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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Reusing an abandoned arena

This post is not strictly related to the Coliseum City EIR, though the ideas within are somewhat germane.

It’s been a few months since the Warriors gave up their effort to build at Piers 30-32 in San Francisco, electing instead to buy land at Mission Rock to the south. So far, the team has received practically zero resistance from the parties that either opposed the waterfront arena or who would typically oppose such projects. From a regulatory standpoint, the arena should go as easily than Pac Bell Park went, perhaps easier since it’s technically not on the waterfront. While it’s too early to call the arena a slam dunk, it’s a good idea for Oakland and Alameda County to start thinking about what will happen to Oracle Arena after the W’s leave.

First, the JPA and the W’s will surely go to court over the $61 million in debt owed on the arena after 2017. Once that’s settled, a series of choices will need to be made. One possibility is to demolish the arena and reclaim the land, about 8 acres worth. Should the arena stay put, more choices will have to be made about what its purpose is and how to best utilize it.

Alternative 2A: Two new stadia + existing arena

Alternative 2A: Two new stadia + existing arena

The market for a third 17,000+ capacity arena lacking an anchor tenant in the Bay Area is not good. The SF arena will be the new must-see, must-book venue in the Bay Area, with arenas in both Oakland and San Jose suffering to some degree. If the arena debt falls back on Oakland/Alameda County, operating costs can run as much as $17 million a year through 2027. With the arena in a prime site within the Coliseum City development, the temptation will be huge for O/AC to cut their losses and recoup whatever they can through redevelopment. Countering that will be pressure from the community and preservationists to keep the arena intact, as it retains significant historical value.

Functionally, the arena is still an excellent venue. Steady improvements have been made since the 1997 renovation, including new club areas and seating options, new scoreboards, and revamped technology inside the building. The biggest problem remains poor circulation, as the main concourse is narrow and cramped. While well appointed, the sideline club areas also have a tendency to feel congested. It also has way too many seats for anything other than a NBA or NHL franchise and should be downsized.

My first suggestion then, is to remove the upper seating bowl. The lower bowl has 10,000 seats on its own, plus another 1,000-2,000 available on the floor depending on configuration. That’s the perfect size for the sort of second-tier arena that every major market should have. For decades, that venue has been the Cow Palace, but the old joint is so antiquated and generally undesirable as an arena that acts avoid it like the plague. Besides the Grand National Rodeo and the usual touring circus, very little happens at the Cow Palace. Therefore it would appear that there is an opening in the market for a 10k arena. It’s the right size for the WNBA and minor league hockey. Most touring concert acts aren’t looking for 15k seats or more, 7-12k may be plenty sufficient. That venue doesn’t really exist in the Bay Area. SAP Center and the forthcoming SF arena will be able to reach that with curtaining or other tricks. The reconfigured Oakland arena should be able to hit that without any visual tricks.

Oakland Coliseum Arena shortly after construction was completed

Oakland Coliseum Arena shortly after construction was completed

You’re probably saying at this point, Okay but what about the upper deck? Glad you asked. The picture above illustrates how beautiful the arena used to be, with its sense of symmetry and different types of geometry. It also shows the amount of available vertical space. That largely went away with the renovation, but would be available again after the upper deck is lopped off. I’ll put out a couple different ways to utilize the space.

Arena lower bowl plus suite levels

Arena lower bowl plus suite levels (Image from Ballena Technologies)

One way is to put a new ceiling on the arena at the rim of the upper suite level. That would require putting in an extensive truss system to support the ceiling/roof and whatever is on top. Once that’s done, the upper level can be finished, leaving a 10,000-seat arena below and an exhibit space above. That exhibit hall could have a much as 100,000 square feet of clear span, column free space. That’s nearly twice as much as the downtown Oakland Convention Center, and more than Moscone West’s main hall. The drooping ceiling would create a weird visual effect for many (most similar buildings have an arched or flat ceiling). Beyond that, the new exhibit hall would fill a need not met by anything currently in the East Bay. The best part is that the arena could be run completely separately below or in conjunction with the exhibit hall, providing additional hospitality and exhibit space, the arena itself largely unchanged. Some new infrastructure would have to be built, such as a large freight elevator and ramps to the revamped upper level.

