Coliseum City: It’s Complicated

At this week’s NFL owners’ meetings in Orlando, Mark Davis acknowledged the elephant in the middle of the Coliseum complex. From the Merc’s Tim Kawakami:

-Q: If Wolff’s saying he needs a 10-year lease…

-DAVIS: That would make it tough for us to build a new stadium on that site.

Last fall, Davis admitted that he’d rather build a new stadium on the Coliseum’s existing footprint, which would evict the A’s while changing the character of Coliseum City. In yesterday’s interview, Davis again expressed frustration at the pace of Coliseum City planning, throwing some shade Mayor Jean Quan’s way in the process.

It’s no secret that the Raiders and A’s would prefer that they not share facilities. By now it’s becoming clear that the two would rather not share the Coliseum complex, let alone a stadium. Financing issues and competing concepts aside, it’s simply less complicated. Davis would love for Oakland to commit to the Raiders, accelerate the development with BayIG, and figure out just how much money can be squeezed out of the plan. In the middle of an election season, Quan and her competitors won’t commit to anything, lest they appear to favor one team over another. So Quan keeps talking about signing the Raiders sometime in the near future, all the while deadlines continue to slip for the project.

Meanwhile, Lew Wolff has said that the best place in Oakland for something to be built is the Coliseum, though he hasn’t endorsed Coliseum City. Chances are that he’d be fine with the Davis taking the Raiders south, which would force Oakland and the JPA to deal with Wolff only to salvage one team at the complex.

Davis’s audience isn’t the media, Raiders fans, Oakland civic backers, or even taxpayers. His audience is his fellow owners and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The keys to the kingdom of LA are in Goodell’s hands, with the owners acting as his Greek chorus. Goodell can unlock access to banks and potential minority partners who have stadium futures to trade. All Davis has to do is show due diligence for at least one year.

So far he has. Davis has repeatedly dismissed the idea of tenancy at Levi’s Stadium, comparing it to the Jets playing in the Meadowlands. He has claimed that he wants the stadium in Oakland, while exploring other corners of the East Bay. Goodell may have nudged him to move to Santa Clara, but the whispers have fallen on deaf ears. It’s either Oakland or Los Angeles for the Raiders. If Coliseum City continues to move like molasses, or the Oakland pols are frozen out of electoral fear, Davis can go to Goodell and say, See, I tried, these people are incompetent.

The funny thing is that the urgency that Davis wants out of the various CC partners may not materialize unless he formally presents a stalking horse in the guise of LA. Talk all you want about not having political support from LA City Hall, or the legacy of attendance issues that plagued the Raiders. If the Raiders moving becomes a distinct possibility, multiple groups will coalesce in the Southland, all competing with each other for the rights to land the Raiders or Rams. The biggest obstacle in LA is the numerous egos all trying to get a piece of the action. Davis knows he’d be the belle at the ball when the time came to debut in LA. If LA becomes a legitimate threat, Oakland will be forced to (re)act. That’s the classic stadium playbook. We’re not far from that page.

The league has its own leverage play too. What Goodell doesn’t want is for the Raiders to have LA all to themselves. He’d rather have the Rams or Chargers there as well, sharing a stadium or not, providing competition for each other. He has a lot more control over franchise relocation than either of his predecessors (Pete Rozelle, Paul Tagliabue) did because of the league’s control over a large stadium funding mechanism, the G-4 program.

Oakland thinks it has leverage because the NFL has been loathe to acquiesce to Raiders ownership’s desires. That leverage could evaporate quickly with a simple nod from Goodell. And if Goodell agrees with Davis that Oakland isn’t moving fast enough, Goodell could turn up the heat on Oakland by making the LA stalking horse appear. That’s the playbook. Quan appears to be taking everything rather cavalierly, offering up a rather incomplete statement about what Oakland has to do for MLB to keep the A’s:

You saw that the (Port of Oakland) Port Commission, now that they have eliminated all the maritime uses from Howard Terminal, has begun to take up the proposal from the Ballpark Waterfront Group, which is made up of some of the top CEOs in the city, and they are asking for a one-year exclusive negotiating agreement, to develop a plan to build a ballpark at Howard Terminal, which, for most fans, is their priority. So that completes my promise to Major League Baseball, when I first became mayor, that we could provide two good sites that have site control, and when they finish negotiating their deal, I think Major League Baseball will have to make a decision.

