San Jose Sonics?

A small blurb in Mitch Lawrence’s NY Daily News column suggests that the NBA’s Seattle Supersonics are seriously interested in relocating to San Jose. I’ve always thought that this was just part of a ploy to get the Sonics out of their terrible lease and have some improvements for Key Arena to boot. Until Sonics owner Howard Schultz actually makes an announcement in which he’s going to move Green Team West to Silicon Valley, I’ll remain skeptical.

San Jose EIR Observations

I’ve now had a chance to give the EIR a pretty good run-through and I’ve compiled a laundry list of comments to submit to the City. I won’t publish those yet since I want to give it another pass. For now, I’ll list highlight items I felt were important in the document and its presentation.
First of all, it should be kept in mind at all times when reading this type of document that it is an environmental impact report, not a feasibility study and planning guide. Therefore, the authors are not making any judgments on its feasibility or cost, nor are they taking political implications into consideration.

Key assumptions are made early on:

  • The HOK-derived ballpark concept has a seating capacity of 45,000. That’s a full 10,000 more than the Wolff concept. This will become very important later on in the discussion.
  • The ballpark is built at grade, with no submerged field. This is similar to AT&T/SBC Park.
  • Traffic and noise studies are confined to the area immediately surrounding the ballpark to within roughly 1 mile of the ballpark. There is no study of the impact on southbound I-880 due to East Bay fans driving down for a game during rush hour.
  • Development alternatives consist of sites and options discussed as of early last year. The soccer stadium option, which was discussed in December 2005, is not in this document.
  • One alternative is called Existing Plan, which is based on the development strategy outlined in the Diridon/Arena strategic planning document. There is no alternative for a combination of a ballpark and elements of the planning document. While the ballpark is cited as fitting within the the scope of the Diridon/Arena plan, there is no inherent link between the two since it is not known how the ancillary development would proceed.
  • The fire training site is to be used as a combination parking structure and area for the relocated PG&E substation. Any plans for a public park would have to be moved elsewhere.

Now onto the juicy stuff.

The most impactful issue is obviously the noise factor, which has been picked by all local media. However, the noise estimates are inflated because of assumptions made on the size of the project. As noted before, the ballpark’s capacity is set at 45,000. The baseline statistical sample was data gathered by measuring noise outside Qualcomm Stadium for a Padres game where 40,000 fans were in attendance. Since the conceptual ballpark is 5,000 seats bigger, a peak noise gain of 5 dB is estimated from the Qualcomm measurements. Should the 35,000-seat ballpark be built instead of this concept, it can be assumed that peak noise could be at least 5 dB less than the figures cited in the EIR.

Delmas Park is in a bad situation when it comes to noise. It has a freeway and a light rail train immediately to the east. LRT also runs to the north. Another freeway is a mile south. Several major bus lines populate the corridors to the north and south. Jets fly in low on their final approach to the airport 1/2 mile east of the neighborhood. Freight and commuter trains rumble 1/2 mile to the west. HP Pavilion sends hundreds of cars through the neighborhood after events are completed. Finally, San Jose Water Company just received entitlements allowing it to build a planned 1,000,000 square feet of office space along with 325 homes and 3,000 parking spaces, so bring on the piledrivers.

Add a ballpark sending noise directly into the neighborhood, and the result is that the residents of Delmas Park will soon be living in cacophony if they aren’t already. Delmas Park is in a zone where a limit has been established on ambient noise – 65 dBA. Having a ballpark won’t make the neighborhood consistently louder. Instead, it will increases instances of loud noise. For instance, say a crowd at the ballpark cheers really loud 18 times per game, or twice an inning. Over a three hour game, that translates to 6 peak noise events per hour, equivalent to 6 additional jets flying overhead or 6 additional buses’ squealing brakes stopping nearby per hour. I honestly wouldn’t blame residents for being angry, especially because San Jose telegraphed this a while back when they for planning purposes expanded Downtown to include the Diridon/Arena area, yet not enough mitigation measures were taken to protect Delmas Park.

