowback at the time. The second had a lot of negative reaction. The content and sentiment were essentially the same. They have problems with how Coliseum City is conceived because it could cause problems with the way they operate their respective franchises. Then why such dramatically different reactions?

With Davis, many assume that either he’s more-or-less earnest about most everything: his handling of the stadium issue, his management of the Raiders, right down to the establishments he chooses to patronize. (That shouldn’t be confused with success.) Wolff, on the other hand, is considered forever the schemer looking for any excuse to leave. He’s the absentee owner, even though both guys are based in LA. Wolff has the anti-Oakland track record. His timing is spectacularly bad at times. Davis is Tommy Boy, all about honoring his dad. Whatever indiscretions or failures Davis has can be chalked up to being the family black sheep. He’s not really supposed to be here.

It just goes to show that even when two men have the same message, the prevailing narrative takes over. At some point these men will have to make deals, and those narratives will fade away. Or maybe they’ll be reinforced.

Yesterday’s important takeaway is that City & County are on the same page

Update 1:05 PM – SF Business Times has more on the land deal aspect, including quotes from Floyd Kephart. 

Yes, Raiders and A’s fans alike can start dreaming up their new stadium(s), all shiny and new. A proper team store inside each. There will be chances to compare whatever’s proposed on each proposal’s merits. And there’s a great likelihood that whatever each team proposes pushes the other out of the Coliseum due to scarce land resources and financing difficulties. When those proposals are presented, we’ll have plenty of time to discuss them. It’s entirely speculation at this point, so I don’t want to focus on that yet.

Instead, I want to look at the one less exciting news item that came out of the last couple of days. As Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf reiterated during her interview with Damon Bruce yesterday, the City of Oakland and Alameda County are finally working together on plans for the Coliseum. Prior to this week, the City had been working on Coliseum City independently of the County, leaving the County to consider working on its own alternatives. They even got to the point of hiring a new general manager for the JPA along with a development consulting firm headed by former City Manager Robert Bobb before backing away. Eventually they decided that the best way forward was to work in concert with the City, since both parties will need to sign off on any future plans.

The biggest obstacle for the City and County is that blasted remaining Coliseum complex debt. At $200 million (split almost evenly between the stadium and arena), it is an albatross threatening the feasibility of any project at the Coliseum. Thankfully, that debt is being whittled away over time by annual payments, so in a few years it’ll be about 25% less. That’s still a heavy load on buildings that may well be demolished as part of any plan, so dealing with the debt in a responsible way is arguably the biggest responsibility for Oakland and Alameda County all told.

The Coliseum complex's location adjacent to BART makes it hugely valuable to developers

The Coliseum complex’s location adjacent to BART makes it hugely valuable to developers

The one major asset the City and County have available to them is 120 acres of land, comprised of the Coliseum complex, additionally required property out to Hegenberger, and a smattering of parcels near the BART station. Many are presuming that the land could be swapped for the remaining debt, however much that is when the time comes. That may be a bad presumption, considering the complex’s value as a potential Transit Oriented Development site. Even if you discard 30 acres for new venues, that’s 90 acres to play with, one of the largest TOD sites in the Bay Area (along with Bay Meadows and San Jose Berryessa).

How much is the Coliseum land worth? Located in East Oakland and surrounded by light industrial uses, no one’s going to ask for $7-10 million. What is the the fair market value, though? A listing on Loopnet for nearly 3 acres just north of the complex is asking for $6.75 million, or $2.36 million per acre.

coli-nearby

At that rate, the publicly owned 120 acres would be worth $283 million, which would be double the value of the remaining Coliseum debt in a few years. Maybe the JPA uses land sale proceeds for infrastructure, maybe it gets split between the City and County – either way it’s worth more than simply giving away the land to the Raiders or A’s in exchange for paying the debt. One of the owners may even consider those proceeds as a worthy public contribution for a stadium. As the adult conversation continues in earnest, City and County will bring in an appraiser to figure out FMV for that land, find out its revenue generating potential as it gets rezoned, and plan for how to use future revenue streams. It’s a conversation that’s bigger than just keeping teams in town.

If a proposal lowballs land value, as Lew Wolff’s 66th/High (Coliseum North) plan did, selling the land may be considered a nonstarter. If land is the public’s biggest asset and leverage, it hold true to guarding it in the public’s interest. That may lead to discussions in which only parts of the land are sold. In any case, it should be a very lively conversation, one Oakland and Alameda County need to have whether there are two or zero teams in Oakland in a decade.