MLB will have to make a decision? On what? Two sites that have uncertain funding scenarios and unknown cost outlays? MLB is used to taking cities for a ride. They’re not going to commit to anything until they see Oakland doing something truly significant. That may mean saying Adios! to the Raiders at the Coliseum, or pulling out the stops to get Howard Terminal ready for a ballpark. Presenting two sites that haven’t been studied? That’s as if Quan stepped to the starting line at the Oakland Running Festival over the weekend, and when the race started she declared herself victorious.

Consider that Sacramento didn’t truly get moving on its arena campaign until Seattle became a serious threat. Even late in the arena effort, the team was practically sold and delivered to the Emerald City. David Stern allowed that to happen. Mayor Kevin Johnson used a ton of political capital and connections to work out the arena deal, securing a quarter of a billion in public funds for the effort.

Why do teams and leagues use the playbook? Because it works. There’s nothing complicated about that.

HoHoKam: The Once and Future Spring

Just one day before I arrived here in the Valley of the Sun, the A’s had a media reveal at HoHoKam Stadium, the new spring training home for the team starting in 2015. Reporters gathered in the parking lot of the teamless stadium and were shown images of what HoHoKam will look like next year. Saturday morning I took some time to check out the renovation’s progress.

A previous venue called HoHoKam Park (née Rendezvous Park) hosted the A’s during the 70′s. As you might imagine, the park was far more modest than many of the palatial digs of today’s Cactus League.

Rendezvous Park

The Cubs moved to HoHoKam in the 1978 and haven’t left the city since. HoHoKam was relocated to the west in 1997, yielding at the time a large, superior stadium compared to its peers. HoHoKam had a berm wrapping around the outfield, 13,000 seats, plenty of concourse space, even suites. This year the Cubs opened Cubs Park, still in Mesa but closer to the Tempe border. The A’s, who had unsuccessfully tried to work with the City of Phoenix to get improvements for Phoenix Municipal Stadium, turned their attention to Mesa and worked out a deal to be the new tenants at HoHoKam and Fitch Park, the training complex.

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Piles of dirt stood in front of the entrances, evidence of trenching. The grass field has been removed, as have most of the stadium seats. Eventually the bleachers down the lines will be removed and replaced with roofed bars. The scoreboard will be replaced as well. A big change at HoHoKam will be green and gold paint and materials along the exterior. The very beige, very-90′s façade will get a major pop of color and a real sense of identity in the process. The small tower at the home plate gate will feature a big “A’s” logo.

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New look for HoHoKam comes with strong A’s colors

The existing beige clashes in a big way with green and gold, so there’s hope that the whole place will get a proper paint job that matches. If you look closely, the pic on the right shows a #27 above the entrance, a nod to the late, great Catfish Hunter. That isn’t the only tribute in store.

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Third base “24″ gate as part of renovated façade

It makes sense that Rickey’s gate is outside third base, right? I’m sure that at first naming/numbering gates in this manner will sound weird from a wayfaring standpoint, but I’d love to see all of the gates treated like this. If you know HoHoKam, you know that there are two more fan gates in the left field corner and outside first base that could also be numbered. Who should get the honor?