A few ideas were pitched to reduce noise and congestion:

  • Provide sound insulation for 40 affected homewoners inside the 60 dBA contour. Frankly, this should be extended to all homeowners in the neighborhood out of consideration for the impact of other development. Should the Diridon/Arena area become a true mixed-use transit hub, the noise is only going to get ratcheted up. It’s the very least they can do.
  • Utilize a distributed sound/PA system. That would probably mean that venue audio kings Meyer Sound would be out of the running, with a PA system provided by other companies like Panasonic, EV, or JBL. It’s a relatively minor issue, but Meyer Sound is a big reason why Jon Miller calls Coliseum PA announcer Roy Steele “the voice of God.”
  • Widen Delmas Ave to 2 through lanes south of W San Fernando St. This should help traffic pass through the area more quickly and has been identified as a mitigation measure for development at the SJWC site.

There are a few mitigation measures I’ve identified that could make things a lot easier for Delmas Park.

  • Shut down W San Fernando St and maybe Park Ave between Autumn St and Delmas Ave/Woz Way two hours before each game through one hour after each game to all traffic except Delmas Park residents and buses. By routing most traffic on the north-south routes in the area, traffic can flow freely around the ballpark while also preventing access for unscrupulous types looking for shortcuts through the neighborhood. This option was discussed during the scoping session, but for whatever reason didn’t make it into the document. There are problems related to shutting down Park Ave because the premium parking garage would be on the corner of Park and Autumn/Montgomery, but this could be managed.
  • Plant more trees. Sounds simple, but trees and other foliage can act as a nice sound barrier when strategically placed. That would means trees with lots of leaves, not low maintenance palms. Since a few dozen trees would need to be removed to make way for construction, why not use the buffer presented by the Autumn St/Los Gatos Creek public space to make a visually pleasing and practical sound barrier?
  • Tighten the seating bowl. The model used in the EIR is based largely off AT&T Park, which has an approximately 80-degree bowl angle that tapers in along the outfield lines. If a tighter infield angle were used (60 degrees based on the models I’m using), the bowl could better attenuate sound while providing fans in the outfield corners with closer views of the action. Examples of a tighter angle exist in Yankee Stadium and Raley Field.
  • Turn the field orientation 15 or more degrees north. Planners want to include the downtown skyline, but tilting the field in a more northerly direction can allow some noise to be directed away from Delmas Park without severely impacting the view.
  • Make a pact with the community. This would be similar to what was negotiated with residents surrounding Chicago’s Wrigley Field in which there are a limited number of night games. It doesn’t have to be that extreme, but there can be limits to the number of night concerts (15-20 estimated per year) and fireworks displays. It should be stated that sound studies don’t typically measure noise that carries due to the inversion layer or other weather factors. It’s that type of noise that caused the rash of complaints when the Rolling Stones came to SF, or when Shoreline Amphitheater opened and drove much of Palo Alto crazy.

Surprisingly, the Cahill Park/St. Leo’s neighborhoods don’t appear to be affected much by ballpark noise (see picture above: blue = ballpark 60 dBA contour, yellow = concert 60 dBA contour). This is mostly due to the field orientation as the grandstand attenuates much of the sound directed to the west and south.

There were a few more interesting nuggets I culled from the EIR:

  • The only building on the site with any significant historical value is the former KNTV Studio, which is reportedly over 50 years old. It won’t be saved should the ballpark get built.
  • At 45,000 seats, the ballpark rises 165 feet from street grade, 200 feet including scoreboards, 235 feet with light standards. It doesn’t need to be nearly that tall. A 35,000-seat ballpark would reduce or eliminate the need for a large upper deck. The models I’ve drawn up have the topmost row only 83 feet above the field. If the field were sunken 15 feet below street grade, that same row would be only 68 feet above the street, the equivalent of a 5-6 story building. The facade that fronts the concourses would be even lower. Add a roof with light standards contained beneath the roof or at the roof’s edge and the height is raised roughly 20 feet. If done in this manner, the ballpark would have less height and visual impact than HP Pavilion, which rises 100 feet from street grade. This lower profile would allow the building to comply with FAA building height requirements and limit light spill into the surrounding neighborhood. There are plenty of other tangible benefits to building lower, such as decreased materials costs, lower seismic risk, and better views for fans.
  • No community benefits are pitched because it’s an EIR. Since a park wouldn’t be possible under this plan, perhaps there’s a way to building a community center and/or gymnasium on top of the parking structure, the same way a banquet hall was placed above the Fourth Street Garage.