Final thoughts on SF’s failed Olympic bid

The Winter Olympics in Sochi and Summer Olympics in Beijing set new, possibly unreachable levels of state-sponsored expenditures, all to show how healthy and resurgent Russia and China were in front of the world stage. There’s no need for such a dog-and-pony show in the US, so it was smart for the USOC to look for smart, cost-effective bids for 2024.

Boston beat out SF, LA, and Washington DC despite being smaller in terms of area and population than all three. Boston’s land mass is almost the same size as San Francisco, though it isn’t organized into a neat seven mile by seven mile square. It’s uneven, spanning both sides of the Charles River. Several suburbs butt up right next to Boston, whereas SF is surrounded by water on three sides. Sprawl was always going to be an Achilles heel in SF’s bid. BASOC tried to show a compact bid to USOC, but USOC wasn’t fooled. Boston presented a truly compact bid. SF faked it, new stadium in Oakland or no.

As I looked at the various bids, it became abundantly clear that a different factor hurts SF, and will continue to hurt SF every time it chooses to submit bids for the Olympics. The reasoning is simple.

San Francisco lacks a large, major university campus in or near the city.

LA’s bid was structured around a downtown hub anchored by Staples Center/LACC and the LA Memorial Coliseum, which happens to be next to USC. Two other hubs were at the UCLA campus in Westwood, and in Carson at the CSU-Dominguez Hills campus. Boston’s winning bid utilizes facilities at the campuses of Harvard and MIT in nearby Cambridge. Previously, China built arenas at Beijing’s Institute of Technology. Atlanta has Georgia Tech close to downtown. Athens suffered by building to compensate for not having preexisting venues, including many secondary facilities normally found on college campuses.

SF has three universities within city limits: tucked away USF, facilities-poor SF State, and UCSF. None of those schools have campuses large enough to house the kinds of venues the Summer Olympics requires. The closest large campuses are in Berkeley and Palo Alto. The Cal campus is 12 miles away, Stanford is three times that. Such a spread is tough sell when competing against more compact bid structures.

Blame it partly on the Bay. From a historical standpoint, San Francisco Bay had huge strategic value as a military port. There are forts on both sides of the Golden Gate, plus bases in the North, East, and South Bay regions. The government chose to build two large shipyards within SF city limits: Hunters Point in the southeast part of the city, and man-made Treasure Island. Protected harbors aren’t a dime-a-dozen, so you can’t blame the Navy from being protective. Had the Bay been filled in as was proposed at different junctures during the mid-20th century, we would’ve seen a much different scope of development with more density on infill closer to SF.

The Reber Plan would have filled in the Bay, provided new freshwater reservoirs, and new deep water harbors along the East Bay

The Reber Plan would have filled in the Bay, provided new freshwater reservoirs, and new deep water harbors along the East Bay

With more shipping uses in the new infill areas, SF’s waterfront could have been freed for redevelopment, including perhaps a major university at Hunters Point, or the Central Waterfront. There could’ve been a large campus with big time athletic facilities and mass transit built to accommodate the school. That’s what SF lacks now, and will lack for the foreseeable future. Ironically, SF eventually approved an expansion of the UCSF campus in Mission Bay, but UCSF is a graduate school, not a traditional four-year school with an athletic program.

Thankfully, the Bay was never filled in. It remains a visual and environmental treasure as well as a psychological barrier. The Bay is a body of water that makes SF seem elusive, adding to the unique form of provincialism Bay Area residents exhibit on a regular basis. There’s precious little room in SF for new permanent facilities. As a result SF will always be at a disadvantage compared to other bidders who only have to cross a river to navigate their respective regions. Bay Area civic leaders were smart not to approve filling in the bay. No number of Olympic hosting opportunities is worth it.

Kroenke’s gambit may force NFL to act

Stan Kroenke is an extremely wealthy guy. He is worth more than $6 billion on his own, combined with his Walmart heir wife they’re worth $13 billion combined. If Kroenke wanted to build a stadium on his own, he most certainly has the resources to do it. That doesn’t mean he will. But the potential is there.

