Reusing an abandoned arena

This post is not strictly related to the Coliseum City EIR, though the ideas within are somewhat germane.

It’s been a few months since the Warriors gave up their effort to build at Piers 30-32 in San Francisco, electing instead to buy land at Mission Rock to the south. So far, the team has received practically zero resistance from the parties that either opposed the waterfront arena or who would typically oppose such projects. From a regulatory standpoint, the arena should go as easily than Pac Bell Park went, perhaps easier since it’s technically not on the waterfront. While it’s too early to call the arena a slam dunk, it’s a good idea for Oakland and Alameda County to start thinking about what will happen to Oracle Arena after the W’s leave.

First, the JPA and the W’s will surely go to court over the $61 million in debt owed on the arena after 2017. Once that’s settled, a series of choices will need to be made. One possibility is to demolish the arena and reclaim the land, about 8 acres worth. Should the arena stay put, more choices will have to be made about what its purpose is and how to best utilize it.

Alternative 2A: Two new stadia + existing arena

Alternative 2A: Two new stadia + existing arena

The market for a third 17,000+ capacity arena lacking an anchor tenant in the Bay Area is not good. The SF arena will be the new must-see, must-book venue in the Bay Area, with arenas in both Oakland and San Jose suffering to some degree. If the arena debt falls back on Oakland/Alameda County, operating costs can run as much as $17 million a year through 2027. With the arena in a prime site within the Coliseum City development, the temptation will be huge for O/AC to cut their losses and recoup whatever they can through redevelopment. Countering that will be pressure from the community and preservationists to keep the arena intact, as it retains significant historical value.

Functionally, the arena is still an excellent venue. Steady improvements have been made since the 1997 renovation, including new club areas and seating options, new scoreboards, and revamped technology inside the building. The biggest problem remains poor circulation, as the main concourse is narrow and cramped. While well appointed, the sideline club areas also have a tendency to feel congested. It also has way too many seats for anything other than a NBA or NHL franchise and should be downsized.

My first suggestion then, is to remove the upper seating bowl. The lower bowl has 10,000 seats on its own, plus another 1,000-2,000 available on the floor depending on configuration. That’s the perfect size for the sort of second-tier arena that every major market should have. For decades, that venue has been the Cow Palace, but the old joint is so antiquated and generally undesirable as an arena that acts avoid it like the plague. Besides the Grand National Rodeo and the usual touring circus, very little happens at the Cow Palace. Therefore it would appear that there is an opening in the market for a 10k arena. It’s the right size for the WNBA and minor league hockey. Most touring concert acts aren’t looking for 15k seats or more, 7-12k may be plenty sufficient. That venue doesn’t really exist in the Bay Area. SAP Center and the forthcoming SF arena will be able to reach that with curtaining or other tricks. The reconfigured Oakland arena should be able to hit that without any visual tricks.

Oakland Coliseum Arena shortly after construction was completed

Oakland Coliseum Arena shortly after construction was completed

You’re probably saying at this point, Okay but what about the upper deck? Glad you asked. The picture above illustrates how beautiful the arena used to be, with its sense of symmetry and different types of geometry. It also shows the amount of available vertical space. That largely went away with the renovation, but would be available again after the upper deck is lopped off. I’ll put out a couple different ways to utilize the space.

Arena lower bowl plus suite levels

Arena lower bowl plus suite levels (Image from Ballena Technologies)

One way is to put a new ceiling on the arena at the rim of the upper suite level. That would require putting in an extensive truss system to support the ceiling/roof and whatever is on top. Once that’s done, the upper level can be finished, leaving a 10,000-seat arena below and an exhibit space above. That exhibit hall could have a much as 100,000 square feet of clear span, column free space. That’s nearly twice as much as the downtown Oakland Convention Center, and more than Moscone West’s main hall. The drooping ceiling would create a weird visual effect for many (most similar buildings have an arched or flat ceiling). Beyond that, the new exhibit hall would fill a need not met by anything currently in the East Bay. The best part is that the arena could be run completely separately below or in conjunction with the exhibit hall, providing additional hospitality and exhibit space, the arena itself largely unchanged. Some new infrastructure would have to be built, such as a large freight elevator and ramps to the revamped upper level.

