A Confluence of Events

Today we’re gonna have a little history lesson. Ready?

The date was October 17, 1989.

Remember that? It was the date of the Bay Area’s most unforgettable recent tragedy. The Loma Prieta earthquake struck at 5:04 PM, shortly before the scheduled first pitch of Game 3 of the 1989 World Series. The world’s eyes were trained on the Bay Area. After the temblor, nothing would be the same.

Houses fell and caught fire in San Francisco’s Marina district. The Cypress structure (880) in Oakland collapsed, as did a segment of the Bay Bridge and much of Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz, which was close to the epicenter. When the quake struck I was a 13 year-old in my parents’ bedroom, watching the pregame on a 13-inch Goldstar (later LG) television. I didn’t have a table to hide under. I didn’t seek out a doorway to protect me. Instead I backed away from items that could fall, switched off the TV, and kneeled like I was praying the Novena at my local Catholic Church. The house was a classic single-story, postwar tract home that sustained no damage. After the shaking ended, I went outside and gathered with the neighbors. Power was out and would remain that way for two days. There was a rotten egg smell wafting in the air. Bewildered, we all took stock. There were no injuries on our block, no medical emergencies to further tax the public safety department.

Officials all over the Bay had much more damage to assess after the rescue efforts. The Marina would be rebuilt, as would the east span of the Bay Bridge. The Cypress structure’s replacement was eventually rerouted around, not through, the residential areas of West Oakland. The old structure was torn down to make room for a boulevard called Mandela Parkway. When I visited downtown Santa Cruz as a college freshman, much of Pacific Avenue was not yet rebuilt and would take years to be completed as the region dealt with the recession.

Loma Prieta triggered a series of planning decisions that would change the Bay Area in major ways. Besides what happened in West Oakland, the closure of the Oakland Army Base allowed the City and Port of Oakland to start planning for an expansion of the Port. The quake gave SF the excuse to tear down the unsightly Embarcadero Freeway and shelve forever any plans to complete the network of freeways through the city. That provided the impetus for SF to beautify the inner waterfront area, turning the Embarcadero into its own tourist and commercial attraction. Development creeping southward into SoMa finally resulted in a winning ballpark site proposal at China Basin, on the waterfront near the Caltrain terminus. Out of tragedy came rebirth and triumph.

As part of the Embarcadero rebuild, SF essentially ceded much of its shipping industry capacity to Oakland and Richmond, who were only happy to take up the slack. Miltary cutbacks included facility closures (OAB, Alameda NAS, Mare Island, Moffett Field NAS, etc.), prompting those cities to accommodate workforce transitions however they could. Since then, the BCDC has been careful to balance out the various needs of industry, residents, and civic services on the Bay’s navigable waterways. To that end, there is precious little residential development right on the water. Even the Brooklyn Basin project, which went through its own form of development hell for more than a decade and won’t be fully completed until 2038, was only approved with a mandated open space buffer for public use. Those same principles guide the development of Howard Terminal.

Could a ballpark be part of a grand bargain?

Last month the BCDC released an updated Seaport forecast, projected to run through 2050. The last Seaport plan is over 20 years old, so updates are welcome. The document was commissioned in January and completed by The Tioga Group, a freight shipping consultancy. An appendix dealing with the issue of Howard Terminal was tacked on at the end (page 177). Among the document’s observations include the following items:

About Bay Area Seaport growth and how Howard Terminal fits in:

  • Under moderate cargo growth assumptions the Bay Area will need more active terminal space, estimated at about 271 acres by 2050.
  • Under slow cargo growth assumptions the Bay Area will need about 36 acres more active terminal space by 2050.
  • Under strong growth across the three cargo types, the Bay Area will need substantially more seaport terminal space, about 646 more acres than is now active (and will need to activate additional berth space for larger container vessels).

As part of maintaining that delicate balance, it’s up to the BCDC, Coastal Commission, State Lands Commission, and cities and counties to best determine how the extremely limited resource we’re discussing – waterfront land – will be allocated and used. Howard Terminal is not being used to anywhere near its capacity, that much is clear. However, does its current state foreclose opportunities for the future? The report indicates that it would be foolish to do so.