So it was more than a little curious when Kroenke acquired 60 acres of parking lot between The Forum and the Hollywood Park racetrack in Inglewood. It’s an opening move that sets up numerous possibilities. He could move the Rams to LA against the other NFL owners’ wishes, a rogue move that would have to withstand legal battles. He could partner with the NFL and facilitate a two-team venue. He could stay in St. Louis by squeezing every last nickel out of the State of Missouri, which is planning to unveil new stadium plans on Friday. He could also stay put at the Edward Jones Dome, leaving the various threats hanging over many heads. Stan Kroenke has a first mover advantage, one that threatens to disrupt the NFL is myriad ways.

Thing is, despite Kroenke’s vast wealth and sports portfolio, he has only one new stadium opening under his belt, Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in the suburban Denver area. He has usually bought teams after their new venues were built. The Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche were a package deal two years after the Pepsi Center opened. Kroenke was a minority partner in the Rams when Georgia Frontiere died, allowing him to buy the Rams in 2009. He bought English football club Arsenal after Emirates Stadium was completed.

Should Kroenke decide to move the Rams to the City of Champions development in Inglewood, he would forego the NFL’s G-4 loan program, which can hand out up to $200 million per team. The 80,000-seat retractable roof stadium would be the new West Coast Super Bowl rotation favorite. Or would it?

The NFL would prefer to have two teams in LA, to keep from any single owner profiting too heavily on the LA market. Any of the three teams (Rams, Raiders, Chargers) that moved to LA would conservatively double their franchise valuations once they arrived, with greater riches coming from new stadium revenue. Kroenke’s move is barely above squatting, since it would be in keeping with a 2016 timetable. Other than that, Kroenke’s move spells trouble for the NFL if their hope is to control the transition(s).

The NFL has staff working on potential relocations for all three teams, trying to work out ways that maximize value for the owners while minimizing short-term revenue damage in respective markets. The league would prefer to announce the teams and venues on its own schedule. It appears to be working on a deal with AEG for Farmers Field. Just as important, the NFL would like to control the LA Super Bowl venue. It could do that by partnering with AEG and bringing in a single team, providing competition for Inglewood.

Think about the impact of TWO large, indoor-outdoor NFL venues in LA. The NFL could punish Kroenke by never awarding the Super Bowl to Inglewood, which would hurt him in the wallet. There’s nothing he could do about it. Farmers Field would be in the Super Bowl rotation instead, every 5-6 years. Beyond that, AEG/NFL and Kroenke would be competing for Final Fours, college football playoff and bowl games, soccer and rugby matches, and mega-concerts for the Southland. They’d also compete for large corporate sponsors. A stadium bidding war, turned on its head.

Could LA properly support some $3 billion in mega-domes? There are already plenty of questions about the LA’s willingness (not ability per se) to support a single team. Two domes, with 300 luxury suites and 15,000 club seats to sell will be a strain, even in mighty LA. Having it all in one venue softens the blow. With two competing venues selling out is a must. It’s easy to see a sort of stadium arms race happening in LA, with the two competing stadia trying to leapfrog each other in terms of amenities, scoreboards, and perks. The NFL, which has spent decades successfully extorting other cities out of billions in stadium subsidies, would have to subsidize a money pit of its own. That’s not a war that the NFL wants to get into. It would rather work hand-in-hand with Kroenke or AEG, provide that regular Super Bowl carrot, move the NFL Network studios to that stadium, have two teams in the same building, and maximize revenue. Threatening to build a competing facility in LA takes away Kroenke’s first mover advantage, since the NFL has more cards to play than Kroenke. It also doesn’t hurt that AEG has a certified EIR for its stadium, whereas Kroenke hasn’t started one yet.

Since the Inglewood announcement, I’ve seen a lot of conjecture about what Kroenke’s gambit means for the other teams. Many in the media have said that the chances of the Raiders staying in Oakland become better. Sure, as long as it’s only the Rams moving there. If, as outlined in the previous paragraphs, the NFL decides to compete with Kroenke, Mark Davis will undoubtedly trample everyone in his path to be at the front of the line for a Raiders move south. After all, he’d get a stadium all to himself during the regular season, along with all the benefits of splitting the #2 market. He wouldn’t deserve the windfall, but it would work out perfectly with his M.O.: let the process play out while letting others spend the money and take the arrows.

Home Field Disadvantage

After yesterday’s games, the 49ers are 3-3 at their new home. The Cowboys are 3-4 at JerryWorld this season. The Jets and Giants are each 2-4 in the swamp, though granted both teams are terrible. Much has been said and written about how Levi’s, MetLife, and AT&T Stadium lack the kind of 12th man atmosphere considered a major part of home field advantage. Why is this? Jerry Jones gave a partial explanation in an interview with Colin Cowherd on Wednesday.