Old sketch of arena elevations, note drop ceiling

Old sketch of arena elevations, note drop ceiling

Another option is more conventional. In this case the seating bowl would be torn down but the upper concourse would be expanded to the perimeter of the building. There would be no second ceiling above the arena bowl. Available square footage would be cut down to 60,000 or less. Uses would be fairly limited, such as commercial (office) or even retail. If there ever was a natural spot for a movie theater multiplex, this is it. 15-20 screens could easily fit in the space, even an IMAX theater. Again, there’s a need that’s unfulfilled in Oakland right now, and Coliseum City would be well positioned to capture that market with its expected higher-income residents, office workers, and visitors. Cost would be fairly minimal for the JPA, as the theater operator would presumably bear the cost of constructing the auditoriums.

The name “Oracle Arena” is expected to expire after 2016, when the naming rights deal ends and the Warriors have construction underway. When that happens the name will probably change back to the Oakland Coliseum Arena, the venue’s original name. That’s fitting, whether the arena continues as is or is transformed in some manner. The building may not have seen much winning in its 40+ years, but it’s full of great memories and events. If there’s a way to keep it operating that works for the public, it should be explored to its fullest.

25 thoughts on “Reusing an abandoned arena

  1. I think the movie theater idea is a winner. Bring in people to the site 365 days a year. I believe the Montreal Forum, former home of the Canadiens, is now a movie theatre. It’s too historic to tear down and too obsolete for modern-day NHL hockey, so its a theatre now.

  2. This plan shares some similarities with the renovation of The Forum in Inglewood, and that seems to have been a winner. One things I would counter is that the Cow Palace has plenty of activity, most of that just tends to be trade shows and the like rather than actual performances. I even think that a renovated Oracle serving mostly as a medium sized performance/entertainment venue would be a good complement to ongoing operations at the Cow Palace geared more towards the type of events it already serves. An interesting curveball in all of this is that there is an entertainment venue of several thousand seats planned where Candlestick stands now as a part of the huge redevelopment project taking shape for Candlestick Point.

  3. It would be a shame to demolish it, considering someone is going to be paying on those band’s until 2027, of course unless Lew Wolff pays them off.
    There seems to be enough room for them to keep it in some form or fashion, even with a new football and (or) baseball to stadium, but obviously if it comes down to it, in the interest of ancillary development to support one or both of the other two then so be it.
    I guess the real shame would be, if all Oakland was left with was a scaled down version of the area.

    • I meant to say, it would really be a shame if Oakland ended up with nothing but, a scaled down version of the current area.

  4. Awesome post, ML. Learned a lot, as I do with all your construction and city planning hypotheticals.

    • I like the idea of a movie theater. However, if you could downsize it to what the Forum is in Inglewood, Oakland might something there.

  5. Personally, I like the idea of the Cow Palace replacement. The fact that there are events at the Cow Palace shows there is a market to be served, and Oakland can serve it better. Those types of events would be really big at bringing people into Oakland to spend money. A movie theatre could always be developed as part of the larger plan. There will be plenty of room, especially if there is just a ballpark.

  6. I’d go w/ the cow palace replacement move, provided they can maintain enough on-site parking to handle game + concerts.

    Dropping another movie theater in there doesn’t seem to make sense with the Emeryville Bay St Imax, and well worn theaters like Alameda, Jack London, and Grand Lake.

  7. I’m left wondering about the picture of the football stadium with the roof on it. In a place that has the best climate in the world and drought conditions? Is that supposed to attract convention business away from Frisco? Good luck with that. Check out San Jose’s usually empty convention center to see how that’s worked out.

    • @pjk
      I just don’t see how a roof would work, I mean I undusted the concept but the market is not there to justify the added expense of having a roof.
      Look at us, talking about a hypothetical roof when the Raiders have not even committed (yet), to actually building a stadium, we have been living in a hypothetical world for twenty years regarding the A’s and Raiders, I guess even longer with the A’s.

  8. We will have a better idea of what will, or likely will not transpire at CC once the Raiders make their decision regarding their future on that site. It is expected that the Raiders will be making their decision very soon. Once that happens, there will begin to be definitive movement regarding the A’s and their future new ballpark, whether it’s in San Jose, Oakland, or outside the Bay Area market..