As the analysis of overall seaport acreage requirements shows (Exhibit 199), Bay Area seaports are expected to be at or near capacity by 2050 under moderate growth assumptions, and to require space beyond existing active container, ro-ro, and dry bulk terminals. Howard Terminal would be one option to supply part of that acreage. Howard Terminal cannot, obviously, serve all three cargo types. If Howard Terminal is used for container cargo, other sites must accommodate the need for ro-ro and dry bulk capacity. If Howard Terminal’s’ long-term ability to handle containers is compromised by a truncated berth, ro-ro or dry bulk cargo may be a more suitable use.

Is the best way to utilize a limited resource to give up on it completely? That is the real question here. Not only is there not enough existing capacity for future growth, Howard Terminal’s small size and capacity means it can address needs one way at a time. Keep in mind we got to this point thanks to a combination of back room deals. Port operators sued to get better terms, which led to one of port operators to claim bankruptcy and pull out of Oakland altogether. During the City Council session earlier this week, a representative of GSC Logistics hinted that there’s talk of that same kind of withdrawal occurring again if the Port/City proceeds to build the ballpark at Howard Terminal. If that seems like dirty pool, you’re right, it undoubtedly is. Problem is, what is the line between a negotiating tactic and a long-term strategy? Moreover, what is a proper compromise? The A’s are willing to give up 10 acres of Howard Terminal to get approval from the Port shipping interests in what clearly will be part of a much larger package of concessions. Even if a compromise is reached, it doesn’t address the overarching issue above.

The photo above imagines Howard Terminal with a Ro-Ro (rollon, rolloff) facility built on it, which would be used for transporting cars. The rail spur currently at the terminal would be improved as part of a package of improvements. It’s not stated as the preferred option, but it is an option, and it’s quite convenient that the Tesla plant in Fremont happens to be the closest car plant that could use a Ro-Ro like this.

There’s also a tidbit about Schnitzer Steel thrown in for good measure.

Scrap metal

The three export scrap metal terminals in the Bay Area are located at the ports of Oakland, Redwood City, and Richmond, and each have substantial material handling infrastructure that could not be readily moved or duplicated. Should existing terminals reach capacity, there are limited expansion opportunities within port complexes.

As a private terminal in Oakland, Schnitzer qualifies as one of those facilities that can’t be readily moved or duplicated. So much for my idea from a few months ago.

I didn’t bring up Loma Prieta as some wish for divine intervention to spur civic planning. But it’s becoming clearer everyday that something more than a back room deal will need to happen to will a Howard Terminal ballpark into existence. The shipping industry is particularly livid with their claims about not being heard by the Port/City. Something has to give, and it has to be something big. Getting all of these parties to co-exist peacefully was always going to be a difficult ask. The issues have come into sharper focus in the last several months.

Last week, Dutch shipping giant Maersk announced an initiative to get to zero carbon emissions in its operations. When I read that I immediately imagined Oakland as a completely green port, with supertankers running on biofuels, electric cranes and port equipment, and non-fossil fuel powered trucks transporting goods all over the country. There’s no telling how much it would cost for such a transformation, but there is no better time to figure it out than right now, while everyone’s figuring out how much infrastructure will cost at Howard Terminal. If something like that comes to fruition, it could solve all of the problems that plague this concept: infrastructure, pollution, and traffic. And if that is part of the grand bargain that comes with a ballpark at HT, so be it. Like everything associated with this project so far, there’s no shortage of feature creep.

19 thoughts on “A Confluence of Events

  1. Loss of Howard Terminal for maritime use to a ballpark is irreversible and will be a plague to the competitiveness to the Port and the Bay Area economy. Millions have been spent to dredge the Estuary for large ships. What a waste to convert HT to a ballpark. Thank you Seaport Planning advisory board.

  2. The millions spent for dredging the estuary has little to do with the HT, in the sense that the larger ships cant go that far up the estuary anyway.

    The A’s have already conceded space to help the larger ships to be able to turn around at HT.

    And, I doubt the inability to use HT for port use (currently out of use for shipping purposes) will be the death of the port of Oakland.