Old sketch of arena elevations, note drop ceiling

Old sketch of arena elevations, note drop ceiling

Another option is more conventional. In this case the seating bowl would be torn down but the upper concourse would be expanded to the perimeter of the building. There would be no second ceiling above the arena bowl. Available square footage would be cut down to 60,000 or less. Uses would be fairly limited, such as commercial (office) or even retail. If there ever was a natural spot for a movie theater multiplex, this is it. 15-20 screens could easily fit in the space, even an IMAX theater. Again, there’s a need that’s unfulfilled in Oakland right now, and Coliseum City would be well positioned to capture that market with its expected higher-income residents, office workers, and visitors. Cost would be fairly minimal for the JPA, as the theater operator would presumably bear the cost of constructing the auditoriums.

The name “Oracle Arena” is expected to expire after 2016, when the naming rights deal ends and the Warriors have construction underway. When that happens the name will probably change back to the Oakland Coliseum Arena, the venue’s original name. That’s fitting, whether the arena continues as is or is transformed in some manner. The building may not have seen much winning in its 40+ years, but it’s full of great memories and events. If there’s a way to keep it operating that works for the public, it should be explored to its fullest.

MLB 2015 Travel Grid (Schedule) Now Available

Every year it happens like clockwork. MLB releases its tentative schedule for the next year in early September, and I cut it up and remix to make something suitable for planning ballpark trips. I call it a Travel Grid. The Travel Grid is table of all games based on each team’s home schedule. One variant places the teams in regional clusters, allowing users to connect the dots to plan trips.

Sample of Travel Grid in PDF format

Sample of Travel Grid in PDF format

Want to do a 3-5 days seeing games from Washington to Boston? It’s possible. Want to catch games at both Chicago parks and Milwaukee? If it’s there you’ll see it. I started doing this a few years ago to help me plan my own trips. I hope it’ll help you plan yours.

The schedule starts a week later than what you’d usually expect, on April 6, and ends October 4. Every 5-6 years this reset has to occur, as we “lose” a day every year. The late start may help avoid more rain postponements that have seemed to be more frequent in recent years. The downside of that is the postseason running dangerously close to November. The All Star Break will be July 13-16. Much of the pain for the A’s will be frontloaded, as they’ll experience 2 of their 3 longest road trips (9-10 days) in April and May.

A’s interleague opponents will be the NL West, which will bring about a few changes. Instead of the 2+2 format the A’s and Giants series’ took on the last couple years, the teams will play 6 times, 3 in SF in the summer and 3 in Oakland as the last home series of the season. That sets up the possibility for some cool roadies. In mid-June the A’s will play 3 at the Angels and 2 at the Padres. If you’re looking for lengthy A’s East Coast trips, things don’t look as promising. Other than series at the Indians and Yankees to end the first half, there are few trips where you can stretch out and follow the team for a week unless you’re willing to take on multiple leg flight schedules. The team has a particularly brutal stretch next September when they visit the Rangers, then fly to Chicago to meet the White Sox, then back to Texas for a series against the Astros.

That said, if you’re looking to put together ballpark visits, the schedule’s pretty friendly. East Coast possibilities for 5-7 day trips (the length I like) are available pretty much every month. Similar length Midwest trips are ripe in June (Rust Belt) and July (Chi-StL).

The 2015 Travel Grid is available in two layouts: an alphabetically ordered (left-to-right) table and the aforementioned regional cluster layout. Both are available in Excel, CSV (comma delimited), and PDF (poster view) formats. Feel free to leave feedback in the comments or send me a tweet.

Regional

Alphabetical

Enjoy!

Coliseum City Draft EIR Review: Ballpark Setting

The renderings in the Coliseum City Specific Plan (co-mingled with the EIR) date back to July 2013. So far, no announcements have been made about architecture firms winning the business for any of the Coliseum City venues. With that in mind, when looking at the renderings don’t worry too much about how they look. They’re effectively placeholders, there to show the mass and complete the layout of the buildings within the plan. If you’re asking about a dome on the stadium or how many seating decks are in the ballpark – don’t bother. It’s highly subject to change.