  • The Submerged Stadium alternative assumes digging the field 24-28 feet below ground. With a smaller first deck like the one I’ve drawn up (see picture above), it could be submerged 15 feet, which could reduce the amount of excavated dirt that would have to be hauled away and relocated by at least 25%.

All in all, plenty of good stuff in the EIR to chew on.

Wolff family visits Union City; more on Fremont

Meanwhile, Lew Wolff and his daughter Kari visited Pioneer Elementary School in Union City, where they read to 130 first- and second-graders as part of their pro-literacy program.

Fremont city manager Manny Diaz discussed Fremont’s hopes of getting the A’s. According to Diaz, the A’s have inquired about Pacific Commons, the new development along I-880 and Auto Mall Parkway. Talks are definitely heating up between Fremont and the A’s, though Fremont is still in the preliminary stages.

SJ Ballpark EIR available

As promised, San Jose’s draft environmental impact report is now available. The links lead one to just the table of contents right now, but I’ll have the entire 365-page tome soon for dissection. The Merc’s Barry Witt got a look at it and picked up some points about light and noise, which would affect the Delmas Park and St. Leo’s neighborhoods immediately to the east and west of the ballpark, respectively.

The ballpark’s northeast orientation would make the seating bowl act as a horn, sending noise directly into Delmas Park. The recommended way to mitigate this is to provide noise insulation for affected residents. Light would also be an issue because standards could be well over 250 feet above street level.

There are plenty of issues with the plan, and I’ll go into those in more detail soon. For the time being, I’ve consolidated the bulk of the EIR (sans appendices) into a single, huge (38 MB) file for your consumption.


San Jose’s big vision

A new report from the San Jose Business Journal explains a bold, $1 billion vision of a revamped (again) Downtown San Jose, with new baseball and soccer facilities, museums, a concert hall, and other wide-ranging entertainment. While the proposal has not yet been finalized or presented, it is thought that the changes would be funded by a 1/2-cent sales tax or some combination of use taxes (Mello-Roos business districts or something similar, gross receipts, hotels, car rentals, etc.). Payoff would come over 30 years.

One of the interesting things about this initiative is that it’s not being pitched by the mayor, city council, or other government entities. It’s being pushed (and the study financed) by “Adobe Systems, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, among others.” (That means the “H” and “P” in HP if you’re wondering.) Lew Wolff was also asked about the proposal. He called it “a fantastic idea.” It’s no secret locally that Wolff doesn’t see eye-to-eye with the current administration, especially budget head and Mayor Gonzales’ right-hand man Joe Guerra. Wolff also doesn’t believe the transformation of San Jose’s downtown is complete, so bold, innovative thinking is welcome in hopes of making Downtown San Jose more of a destination that it had been previously.

Also notable is the fact that the plan, called “Creative Urban Center” is backed by a new consortium called 1stAct Silicon Valley. Recently announced mayoral candidate and proclaimed outsider Michael Mulcahy is part of this group. It’s quite possible that the plan may become part of his platform as he seeks to contrast himself from the scandal-ridden and slow-moving city government.

The tax part is a big concern. Combine a 1/2-cent sales tax hike with the county’s additional 1/4-cent for the BART extension and San Jose’s sales tax comes to a whopping 9%, the highest in the Bay Area. It’s likely that the powerful Silicon Valley Leadership Group would support both, but one could rob votes of the other if voters had to choose on the same ballot. The article also discusses how the fact that the proposal is so broad may allow it to fund stadia using an endaround past the current sports facilities funding law, which requires a 2/3 or supermajority vote instead of a majority vote.

