Hypothetical: If the Raiders left, how would you improve the Coliseum for the A’s?

Before I begin, let me preface this post by stating that I have no information that says definitively that the Raiders are leaving Oakland. This is mainly a thought exercise. The Raiders could conceivably leave for a new football stadium next to the existing Coliseum. They could go to Santa Clara or San Antonio for a few years before returning permanently. They could leave for Inglewood or Carson for good. In any case, this is meant to be a discussion about benefits for the A’s, nothing more. What happens to the Raiders is not under the A’s, A’s ownership’s, or fans’ control. There’s little East Bay politicians can do save for writing enormous checks to Mark Davis. So for the purposes of this post, let’s leave what the NFL and the Raiders may or may not do out of it. 

Should the Raiders leave for God-knows-where after the 2015 or 2016 football seasons, the A’s and the Coliseum JPA will have some serious choices to make regarding the old venue. The main goal would be to make the Coliseum a more pleasing baseball environment for players and fans alike, while not costing an arm and a leg to do so. The cost issue comes into play because, if we’re assuming that the A’s would pay some amount for this transformation, there’s a question of how much they’d be willing to put into this project as opposed to funneling more money towards a ballpark on the same grounds. That’s the tension at play, and when considering the various decisions that have to made cost-benefit should be at the forefront.

The immediate change we can safely assume the A’s will make is to take control of the Raiders’ locker room, one floor above the A’s current leak and sewage-plagued clubhouse. The Raiders got control of the old, 50,000-square foot exhibit hall space when the came back, turning it into spacious locker rooms for themselves and visiting teams. The A’s will occasionally use the area for hosting groups, since the Coliseum lacks proper breakout spaces at any level except for the East Side Club. Once the A’s commandeer the exhibit hall, the old clubhouse problems should go away. The old clubhouses could themselves be remodeled into memorabilia-filled bunker suites or other premium accommodations that are currently lacking at the Coli. It might cost $10-20 million to renovate the space properly, which might include moving the workout room, trainer’s room, and offices at the clubhouse level. Since all of the benefits would go to the A’s, it would make sense for them to foot the bill for the remodel.

Beyond that, changing the Coliseum could go in any number of directions.

Option A: Return to the pre-Mt. Davis Coliseum (cost estimate: $35-50 million). The frequent refrain I’ve heard so far is a call to transform the Coliseum into the pre-1995 version, with the old bleachers in the outfield and the ice plant above it. Doing so would require the demolition of most if not all of the Mt. Davis structure, plus the construction of replacement seating and landscaping. While that would be perfectly acceptable to the A’s and A’s fans, the City and County are still on the hook for the Mt. Davis debt, so the idea of spending more money on demolition and additional seats that would not generate anywhere near the requisite revenue to pay for them doesn’t sound promising in the slightest. Besides, how many years would this configuration be used? Five? I would expect all parties to pass on this plan if it were ever proposed.

Want the hills back? It'll cost ya.

Want this again? It’ll cost ya.

Option B: Lop off the top part of Mt. Davis ($10 million). The best way to bring back the view of the Oakland hills, without incurring the cost of completely demolishing and rebuilding the Coliseum, is to take down the upper part. What’s the upper part, you ask? Well, that depends. It could be as little as the upper deck, which practically starts as high as the rim of the original upper deck. Or it could include removing the upper two suite levels, making the total struck roughly as tall as the original upper deck’s lower rim. The BART plaza, East Side Club and associated seats (Plaza Reserved) could be kept around, though with the large number of obstructed view seats they’d serve a better purpose as an outfield restaurant bar, much like the kind many ballparks are instituting these days. On the downside, there would be a lot of expense just to open up the views. Again, it’s a high-cost/low-benefit situation.

Top of the original bowl is as tall as the bottom of Mt. Davis

Top of the original bowl is as tall as the bottom of Mt. Davis upper deck

Option C:  Leave Mt. Davis as is, fill in foul territory with seats ($25 million). Given the $100 million lower deck renovation at Dodger Stadium, this seems like I’m undershooting things quite a bit. But most of the money at Dodger Stadium went towards extremely well outfitted clubhouses and a large, swanky club restaurant behind the plate. There are some structural things to address, such as dugout expansion and realignment. The bullpens might have to be moved. One way to go would be to scrap the existing lower bowl and make it more like one of the original cookie cutters, like Shea or Riverfront. Chief benefits would be more seating at improved angles, plus additional concourse space in theory. However, it would be expensive to implement and would eliminate most of the views from concourse, at least down the lines. Plus the way the concrete beams that support the Plaza level are only 4 feet above the lower concourse floor, so a concourse expansion would have to be another 4 feet lower than the existing lower concourse in order to allow for proper circulation.