Despite being one of the largest Cactus League ballparks, HoHokam managed to maintain a level of intimacy due to its traditional concourse design, where fans move from the concourse to the grandstand through tunnels. There’s no 360-degree view from the concourse, and no fancy detached club level. Capacity will be reduced to 10,500, making HoHoKam a middle-of-the-pack ballpark in terms of size. Other plans called for extending the outer boundary fence so that the grounds can be larger in order to accommodate food trucks. That’s a good alternative to the food tents seen at some of the other parks. The fact that the architect in charge of HoHoKam is the same one who did the Muni renovation over a decade ago is a good sign. Muni still looks as good as it can get in spite of its old bones. This gives me hope for some boldness when it comes to the A’s future stadium in the Bay Area – one that isn’t handcuffed by having to share it with a football team.

I didn’t visit Fitch Park, the other half of the A’s-Mesa deal. Most of the work there will be focused on improving the training facilities for the A’s, under-the-hood types of improvements that benefit players, not so much fans.

Sadly, the lovely view of Papago Park that came with games at Muni will not be moving to Mesa with the A’s. That said, it’ll be nice to see a bunch of fans lazing on the berm. My brother’s buying a house in Mesa, and when I stay there during the spring I’ll be able to bike from his house to HoHoKam along a canal trail. I can’t think of a better way of spending time during March.

Walking distances to ballparks

Before I head out to Maryvale today to catch some combo major league and A’s minor league action, I wanted to post a table showing the approximate walking distances from various rail transit stations to ballpark entrances. In most cases these are door-to-door, measured with Google Earth’s ruler (path) tool. I’ve only included ballparks which have adjacent or nearby (within 1 mile) subway, light rail, or commuter rail stations. Bus stops do not count. The one exception I’ve included is Dodger Stadium just to illustrate the distance.

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Distances shown in feet except when approximately 1/4 mile or longer

I measured the Howard Terminal distance using the approximate location of the ballpark in the Manica Architecture drawings. An infill BART station built at Market/Brush Streets between 4th and 5th would be around 1/4 mile away from Howard Terminal.

In case you’re curious, the distance from Lew Wolff’s Coliseum North ballpark concept to the Coliseum BART station would’ve been around 2/3 mile. Fremont Pacific Commons would’ve been 1.5-2 miles from the Warm Springs BART station depending on infrastructure. A ballpark at Warm Springs is unknown because there was no specific location unveiled. The San Jose Diridon ballpark site sits 500 feet from the Diridon Caltrain station and 800 feet from the San Fernando light rail station. The under-construction Berryessa BART station is nearly 4 miles away from Diridon.

Salt River Fields at Talking Stick

Salt River Fields at Talking Stick opened three years ago as the latest (perhaps last) two-team spring training facility in the Cactus League. It’s unique in that it sits on the western edge of the lands of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, a group of federally recognized Native American tribes. The Rockies and Diamondbacks came over after spending a stint in Tucson, formally making the Cactus League a Phoenix operation in the process.

Coming from Tempe, I found myself driving through a shopping center to get to the ballpark. In the process I avoided the $5 parking fee by parking at the shopping center. From there I followed a large crowd past a movie theater to the south entrance to the baseball complex. A gently rising path elevated above the Rockies’ practice fields. The path deposits fans at the main concourse level, high above the field. Prior to the opening of Cubs Park, Talking Stick was the most expansive ballpark in Arizona. Wide concourses open to even wider spaces. The press/suite level, with its dark metal and amber lighting, is reminiscent of a resort. Instead of bleachers, bars flank the grandstand down both lines. Team executive offices look the part.

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Proximity to a mall notwithstanding, Talking Stick takes some of the lessons learned from Camelback Ranch and Goodyear Ballpark and applies them well. Camelback is too isolated and sometimes feels more like a landscape architecture exercise than a baseball experience. Goodyear is nearly devoid of character due to its cold, spartan appearance. The lighting along the main concourse at Talking Stick may be too casino resort-like at times, but get out from under the shade and the little pleasures start to take hold. Everything feels very angular and shows differently depending on the sunlight. The split roof structures don’t contour with the grandstand. Stairs and ramps leading down to the lower walkway invite fans to stop and appreciate the views of the field. At sunset a little dust kicked up to lend a little mystery. Camelback Mountain looms in the distance behind the grandstand, majestic and stark. Trees sit on the berm.