So if you’re wondering what San Jose’s strategy is, it looks like it’s taking shape, and without the assistance of anyone in City Hall. Something tells me that any ballot initiative wouldn’t occur until June 2007 because of competition with other funding measures, chiefly the $222 billion public works proposal the Governor is currently pitching all over the state.

San Jose updates

I’ve spent the last week in the Rockies and Plains. Compared to the weather I’ve experienced over the last several days, in which the temperature never went over the teens and the wind chill dropped the gauge to -40 in North Dakota, the supposedly chilly weather here is downright balmy. While I’ve been gone, San Jose has made a few headlines:

Two more Diridon South properties are about to be acquired by San Jose’s Redevelopment Agency. Both are on the block between Autumn Street and Montgomery Street, south of San Fernando Street. That brings the tally to three properties and three acres total. The big properties west of Montgomery – the SBC/AT&T site, the old KNTV studio, and the PG&E substation – are still to be acquired. The PG&E substation has extra costs associated with because it will have to be moved to a location nearby. If the ballpark were oriented north, the substation could be moved 200 feet to the north and kept in the same configuration with the same vehicular and service access it had previously.

This orientation makes it similar to Petco Park, which also has its field opened to the north.

San Jose also just lost a lawsuit against Santa Clara County in which it sought to block the County from building a concert hall on the Fairgrounds south of downtown. Should the County proceed with building the concert hall, it would be mainly in competition with SJSU’s Event Center, UC Berkeley’s Greek Theatre, and SF’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. All would have a 5,000+ capacity, but the new concert hall would presumably have better amenities and acoustics than its competitors. Personally I think the Fairgrounds is better suited for a soccer stadium/amphitheater with playing fields surrounding it, while a concert hall should be downtown as most concert halls are. There’s hope that the two parties can set their differences aside, but the city is still looking to appeal and the emboldened county looks like it’s moving forward with its plans.

Check out Athletics Nation

On AthleticsNation Blez just posted a fantastic interview with Lew Wolff. This is the second interview Blez has snagged with Wolff. A couple of points to consider:

  • How many blogs or other fansites get real, non-fluff interviews with team owners? Blez obviously deserves credit for being regarded highly enough to merit the Q&A sessions with Wolff and Beane.
  • Wolff also deserves credit for understanding the educated, oft-hidden hardcore fanbase that prowls the net. Even if you’re a cynic, it’s a fantastic PR move.

That said, there’s something I’ve been wanting to get off my chest for the last few weeks. As I’ve learned more about the process and the complexity involved in getting a ballpark deal, it’s become clear that any thoughts of a conspiracy theory are offbase. Especially in the A’s case. There are too many factors and obstacles that can derail a deal for a conspiratorial plan to work. The different cities involved (including those outside the Bay Area) all have significant issues to overcome if they want to talk ballpark with the A’s. If there was some real guarantee of a predetermined outcome it could make sense, but a dealmaker like Wolff knows better than to put his eggs in one basket. Too many things can go out of control as well. Example:

  • Remember the big downtown LA hotel that Wolff’s urban development company was building? Wolff had to pull out last month due to rising costs. The project is now being helmed by a partnership of AEG and KB Home, who plans to build condos in some of the areas where hotel rooms were planned. Wolff is still on as an advisor, but the big bucks will go elsewhere. Think about that. Over the last several months, Wolff signaled to LA pols that costs were rising on the project. Hurricane Katrina may have sent everything through the roof. Instead of killing the deal, all parties got together to work out a plan to get the project built. It meant that Wolff had to step aside, but it looks like it will get done. In the case of an A’s ballpark, Wolff won’t be able to step aside, but we should expect that he’ll be upfront on the costs involved, even as partners or plans change.

I’ve even been guilty of fomenting conspiracy theories at times, but that’s been more to promote discussion of the issues than anything else. The process is not at some advanced stage, far from it. However, things can move quickly, and that should be expected the closer we get to Opening Day.