That said, we can look at a few aspects, such as how the ballpark is placed and oriented within the ballpark. That is the subject of this post.

First, let’s look a bird’s-eye view from the south, with the entire project built out.

birdseye-view_north

Coliseum City with new arena on the other side of the Nimitz

The BART bridge is to be replaced by a much wider pedestrian concourse, connecting a better-connected transit hub, residential development at the BART station parking lot, hotels lining the concourse, and the broader development with the venues. The concourse will be built at what is currently 73rd Avenue, the street connecting San Leandro Street to the Amtrak Station. Doing this moves the dividing line of the complex further south/east, with the bulk of the developable land on the north/west side of the concourse. Several high rise condominium buildings flank the concourse where the existing Coliseum currently sits.

birdseye-view_east

View east across Nimitz down pedestrian concourse

The concourse is widest outside the football stadium and at 880, where there are two (!) bridges spanning the Nimitz.

birdseye_closeup-view_north_ballpark

Above concourse, looking towards ballpark

The Plan describes two levels of circulation: the elevated concourse and street level, where most of the buildings and the ballpark will be situated. Fans would descend stairs to the plaza that leads to the ballpark. There could also be a trolley or streetcar station at this intersection. The plaza and the four blocks surrounding it are the focus of what is called the “Next Generation Sports and Retail District.” This area would be closed to cars on event days, allowing for a big party zone between the two venues.

cutaway-entry

Side view showing concourse and street level elevations, plus cutaways of venues

Should Coliseum City come to fruition, there won’t be anything like it in the country, with two or three venues anchoring a big district. It would also be huge for the City if the large swath of commercially-zoned property slated to be office/R&D could be put together as a potential campus for a large tech company. Right now all of that activity is focused on the Peninsula and the South Bay, with Google, Apple, and Facebook devouring huge tracts of land for future expansion. At the moment Oakland is a few degrees removed from such activity, but that’s where they should be thinking.

district-med

The Plaza between the ballpark and stadium

I’m still not a big fan of orienting the ballpark to the northeast. While that’s proper in terms of MLB guidelines, the orientation turns its back on the plaza and feels like a missed opportunity. It would be nice to have people walking along the plaza be able to see into the stadium, the way you can from much of the Gaslamp District in San Diego. The idea is to fully integrate all elements of the plan, and this is a miss.

There is a publicly-accessible area of the ballpark beyond centerfield, where a Park-at-the-Park like grassy knoll provides views. But getting there requires walking along the edge of the complex, along a perimeter road, past a hulking parking garage. It’s not the friendliest or most accessible approach. A nice side effect of this approach is the fans traveling south on BART will get a good look at the ballpark as they arrive at the Coliseum (City?) station.

View into ballpark with loop road and publicly accessible "knoll" in foreground

View into ballpark with loop road and publicly accessible “knoll” in foreground

Another thing that bothers me, though it’s entirely understandable, is this from the Project Description (page 3-39):

Operation and scheduling use of the Ballpark would be restricted from having major events (including baseball games) on the same day as football games at the adjacent Stadium. Since no large events could occur simultaneously, parking for the Ballpark would be accommodated within the same on‐site parking facilities as used by the Stadium including the 3,240 surface lot spaces and 7,500 dedicated event parking garage spaces.

The Plan calls for more than 18,000 parking spaces, an 8,000-space improvement over the current complex. 13,000 of those spaces would be in garages, and of those spaces 5,000 would be off limits because they would be slated for hotel and residential use. The net gain for event use, if some of the office parking is used, is an extra 3,000 spaces or 13,000 total. Despite the great reduction in available tailgating space (only possible 3 surface lots totaling 4,200 spaces), a parking restriction like the one described above would remain in effect. That would limit the ability of schedule makers to freely assign weekend home series for the A’s in August, September, and October. It also shuts out any possibility of going to both Raiders and A’s games in the same day within Coliseum City: an A’s game at 1 and a Sunday night Raiders game at 5, or vice-versa. It’s better than sharing a field, I suppose.

