The story is familiar. An out-of-town ownership group sees a development opportunity on cheap land and a chance to build a ballpark in tandem. At the same time it moves away from its long-time home to a location with more money. No, I’m not talking about the Braves moving 12 miles to Cobb County. I’m talking about the A’s moving to Fremont.
Conceived in 2006, the Cisco Field/Ballpark Village concept had support from the Mayor and City Council of Fremont. Cisco went to A’s ownership and suggested the deal, which included the ballpark’s naming rights in partial exchange for heavily discounted land it controlled in south Fremont, near what was then the NUMMI plant. After negotiations stalled with landowner ProLogis and several retailers in the area, the A’s looked across the Nimitz to Warm Springs before giving up on Fremont completely.
Some blame the demise of Fremont on NIMBY concerns. While that had something to do with it, the biggest problem was the impact of the recession. As new home starts ground to a halt with the collapse of the real estate market, mega-developments like Pacific Commons failed to pencil out. That project and many others of similar scope sat dormant for several years, or died on the vine.
In 2013, the real estate market is recovering even if the broader economy is still somewhat stalled. In hot markets like the Bay Area and DC we’re back to real estate boom times. Investors from China and India are swooping in to make cash offers on houses sight unseen, and foreign money is coming in to support big projects such as Brooklyn Basin in Oakland.
It’s that backdrop that has allowed the Atlanta Braves to seek out their own mega-development in Cobb County, just in the suburbs outside Atlanta city limits. A more affluent area closer to corporate interests and away from mass transit? What you or I would call white flight, the Braves would call working to remain competitive.
The Braves, owned by DirecTV owner Liberty Media, recently moved a package of TV game broadcasts from local independent station Peachtree TV (WPCH) to Fox Sports South and SportSouth, the sister Fox-run RSNs in Georgia. While that will help boost revenues, it’s not nearly as lucrative as the single-RSN deals that the Mets have and the Phillies are seeking. To help their own revenue streams, Braves ownership are looking at the next avenues, a new ballpark and ancillary development.
Yesterday an article by the New York Times’ Atlanta bureau chief Kim Severson asked a question that seems relevant for the times: what defines urban and suburban areas? While Turner Field (and Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium previously) were in the middle of Atlanta, the location didn’t match what many would consider urban. Far from transit and surrounded by large parking lots, the neighborhood wasn’t vibrant the way we expect urban ballpark surroundings to be. Similarly, the Oakland Coliseum is set in a hundred acres of parking, and while its connectivity to BART is excellent, the neighborhood leaves much to be desired. The Braves are planning a dense, walkable community that should be largely self-contained, though again it’s far from MARTA. For years either new communities or established smaller cities and towns have used redevelopment funds to create the kind of urban environment that could attract new residents – or at least a subset of that urban environment.
There’s no clear definition of a properly urban neighborhood. Oakland has plenty of excellent established neighborhoods, such as Rockridge, Montclair, and Grand Lake. San Jose has Willow Glen, Rose Garden, and Naglee Park. None of those places have 12-15 open acres for a ballpark. Nor do they have a citizenry who won’t fight tooth and nail over parking and traffic concerns. Often developers will work for years to create that neighborhood feel and it doesn’t work out. Witness how Jack London Square developer Ellis Partners has practically thrown in the towel on making JLS an energetic retail district, electing to push for more housing instead. San Jose has an unquestioned success in the form of Santana Row, though it may not have been possible without Valley Fair already there across the street. With Coliseum City (and to an extent, Howard Terminal), Oakland is attempting to create that vibrance where none currently exists. The list of failures is long: Fremont, Arlington, and Coliseum North to name a few. Will Atlanta and Anaheim prove successful and create the blueprint?
And what of the white flight element? Atlanta and the Braves have jointly, proudly displayed their heritage regarding race in baseball. With the Braves poised to move to a decidedly more white, more moneyed location closer to most of the team’s ticket buyers, what will this mean for the Braves’ legacy?
While deflecting criticism over the Braves’ pending move, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed made one of the more magnanimous statements about cities I’ve read in some time:
“We’ve got to make a decision — either we’re going to be a region or we’re not. It bothers me that we have not come far enough as a community that people feel that a team moving 12 miles is a loss to the city of Atlanta.”
Of course, Reid just helped Atlanta give away the farm for the Falcons and their coming new uber-dome. Other motivations were at work to keep the Falcons downtown while allowing the Braves move to Cumberland, such as lobbying from the Georgia World Congress Center. The Braves weren’t allowed to get control over the land around Turner Field, so they looked for greener pastures. Which is how this sort of deal often gets started.
Atlanta’s population is just slightly above 430,000, which makes the city a little larger than Oakland. In California, Atlanta’s size would supplant Oakland as 8th-largest in the state, below Long Beach. Even though Atlanta is arguably the most prominent city in the South (non-Texas), it’s much smaller than other Southern cities such as Louisville and Charlotte. The Atlanta metro has over 5 million residents in area 20% larger than the Bay Area metro. Yet Atlanta remains the historical and cultural hub of the region and of the state, a claim that can only be made by LA and SF in California. Pushing for regional unity is easy when you don’t have to worry about a team changing names. That’s definitely where the comparison with the Bay Area ends.