Two competing narratives define Howard Terminal at the moment. The first, proffered by Oakland ballpark boosters, insists that because of the summer move to attain “site control” over the Port locale, getting a ballpark built should be a mostly a matter of procedure that can quickly result in HT being shovel-ready. The other narrative, promoted by this site and other skeptics, argues that because of the land’s heavy industrial and maritime uses over the last several decades, it could be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to even attempt it.
Adding to the information fog surrounding Howard Terminal are suggestions that the permitting and CEQA processes for the site could somehow be streamlined. One Twitter follower even explained to me a few months ago that the site wouldn’t need rigorous environmental review because HT was somehow zoned for a convention center. That’s not true, and even if it was that’s a wholly different use and set of impacts compared to a ballpark. No, HT is zoned as heavy industrial, Port land. No commercial uses are allowed there. I’ve also heard that there’s a way to build at HT without breaching the thick contamination cap already there. That’s patently ridiculous. Now if someone wants to offer up some great technology that allows for building a code-compliant, earthquake-safe, 10-story tall permanent ballpark whose foundation doesn’t require digging out some dirt, I’m all ears. Pardon me for being cynical.
Or if you don’t want to pardon my cynicism, take it from the Port. In the aftermath of the SSA consolidation deal inked between the Port and one of its bigger operators, Port staff prepared a report for a forthcoming RFP to find bidders who could use HT in the short-term. The concern is that the Port is losing $10 million a year while Howard Terminal remains vacant post-consolidation. I’ve bolded some of the more noteworthy language, and summarized the issue below each quoted graf.
Urgency of Revenue
With the loss of about $10 million/year of revenue at Howard Terminal starting October 1, 2013, finding a new tenant that can quickly establish operations and pay rent to the Port is critical. Because the property is already generally permitted and entitled for maritime and maritime-related uses, maintaining land use consistency will help expedite occupancy. However, it should be noted that even some maritime uses may require additional entitlement work; for example, construction of extensive break bulk facilities may require some California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) analysis and permitting work. This work, however, is expected to be relatively limited as compared to non-maritime uses of the property.
Issue #1: The Port is trying to maintain maritime use so that they can get a tenant in there tout de suite. That doesn’t mean that the Port is against a ballpark, but it’s clear that a non-maritime use like a ballpark is bound to be tied up in red tape for some time to come.
BCDC Seaport Plan
Howard Terminal is included in the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (“BCDC”) Seaport Plan as a “Port Priority Use” area. This designation is based on a Bay-wide study performed by BCDC periodically to determine whether enough capacity exists across all Bay Area ports to accommodate anticipated cargo growth in the long-term future. Using Howard Terminal for non-maritime uses conflicts with this designation, and de-designation of lands from Port Priority Use requires a Seaport Plan amendment, which is a fairly lengthy and involved process. To pursue an amendment, the Port would be required to provide evidence that sufficient capacity exists within the remaining Port seaport properties, or elsewhere within the Bay Area Port priority lands, to support the long term maritime growth demands for the region. BCDC would then independently analyze that information before proceeding with an amendment.
Issue #2: In order to accept non-maritime reuse of Howard Terminal, that red tape would include a Seaport Plan amendment, proof that the consolidation properly makes up for HT’s lost cargo handling capacity. If the consolidation doesn’t prove enough, more capacity would have to be found elsewhere, even somewhere outside Oakland city limits.
Tidelands Trust Compliance
Howard Terminal is currently encumbered by the Tidelands Trust. Uses of the property are therefore generally limited to water oriented commerce, navigation, fisheries, and regional or state-wide recreational uses. Approval from the State Lands Commission would be required for any uses of the property that are not Tidelands Trust compliant. Many non-maritime activities are not considered Trust compliant uses and thus may require lengthy negotiations with the State Lands Commission, and potential legislation, before the Port could proceed with such non-Trust uses for the property.
Issue #3: This is a very similar situation to what the Warriors face with their planned arena at San Francisco’s Piers 30/32. Howard Terminal is on the water, on the bay, thus any plans there mandate special consideration of the effects of such a project. Since that process could take years to shake out, project proponents have pushed local legislators to write “streamlining” bills that can cut down review time normally associated with EIR-challenging lawsuits.
Other Entitlement, Environmental & Regulatory Issues
Howard Terminal is subject to a complex set of regulatory permits and deed restrictions related to the hazardous materials in the soil and groundwater underlying the property. Development of new structures that penetrate the ground surface or changes in land use will require notices to regulatory agencies, and compliance with existing health, safety and soil management plans. Non-maritime uses will likely require extensive and expensive clean-up or other protective environmental measures, precluding expeditious turn-over of the property to a new rent-paying tenant. Further, non-maritime uses will likely require numerous land use entitlements including local land use permits, an amendment to the Oakland General Plan, and CEQA review. These activities could take several years to complete.
Issue #4: The cap problem.
Remarkably, there was no mention of a ballpark anywhere in the proposal for the RFP. There was also no mention of an EIR for a ballpark or any other Howard Terminal-related project. That makes sense when the goal is simply to get a tenant in there in the next year. No chance that can be anything but a shipping concern. Staff’s recommendation is to carry forward an RFP focusing only on maritime uses. That could change if City Hall leans hard on the Port to formally open up HT for non-maritime uses. Then again, as staff pointed out, Broadening the RFP scope further would complicate the evaluation process. SSA’s transition was originally supposed to complete at the beginning of this month. Now it may slip until January, which seems more realistic considering the work involved.
When it comes to Howard Terminal, you can read this site or listen to some story that some people are selling. Or you could disregard both and read Port staff’s own words. Don’t worry, I won’t be offended if you do. Mayor Jean Quan has been claiming for some months that some good news would be coming by the end of the year regarding HT. Hopefully the news isn’t limited to announcing that the Port has identified a new operator at the site for negotiations. That’s what happened with the Coliseum City RFP. In February 2012. The Port of Oakland has is semi-autonomous. It has to be fiscally responsible and self-sufficient. A $10 million hit per year is a big hit no matter how long it lasts. The Port also has another project, the Oakland Army Base reuse plan, which may now be counted upon to replace the jobs lost if Howard Terminal can’t find a new tenant. All of these issues and others are why I suggested caution when Howard Terminal came into play again. Now let’s see what site proponents can do about all the obstacles in their path.
P.S. – Don’t forget, the issues identified by Port staff don’t include issues that could arise specific to the construction of a ballpark: pedestrian and vehicular bridges needed over the Embarcadero railroad tracks, and potential resistance from Oakland residents over the prospects of a tall stadium on the waterfront.