COWHERD: (AT&T Stadium has) become such a national attraction, that there’s been a debate about whether road fans are taking over the stadium. Are you concerned about that?

JONES: No I’m not. We had that wonderful game against the Giants… boy there were a ton of Cowboy fans at that thing. We do know we’ve got a lot of support. Other teams have the same issue, in that visiting teams can buy these tickets… Anyone can pick up a ticket. Our tickets have gone as high as 4 times face value for people that want to travel. And one of the reasons they give is, ‘We just wanted to use this game and come see the stadium.’ That’s part of the price we’re paying for that kind of interest.

Now don’t get me wrong, I want every edge we can have to win a football game. On the other hand, it’s a lot of pride that I have and we have as an organization to have that kind of interest in our stadium. We did overdo, I say overdo I mean in a good way. If you’re as passionate about this stuff as I am… they oughta pass a law against it. We just emptied our bucket.

AT&T Stadium

It’s big. It’s surely impressive. Is it good? That’s debatable.

The tendency to overbuild, as is this case with the newest three (aforementioned) stadia, has made the venue as much the attraction as the game. That should fade over time, as this kind of interest in football stadia – as opposed to ballparks – is a relatively new phenomenon. Football stadia are typically seen as utilitarian affairs, and while some recent iterations have become flashy, typically there aren’t scenic vistas or idiosyncracies to appeal to general football fans the same way ballparks do. Cowboys Stadium is the first truly palatial venue in the NFL, while Levi’s Stadium is the only new, swanky venue in California. If you’re a fan and you can spend a few hundred or a thousand dollars on a weekend in San Francisco (cough*Santa Clara*cough) or not snowy Dallas, it’s not a bad weekend in the least.

A few teams have a large enough national fanbase that they can be expected to travel well, namely the Cowboys, Steelers, and Packers. Big markets usually have good representation on the road too. So while the media noted the number of 49er fans in Arlington for Week 1, they also mentioned the invasion of Cowboys fans in New Jersey last weekend.

If you have a 10-year seat license to go with your seats, chances are you’re going to plan your attendance with care. That may mean attending every game as a die-hard, or selectively selling seats on a per-game basis. As internet-based secondary market resellers have gained popularity over the past decade, the process of buying and reselling tickets has become practically frictionless. And if you play your cards right, you can earn a decent amount of your money back.

A big concourse is good for accommodating fans in the concession lines. It also serves to take fans further away from the action.

A big concourse is good for accommodating fans in the concession lines. It also serves to take fans further away from the action.

Then there are traditionalist types. I know a Bears fan in Chicago who trades his annual Packers game seats at Soldier Field with a friend in Wisconsin, so that he can attend an away rematch at always-sold out Lambeau Field. As fans become more mobile and more empowered to get tickets away from normal home schedule, this phenomenon will continue to grow. Some factors such as ticket scarcity or lower capacity can help reduce the impact of road invasions. But disaffected fans have more options now, so they can be expected to exercise those options. Jones gets that.

If I’m Mark Davis, I fight the urge to make a stadium opulent, whether in Oakland or LA. Focus on the basics, spend money where it should be spent (locker rooms, suite/club level) and otherwise focus on fan atmosphere, not amenities. Bring fans as close to the action as possible. Wherever the Raiders go, if they can’t ably recreate the Black Hole or recapture much of the Coliseum’s intimacy, they’ve already lost. It is possible to make a stadium too good, at least in the short term. Every team in every sport can learn the lessons the 49ers, Cowboys, and the New York teams are learning.

When planning a football stadium, the following criteria should be considered:

  1. Constrain cost, if only to limit the need for seat licenses and other lengthy contractual ticket arrangements.
  2. With the technology available, make in-seat ordering the most attractive option for concessions – to keep fans in their seats. This may mean severely or completely eliminating convenience fees in order to gain traction and fan confidence in the system.
  3. Resist the urge to participate in the club swank-out armament wars. Provide a reasonable level of accommodation and focus on service.
  4. If possible, keep as many suite levels above the seating bowl as possible.
  5. Consider a partial roof over the seating bowl to keep noise in and reduce summer sun/heat.

None of these considerations will change the secondary ticket market in any appreciable way, but if there are incentives to keep fans cheering in their seats for every game, every effort should be made to work towards that goal.

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.

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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.

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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.