The big critique of Talking Stick is that it lacks intimacy. The different eras of spring training ballparks have proved this out. The older parks are simply closer and more geared towards watching the game than the new ones, which are designed for easily getting to the concourse for concessions. Those concessions, however, aren’t bad. The pulled pork nachos were decent.  Beer selection was poor. There’s a fry bread stand in center, and I wonder why fry bread isn’t more available throughout the Cactus League. And there are complimentary SPF 30 sunscreen dispensers along the berm. Those things should be mandatory.

As the Cactus League continues to evolve, we’re in a spot where we haven’t yet hit the net era. Cubs Park marks the end of the current era. A modified and smaller HoHoKam Stadium is a stylish refurb of a 90′s era park. Maryvale is something of a question mark for the Brewers going forward. And the two-team facilities appear to be solid, though the Mariners and Padres could choose to squeeze Peoria for upscale renovations. For now, let Cubs Park and Talking Stick be the standard-bearers for single and dual-team facilities, respectively. Long live the Cactus League.

 

Goodyear Ballpark

The circumstances that made Goodyear Ballpark possible are similar to those that built Camelback Ranch. Both opened in 2009. Both are two-team facilities involving recent Grapefruit League exiles. And both are on the West Valley outskirts, where nothing is tall and the desert is endless. That’s where the similarities end.

Goodyear’s design is contemporary and unlike Camelback, doesn’t seek to be at one with the desert. Nor is Goodyear’s complex as prettily integrated as Camelback’s, with the separate team facilities two large blocks away from the ballpark.  Much of the area immediately surrounding the ballpark is undeveloped, but could be built up when the economy is good enough to pull the trigger. Perhaps that’s what came with the much lower price tag of $108 million, $50 million less than Camelback Ranch. If Camelback tries for authentic Sonoran desert feel, Goodyear tries to be more authentically Arizonan, with human input making its own mark. Not far beyond the complex to the east is the Phoenix Goodyear airport, home to an impressive aircraft boneyard. Camelback likes to be referred to as a campus, not a complex. Goodyear has no qualms about being the latter.

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Other than the green grass and seats, the prevailing color scheme at Goodyear is gray and a dark, rust red. This makes sense because both Cleveland and Cincinnati have red in their uniforms, but darker to avoid any direct association. I entered from the the first base side instead of home plate, where a lengthy gate entrance aligned with the team store leads to the single concourse. One unique element of this ballpark is that the press/suite level is some 20 feet or more above the concourse, give the whole place a much more airy feel than many other Cactus League parks. It also isn’t very extensive, making the concourse even more open. The downside is that the press level looks rather disjointed and not unified. There’s a lot of unpainted steel used here, giving the place an industrial chic look. I would say that it works, except that everything’s so scaled down here that it almost disappears. That really just leaves the baseball game being played, which I suppose is just fine for most fans. It would’ve been cool to orient the field southeast so that the boneyard would be in view, but considering Camelback’s problems with that orientation and sun/shade, the traditional arrangement is probably for the best.

Besides the outfield lawn seating, there are huge flat lawn areas on either side, great for games of catch. Then the concourse abruptly meets its outer limit. Beyond the steel fences are plain dirt with no landscaping. I went to a night game, where the lacking view was saved by some clouds providing a great sunset and moonrise. It reminded me of West Texas.

At some point other stuff will come in to surround Goodyear Ballpark. For now it’s a rather lonely place, in and out. I didn’t see any distinctive food or beer options. If you’re a Reds or Indians fan coming in the morning to watch workouts, it’ll do fine. Other than that, Goodyear is a pretty ho-hum ballpark. The good thing is that there is room for improvement.