Coliseum City Draft EIR Review: Owning vs. Leasing

I’ve done my initial run through of the EIR (except for the traffic data) and have taken lots of notes along the way. Over the next few weeks, I’ll write up specific subjects, the first being the most germane to what we normally talk about, the ballpark at Coliseum City. Before I dive into that, I wanted to touch on something in the language of the EIR that had me curious, and frankly a little baffled.

From Project Description, page 3-34:

NFL Stadium and Multi‐purpose Event Center
…The Oakland‐Alameda County Coliseum Authority would control the use of the Stadium through a management agreement with a professional management association (currently AEG). The Stadium would be leased to the Oakland Raiders, a National Football League (NFL) franchise, for playing home games during the NFL pre‐season, regular season, and post‐season and for other NFL related events.

Page 3-38:
The Ballpark is expected to be developed by the Oakland A’s professional sports franchise on land owned by the City of Oakland and Alameda County. Like the Stadium, the Oakland‐Alameda County Coliseum Authority would control the use of the Ballpark through a management agreement with a professional management association.

The Ballpark would be leased to the Oakland A’s for playing its 81 home games during the MLB regular season6 and potential post‐season games,7 and for other MLB events.

Page 3-39:
The new Arena would be leased to the Golden State Warriors, a National Basketball Association (NBA) franchise, for playing home games during the NBA pre‐season, regular season, and post‐season.

Notice the common theme? All three venues would be owned by the City/County/JPA and leased to the teams. Since this is merely the Project Description of an EIR and not a DDA (Disposition and Development Agreement), it’s not exactly iron-clad. It’s a little strange that the City would continue to want to own and operate these venues, when it has shown frequently over the last 20 years that it’s not all that good at managing venues.

Currently, the structure is set up so that the JPA owns the venues and the land. They collect rents and other revenues and pay for expenses (except for the A’s gameday ops). The JPA is not a “professional management” group, so they hire another company to do that such as AEG or SMG previously. The various agreements with the teams have caused City and County to hemorrhage red ink, whether we’re talking about the ongoing subsidy for the Raiders, the Coliseum’s debt service, or the cloudy nature of the Arena’s debt once the Warriors leave for SF. It’s this difficulty and mismanagement that has caused Alameda County’s Board of Supervisors to be a lot less sanguine about Coliseum City’s prospects than Oakland. Supervisor Keith Carson has been upfront about wanting to get out of the stadium management game.

Now we’re looking at the JPA (or a successor public agency) absorbing billions of additional debt liabilities. Start with at least a half-billion that would cover the infrastructure costs at Coliseum City, plus the $120 million of remaining debt at the existing Coliseum. Add to that $1 billion for the football stadium, $600 million for the ballpark, and probably $700 million for the arena. That amounts to around $3 billion in debt load. Naturally, when dealing with such enormous figures, some questions will arise such as:

  1. How would that debt be structured?
  2. How would City and County taxpayers be protected from shortfalls or defaults, they way they weren’t with Mt. Davis and the redone Arena?
  3. How would the JPA balance out the lease agreements so that no one team benefited more than the others? (This plagued the JPA in the past)

If the City is willing to cover infrastructure costs and pay off the remaining stadium debt, should it also have to go the extra mile to finance these venues? That’s S.O.P. for the NFL (see Santa Clara), but it doesn’t have to be that way. The City & County could say, Look, we’re giving you enough help to get this started, you take it the rest of the way. And the biggest reason to have the JPA do the financing is to provide availability to tax-free bonds. The franchises don’t need that kind of help.

That’s not to say that all publicly-financed stadium deals are terrible. Some of them work out well, like SAP Center and Chase Field. However, the risk the City & County would have to take on is more than a bit much. There are actually multiple privately-financed venues completed over the last 15-20 years: AT&T Park, Gillette Stadium, Staples Center, American Airlines Center. They are also among the most successful venues in their respective sports.

At some point some within Oakland is gonna have to playing hardball and stop giving everything away. If not, maybe they should find new negotiators.

P.S. – Notice how, because all the talks with the Raiders are behind closed doors, there’s little hubbub about them? Contrast that with the very public lease extension talks with the A’s, which only grew more rancorous as they became more public – even though they were over a deal that cost less than $30 million total. No, it makes much more sense to keep quiet on a deal that is worth 100 times as much, right?