  9. I think parking is the big question for any other uses of the arena. As ML called out if both a football and baseball stadium are built, events at both locations can’t be held at the same day due to lack of parking.

    While there’s a huge difference between a 10K seat arena and a football stadium, I’m wondering if the same parking restrictions would be in place with a scaled down arena and just a baseball stadium. If events can’t be held the same day, is that too much of a restriction to make even a scaled down version viable?

    If parking isn’t an issue, I think a smaller entertainment focused venue is the best option. This will drive more people to the area throughout the year and will make restaurants, bars, etc more viable in the overall development which will help to make CC more of a draw similar to what’s happened around AT&T.

  10. If my memory is correct, MSG spent over a $50M to renovate The Forum. Where is Alameda County going to get the funds?

  11. I can’t believe anyone would want to turn a beautiful still state of the art arena like Oracle Arena, into a second Cowpalace. Oracle Arena is a great arena and should not be turned into some second tier arena.

    “Oracle arena is bigger than for anything more than an NBA or NHL franchise and should be torned down” Bingo. This is the reason for trying to get rid of any completion to San Jose’s older arena. By all means, let’s make sure Oakland is NEVER able to have its own NBA or NHL franchise.

    No, leave it as is. No reason to downsize such a great arena in the center of the Bay Area with its own Bart station. Oracle Arena should compete directly with the new very expensive and less convenient Frisco arena. I’m sure the Warriors, SF and San Jose would love to see Oracle reduced to 10,000 seats.

  12. I believe – get ready for this – that “territorial rights” of the Warriors in the NBA and the Sharks in the NHL would make it difficult for another team to relocate to the Bay Area, although I’d love to see San Jose get an NBA team. Remember the Maloofs’ attempt to move to Anaheim? The Lakers deep-sixed that, didn’t they? FWIW, I think Oracle left as is could get circuses, concerts, some events. But not much. (BTW, isn’t it funny that the closest NFL team to Frisco is the Raiders now, no matter how much network TV likes to pretend the 49ers are still in Frisco?)

    • Yes, but they are the Oakland Raider playing in Oakland. They are not San Francisco’s team. SF’s team plays in Santa Clara right next to San Jose. I agree, the shots of San Francisco on TV are a disgrace and emberassment to San Jose and the South Bay.

      • I’ve been wondering for months if they’d have a blimp over the stadium, over the GG Bridge or have two blimps. Looks like it was a blimp over the stadium plus some other apparatus – maybe a blimp – at the bridge. Present the illusion that the team did not move from Frisco. But Al Michaels pointed out how close the place was to SJ Airport and that they are, in fact, 43 miles from Frisco.

      • uh don’t they do the same thing when the nyj and nyg play in nj but they show the landmarks of nyc on television?

  13. re: This is the reason for trying to get rid of any (competition) to San Jose’s older arena. Oracle Arena – built around 1968, renovated in 1996. San Jose’s arena – built in 1993, continually kept up to date with millions of dollars’ worth of improvements since then. Not sure a renovation makes Oracle’s arena “younger” than an arena built 25 years later. And of course, San Jose’s arena can fully accommodate the NBA and NHL while Oracle’s arena couldn’t cut it as an NHL venue. Neither will the Frisco arena, if I’m correct.

    • The interior of Oracle Arena is newer than the interior at SAP Center. I also like Oracle’s classic exterior over the exterior of SAP Center.

      • And the roof on my 68-year-old house is newer than some homes built in the 1980s. But guess what? It’s still a 68-year-old house. Oakland’s arena is 25 years older than San Jose’s Elmano. No debating it.

  14. how much would it cost to turn oracle into a giant movie theatre? i’m sure whatever entertainment district they had planned for that fremont plan would be duplicated at the coliseum again if this project were ever to be built which i still have serious doubts it will.

    but i agree if the a’s were to build a park at the coliseum location they’re going to need other attractions there to draw hundreds or even thousands of people to that area the other half of the year from october thru march.

  15. Put the new A’s ballpark in what is now the northern parking lot, facing the hills. Then we have the new AMC 30plex Movie House at Oracle Arena, plus stores, retail, offices, some townhouses, and we have a winner. (Sorry, no room for a gigantic football stadium + parking, gathering dust 355 days a year.)

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