    So, yeah, let’s totally overreact because…we maybe, might, there is a possibility, the space could potentially, but of course there is no guarantee will be needed in 30 years.

    It’s a wonder that any worthwhile project ever get done.

    • Correction. Larger ships can go up he Estuary as far as the Posey tubes.

      • Can you provide evidence of that?

        And even if they could, which I dont think so, the HT property in and of its self will not hinge on the port of Oakland’s health.

      • And, by the way, what’s your answer to the fact that the HT property might, perhaps, someday, if everything goes exactly correctly, and we all pray to the port shipping gods, it could actually be needed in ONLY 30 years?

        Oh, that’s okay, I think I might know the answer to that.

        Lets say no to a truly transformable project, because…
        You know, there is a slight chance (30 years in the future), that we may need this 50 acers for far less over all benifal reason then what is in front of us right now in the present.

        Because, there is absolutely nothing that could change shipping in the future, right???

        Let’s say no today, because we have an iron clad reson, for a lesser overall use in in only 2050, I got it. Thanks.

      • Under a strong demand scenario, the report projects the need for additional space by 2042. Which is 23 years away.

        The problem is not the use of waterfront land now. The problem is that once waterfront land is converted to non-maritime purposes (commercial or residential development), you can’t reclaim it or get it back. It’s gone. Forever. For that reason and that reason alone, these decisions should not be taken lightly. Otherwise you risk turning Northern California into South Florida.

        I urge everyone to read the appendix on Howard Terminal. It’s barely 10 pages.

      • @ML. Are you referring to the Executive Summary vs the Appendix. Do you have a link to the Appendix? HT is not suitable for a ro-ro or auto terminal due to the soot that results from Schnitzer terminal.

      • Thanks. Looks like HT is the only expansion area left for the Port of Oakland under a variety of scenarios. Hard to see the Seaport Advisors giving it up. If they do, they will never get it back.

  3. The Appendix seems to acknowledge that HT will only be substantially useful as an active terminal if demand at the Port in the future is healthy or strong. In other words, under that positive scenario for the Port, use of HT for baseball might leave some demand for Port services unfulfilled, or harder to fulfill. That scenario (i.e., failure to maximize strong demand from an overall healthy Port) seems less worrisome to me than the alternative argument positing that HT is necessary to preserve the minimum viability of the Port as a shipping resource…i.e., to prevent the Port from becoming obsolete or unable to compete with other Ports. To me, the Appendix does not seem to make that case. It in fact states that HT is a small % of the Port and may very well not be substantially useful in the future unless the Port is otherwise in a stronger and healthier position than it’s in now.

    • None. the less, HT is a deep water terminal resource which should not be squandered for a use that can be accommodated elsewhere, like the Coliseum

    • @ Rickey 24

      Thank you!

      With all do respect to anyone who fills otherwise, this all sounds like overblown hysteria, a total attempt to grasp at straw’s.

      The Port of Oakland will not come to an end because of an unused 50 acres (23 or 30 years in the future), that can only serve minamal purposes anyway.

      I guess in 23-30 years when, the possiblity of technology may allow us to actually use less space at the port you guys can tell us…Well we thought we would need all of this space back in 2019, but by then the A’s will be in Portland.

      • Neil,

        You seem to misunderstand the difference between acreage and berth lengths. The first is the total area for the Port to conduct all of its cargo handling. The second is the available waterfront to dock vessels.

        The deal being discussed is the exchange of the southwest corner of Howard Terminal for the wider turning basin, which would require 10-12 acres. That would shorten the length of the berth at Howard to 900+ feet, ruling out major container ships in the future. Maybe that’s enough to get everyone to sign on since all the remaining parties could benefit. But the comments by the outgoing Port director Chris Lytle indicate that before he came aboard there was a great deal of distrust between the Port and the operators, a relationship that he worked hard to repair. Now that he’s leaving, maintaining that trust is going to be another balancing act, with Howard Terminal as an important focus.

        Turning Basin

      • @ ML

        It’s my understanding that the port has to widen that turn about regardless of weather the A’s build a park or not.

        Apparently they are behind the ports of LA and Long Beach in this regard, and need to accommodate the new larger ships that will be coming on line soon.