The other boring Howard Terminal stuff

The Port of Oakland is expected to approve an Exclusive Negotiating Agreement (ENA) with Oakland Waterfront Ballpark, LLC (OWB) at the May 27 board meeting. The terms are simple: they allow both parties to explore a potential ballpark – a non-maritime use – at Howard Terminal, studying costs and effects. OWB will plunk down $100,000 for the privilege, half of which will be immediately usable and the rest held in reserve and potentially refundable to OWB should things not work out. The agenda item also noted that the ENA is not a CEQA matter, though that is meaningless since nothing is being built during the ENA period. When it becomes an actual project that could be constructed, CEQA will come into play.

In preparation for the vote, Port staff had a report written by Oakland engineering and consulting firm Moffat & Nichol, to determine what needed to be done to keep Howard Terminal a maritime asset, capable of shipping and receiving cargo. The report contained several cost estimates, which included various types of new or rebuilt infrastructure. For instance, the cost to make HT a proper container terminal was estimated at $40 million, including $14.2 million dedicated to additional dredging and wharf strengthening. Another $20 million was estimated for two new container cranes ($10 million each? Wow). Port expansion and consolidation in conjunction with the Army Base repurposing project gives Oakland far more container capacity than is needed, so a container terminal isn’t considered necessary. Nevertheless, such a use is considered the most lucrative and there is a business case for it.

Other uses, from bulk dry or wet goods to roll-on/roll-off of vehicles or heavy equipment were also explored. The various options cost $8.9 million to $61.1 million. Think about that. Up to $61 million just to bring Howard Terminal up to date? No wonder the Port is exploring the non-maritime use option, that’s a big infrastructure cost. Of course, we saw earlier today that concerns from other existing Port operators about the compatibility of non-maritime uses like a ballpark can potentially translate into huge costs down the road. Either way, the Port has to be diligent about the future of Howard Terminal.

Summary of costs and returns from Moffat & Nichol report

Summary of costs and returns from Moffat & Nichol report

Interestingly, the report also tried to project ROI on these options. Using an IRR of 5% to break even, it was determined that a container terminal would take 16 years to get there, or 13 for a roll-on/roll-off terminal. Some options took longer than 30 years or didn’t break even at all. I’d like to see the Port do a similar assessment on a ballpark. The context of this kind of examination is important, as these costs and projections are about Howard Terminal being a self-sustaining entity. Most ballpark economic impact reports talk in terms of spillover effects and surrounding impact, but the Port doesn’t control most of the land surrounding Howard Terminal so it can’t claim such positives. The Port’s own financial statements treat the different terminals and other operations (airport, commercial leases) as separate line items, so the case for making a ballpark land deal provide a return to the Port should be a good one if it’s attempted. The case could rely largely on possessory interest tax, the substitute for property tax used for private interests who lease out public facilities. Assuming that the Port and OWB get down to deal terms, the Port may negotiate for a piece of tickets or other revenues to pay for new infrastructure, whatever that costs. In that sense, the Port is acting the same way a City would, in that the Port has its own bonding capacity and could levy fees to pay those bonds off.

Earlier today, the ballpark-following Twitterverse got into a tizzy as Howard Terminal ballpark proponents were on the defensive about the Schnitzer Steel/Union Pacific/California Trucking Association letter. They pointed out issues that, to resolve, will require all new and potentially costly infrastructure. HT proponents, in their usual reductionist manner, labeled such concerns as, “the Howard Terminal opponents say the ballpark is impossible/unviable.” That’s not the problem. Anything can be done if you throw enough money at it. The issues are whether or not the additional infrastructure can be paid for, and whether they can protect the interests of current tenants and Port operators. If that cost is manageable the ballpark could proceed, other procedural matters (CEQA/BCDC/SLC/FRA/CPUC) notwithstanding. If the costs prove prohibitively high, then we’ll be back at square one, with Oakland scrambling to find yet another site, retreating to Coliseum City (which has its own myriad complications), or starting yet another round of recriminations (“If only Wolff were a willing partner this could be done”). That’s why I’m glad all this is happening. Someone’s gonna get to say I told you so at the end. As childish as that may sound, it’s better than not knowing.