An expanded concourse has its downsides and challenges

An expanded concourse has its downsides and challenges

Option D: Move home plate back eight feet, bringing every seat on average 6 feet closer to fair territory ($5-10 million). Also known as the Ken Arneson plan, this proposal would sacrifice views from the Value (upper) deck in order to bring everyone else several feet closer. I like the idea of the Monster-type seats in the outfield, though I would also like to see a wholesale rework of the bleachers with steeper pitched seats if they’re going to add a premium option. That way the first row could be as little as 8-10 feet above the field, instead of the 15-foot high scoreboard wall that exists in the power alleys. While they’re at it, the metal “notch” sections that fill in either down the lines for baseball (sideline for football) should be replaced. They have a nasty tendency to pool water when it rains, and they’re more weathered than the permanent concrete sections. Changes like these certainly won’t be eye popping or easy to spell out in an offseason ticket sales pitch, but they can certainly help the vast majority of fans without incurring great expense.

The Giants and Cardinals both made changes to their venues as they waited for their purpose-built ballparks to materialize. In both cases, they built fan goodwill that was cashed in when their ballparks opened. Just as the A’s built new training facilities and rebuilt a ballpark in Mesa, a similar investment could pay off in Oakland. It couldn’t come until everyone knew the Raiders were leaving, so we wait. And wait.

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.


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.


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.

A Day at the Diamond, Hohokam Stadium Preview

The parking lots filled up fast, so that by the time I arrived at Hohokam Stadium around 11 I was directed to park in the grass soccer fields south of the ballpark. With the construction debris gone and systems in working order, it was time to show off the renovated ballpark to the community.

Fans walking in front of the clubhouse mural

Fans walking in front of the clubhouse mural down the 1B line

There were no surprises for me. I’ve checked out the place throughout various stages of construction over the last two years. What I wasn’t quite ready for was how it looked with a bunch of people in it, sitting in seats, traversing concourses, hoping for home run balls. For me that’s when it became more than a bunch of features and improvements upon Phoenix Muni or even the Coliseum. That’s when it became real.

Back row behind the plate

Back row behind the plate

From the top of the stadium you’re afforded views of the McDowell Mountains to left, Four Peaks and Red Mountain to right. Down low it’s all baseball. While the A’s have sold ads in the outfield, don’t expect the same kind of ad explosion you typically see in minor league parks and other spring training parks. The big scoreboard in left will probably be used for getting those messages across.

Exterior outside 3B

Exterior outside 3B

If you had visited Hohokam at any time since its 1998 renovation, you know about the edifice’s underwhelming blandness. A 90’s  ode to beige stucco, there were only the most minimal nods to the Southwest. Under the A’s, the Gensler-designed makeover is all green and gold. The exterior walls are the forest green we as A’s fans are very familiar with, perhaps darker than you might expect at first glance. Gold painted aluminum panels line the gates and box office. Originally the gates were to have famous player numbers, like 24 for Rickey Henderson. This was scrapped sometime in the last year, probably because having gates named in a “random” manner would look confusing to non-A’s fans. Not that the gate naming system matters, it’s unlikely anyone will get lost here. One bit of technology not available in the 90’s was large format, photorealistic vinyl, which was put to good use depicting major events in A’s history on the outside of the stadium (above) and throughout the concourse.

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The inner concourse felt somewhat cluttered with numerous memorabilia sales tables on both sides. Only a few concession stands were open, so the space was made available. Most of the concourse is white, with gold accents to highlight fan amenities, from tunnels to the grandstand to restrooms and concession stands.

Ferguson Jenkins was even on hand, as he used to be when Hohokam was the Cubs’ home. Jenkins usually makes the rounds at every Cactus League park, so if you want to meet the Hall-of-Famer you’ll have your chance.

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Unlike Phoenix Muni, at Hohokam fans will now be able to walk completely around the park. As a 90’s-era Cactus League park, there’s no 360-degree concourse like the kind you’d see at the newest parks: Salt River Fields, Camelback Park, Sloan Park. Even so, you can get your full stroll on, and the upper tier is elevated enough above the walkway that you won’t have to worry about obstructing views.

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When Hohokam was redesigned, the Cubs made sure to get a large canopy placed over much of the seating area, as the old Hohokam had no shade whatsoever. That feature was carried over to Cubs/Sloan Park, and while the shade isn’t truly necessary for March in Arizona (75-80 degrees, dry heat) it’s welcome. If you want shade from the start, sit in the upper sections on the 1B side or behind home plate. The A’s also removed large bleacher sections down each line and replaced them with shaded patios, one a family and kids area, the other a beer garden. Along with the downsizing, all of the seats and bleachers. The plastic fixed seats are 19 or 20 inches wide, provided by Hussey Seating. Bleachers are contoured and have backs.