        If that’s true sounds like a win-win.

        The port has much bigger problems with the need for deeper dredging and winding that turn about to accommodate these new super ships, then the A’s using the remaining land at HT.

        Apparently they are still looking for the money to get that massive project underway.

        They better hurry up, as I said LA/Long Beach are already prepared, perhaps those ports will put Oakland out of business before there is ever a need to expand in 23 years.

      • Get rid of the Port and replace it with a bunch of commercial or residential real estate? I’m sure the ILWU will feel all warm and fuzzy about that.

        The dredging to bring HT to a competitive depth (50′) will cost $3.8 million. That’s peanuts compared to the likely infrastructure costs for a ballpark – which no one is daring to talk about yet.

        As usual, my stance is “Will this be cost-prohibitive?” That’s what matters, the bottom line.

      • @ ML

        Okay, I was being a bit over the top, but I didn’t say anything about getting rid of the port, I said they may be put out of business through composition by LA and Long Beach if they dont get this needed work done, and the report I read (sorry I cant remember it at the moment, but I will look it up and get back), suggests the work will cost and be much more and complex then what you are referring to.

        If the bottom line is “cost prohibitive” for you, then HT will never likely work because doing whatever its going to take to get a ballpark on that property will always cost more then most other ideas.

        But, as you know HT wasn’t the A’s idea (lord knows it wasn’t Wolff’s when he was involved), it was the mayor of Oakland’s idea (likely others before her), and the a lot of folks over at the port seem as excited about the idea as she is, so in the end if you put enough money into it there is a possibility it may work.

        That’s the bottom line for me.

      • LA/Long Beach/San Pedro get 15-20 times the container traffic Oakland does. Oakland can and should always be a vital port for both imports and exports as it’s the best place to deliver to/from NorCal. Is the Port and City satisfied with things the way they are, or do they want to properly meet future demand? Other infrastructure at HT will cost some millions of dollars to do ro-ro or dry bulk instead of containers. That’s fine because there will be revenue streams to justify that investment. The A’s say they’re willing to front the cost of infrastructure cost at HT. That’s a good thing for the City. But guess where all of the money is going to end up? Other than some parking revenues, definitely not with the City.

        I don’t make the final call on what is “cost prohibitive.” I am actively looking at the obstacles and doing the math on the cost of mitigation work. Frankly, all A’s fans should be doing that to some degree instead of blindly going along with HT the way many are.

      • A possible compromise would the use of 10 acres of HT for a ballpark. The rest of the 40 acres reserved for maritime until future need can be verified. In the interim the 40 acres can be used for parking. That is 4000 parking spaces.

    • @ ML

      “LA/Long Beach/San Pedro get 15-20 times the container traffic Oakland does. Oakland can and should always be a vital port for both imports and exports as it’s the best place to deliver to/from Nor Cal.”

      I agree 100%. I was being sarcastic, as I believe the long term potential use/need of HT for shipping reasons is being a bit overblown, and is somewhat of a red herring.
      Will the port absolutely need HT in the future for shipping purposes? Probable, but for the most part it would be a nice to have around in case they do.
      Will the Port of Oakland become obsolete, and fall into decay if the A’s use HT? Absolutely not, the Port of Oakland thrive with or without that property.

      “The A’s say they’re willing to front the cost of infrastructure cost at HT. That’s a good thing for the City. But guess where all of the money is going to end up? Other than some parking revenues, definitely not with the City.”
      In this respect the A’s are no different than any major coprtaration, if they are making the biggest investment in a transformative project, they should/will be taking the lion share of money. I recall commenters for years here telling me, over, and over, and over, “It has to pencil out”, so…

      “I am actively looking at the obstacles and doing the math on the cost of mitigation work. Frankly, all A’s fans should be doing that to some degree instead of blindly going along with HT the way many are.”

      I would not expect anything less from you, one should always maintain a healthy level of skepticism with an open mind, which is one of the reasons I have come here so often over the years. I for one am not going in blindly, but again for years I was told by commenters here that HT was virtually impossible, and while it may yet prove to not be cost probative, the fact is it’s not impossible. As long as there is an opportunity at HT I will be pulling for it.

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