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A's training facility at Fitch Park

A’s training facility at Fitch Park

Hohokam is 0.6 miles north of Fitch Park, home of the Lew Wolff Training Facility. The facility was not named LWTF in the initial drawings presented by Gensler nearly a year ago. Whether Wolff decided to do this at the last minute or was pushed to do so because of the drawn out Coliseum lease negotiations or other factors, the Wolff name is unmistakably on the A’s building in Fitch Park and on way finding signs outside Fitch. Wolff’s name is nowhere to be found at Hohokam, and both Hohokam and Fitch have retained their original names. Wolff turns 80 this year, so I can’t blame the guy for celebrating an achievement, no matter how distasteful it may look to many Oakland fans.

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The outfield berm areas at Hohokam are arguably the largest in the Cactus League. In right, the berm is so large that it’s split into a good-sized lower part and a large upper hill, descending to a second walkway next to the warmup fields. The A’s have plans to rework these areas to include a food truck alley and a grotto in left, but for now they’re being left alone. In any case, you’ll have plenty of area to stretch, and maybe the team will add more kid-friendly attractions with all the space, as is seen at Peoria.

It's huge

It’s huge!

Last but not least, there’s the new scoreboard, which I’ve talked about previously. The A’s are experimenting with different graphics and sound packages, and from what I hear they’re not final, so you if you have suggestions chime in. One dilemma I heard about was whether to bring the “A*Team” theme and graphics over from Oakland or trying something different for Hohokam. I have a bunch of lawn tickets for games in March, and I made sure to plant myself in front of the display to see if I could stand the up-close pixelation. It looked fine to me, so I’ll make LF semi-permanent instead of RF, where I thought I’d be sitting prior to today.

The final price tag on Hohokam Stadium was $27 million, $17 million from the City of Mesa and $10 million from the A’s. The original budget was $20 million. Some of the extra $7 million went towards technological improvements, such as proper wiring for broadcast video throughout the park. While the A’s and Comcast don’t broadcast a ton of games during the spring, it’s good to know that the capability is there. Visiting teams will be able to take advantage as well.

A spring training ballpark is only used for a month every year. Games held there don’t count in the standings. It is more intimate than regular season baseball, more accessible. Every fan should take the opportunity to visit his/her team’s spring training home at least once. It’s warmer in more ways than one.


When Coliseum City was originally conceived it was supposed to look something like this when fully completed, 800 acres in all.


800 acre concept


Last last year we heard from Floyd Kephart and others that the project would be scaled back to around 200 acres.


Coliseum City at 200 acres


Now we hear that it’s down to 120 acres, which is basically the original Coliseum complex plus the Malibu and HomeBase lots leading out to Hegenberger.


120 acres


With the Raiders and A’s signed up to offer competing bids, the team working on Coliseum City now plays the role of facilitator and competitor, all at once. A single stadium’s footprint will be 14-20 acres. Two stadia would cover 35 acres. When you add the necessary streets and easements for other infrastructure, that should leave 60-70 acres to develop. I was not terribly optimistic from the get-go about the financing coming through, so I wasn’t surprised when one financier after another bailed out on the project. Now that the project’s size has shrunk a whopping 85%, the questions about its viability are even more pointed, especially when trying to pitch it as a way to keep both the A’s and Raiders in town. Just as we saw over the last year, we’re going to let the numbers (or lack thereof) prove these concepts out. If the Raiders can make it work with whatever developer they’re trying to get onboard, bully for them. If the A’s plans prove most feasible, then they get the spoils of developing one of the last large infill developments in the Bay Area. And if Kephart’s New City group somehow gets capital and the teams on board, they will have truly worked a miracle.

However, ask yourself this: If capital wasn’t biting at 800 acres and two stadia, why would they bite at 120 acres and two stadia? 

P.S. – The infrastructure price tag on the whole 800 acre project was supposed to be $344-425 million. Now that it’s 85% smaller, did that cost also proportionately decrease? Nope. The cost of infrastructure for the 120 acres, including the new transit hub and utility relocations, is $170 million. Factor that into your thinking. Some of that figure will be offset by grants, though really only for the transit hub. It’s still a nine figure infrastructure price tag.


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.

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.


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.


Seats on rails, padded seats for the more privileged

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

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

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

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

We get it, it's earthquake country

We get it, it’s earthquake country

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

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

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

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

Levi’s Stadium Tour

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

At midfield

At midfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

Levi's Stadium has 9 levels within the SAP Tower

Levi’s Stadium has 9 levels within the SAP Tower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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