Before I begin, I’m going to direct you to two blog posts on other sites. The first, by Jeff August, is at his own site, Jeff August Ego Trip. Jeff is a good friend and remains in the credits in the sidebar, though he hasn’t contributed to this site for several years. His viewpoint on Howard Terminal evolved over time, and while I haven’t had a chance to talk to him about it and I disagree with his conclusion, I fully respect it because it comes from an honest place.
The other link is from Alex Espinoza’s blog, The Rickey Henderson of Blogs. Espinoza did the inhuman task of compiling observations from Tuesday’s extraordinarily long Alameda County Board of Supervisors meeting. The 6,000-word entry is truly impressive in its scope. I admitted to him while reading it that there’s no way I would try to take such notes as I would have to watch it twice to do so.
Espinoza also interviewed me before the baseball season started to discuss ballpark stuff and economics. If you haven’t checked out that podcast episode yet, you should.
After reading both posts, I immediately recalled comments made by Oakland City Administrator Betsy Lake regarding the planning aspects of the Howard Terminal Ballpark project. Lake considered the current A’s/City proposal fiscally irresponsible. Lake was asked by Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan about why the City is going through with the Howard Terminal if it’s not expressly for the purpose of building a ballpark. That brought on the following awkward exchange:
That brings me to the belated thesis of this post. It would be one thing if the A’s built a ballpark on a 14-acre city block downtown, one that conformed with the existing city and neighborhood plans. The A’s, to my complete befuddlement, are instead proposing a mega-development with its own taxing authority (HT IFD), with ancillary infrastructure funded by a separate taxing authority (JLS IFD), yet nothing is being done to amend the City’s Downtown Specific Plan or West Oakland Specific Plan to properly accommodate those changes. The Downtown Oakland Specific Plan and EIR are still in Draft form and don’t include Howard Terminal, an odd choice given that Howard Terminal is being promoted as at least downtown-adjacent. It’s entirely a cart-before-horse scenario.
At the Oakland Planning Commission hearing in April, there was a mention of the Google Downtown development in San Jose, which went through the full planning process including a certified EIR. Not only that, San Jose expanded its definition of Downtown San Jose to fold in the previously separate area, which includes Diridon Station and SAP Center west of CA-87. Construction begins in 2023. Ironically, the catalyst for that entire effort was the planned A’s ballpark south of the train station. At the time San Jose went through with the exercise with no guarantee of obtaining the baseball club. But they did something that seems utterly novel when compared to the chaos in Oakland: they made a contingency plan.
That’s right, they had a Plan B.
San Jose knew that as Silicon Valley grew eventually there would be demand for residential and commercial real estate in the newly-minted Downtown West area, which besides the arena was mostly surface lots and low-slung light industrial buildings. It was ripe for redevelopment, and despite Jerry Brown killing RDAs years ago, was assembled for a completely new vision with existing Caltrain/VTA light rail and future BART and HSR anchoring a transit hub, preposterously named the “Grand Central of the West.” Location and accessibility would earn attractiveness for a high-profile employer, most of whom generally avoided Downtown San Jose until that point. Next, the ballpark proposal died with the Giants’ legally upheld territorial claims, San Jose started looking for suitors for Plan B, and Google entered the picture. The rest is history in progress, with San Jose residents asking (and getting) more from Google in the form of a Community Benefits Agreement. Oakland is watching San Jose and is wise enough to take notes. The funny thing is that Oakland started pursuing Howard Terminal as a ballpark site years before San Jose did theirs. If you count the original HOK study which featured Howard Terminal, the site has been in an on/off pursuit for better than 20 years. Oakland, caught between trying and failing to keep their sports franchises, attracting new non-sports employers, and catering to the needs of its entrenched business interests (Port) as well as its unique and diverse population, showed the kind of indecision that could doom its ballpark plans, even its future as a MLB town.
Look, I am fully aware that San Jose and Oakland are worlds apart economically. Not as far apart as Oakland and San Francisco, but close. San Jose did the right thing by expanding their scope, by not limiting themselves to the pursuit of a sports franchise. If the A’s moved to San Jose, great. Maybe Google would look elsewhere for a secondary campus because the A’s partners would’ve gobbled up most of the nearby land. The A’s didn’t move south, which allowed San Jose to have the Adult Conversation about its vision with residents and businesses. That conversation is something I clamored for Oakland to have since nearly the start of this blog. It happens in fits and starts, never getting above a din peppered with occasional protests. Recently, Oakland asked Alameda County to participate in the Howard Terminal IFD by pledging its share for the on-site infrastructure. County Supervisors were taken aback, though if they were honest, they should’ve seen it coming and prepared for it. I didn’t expect Oakland to pull this off on its own. No one should have given how dysfunctional Oakland is. That said, Alameda County sold its half of the Coliseum in an effort to get out of sports. The Supervisors’ outrage at being put in this situation by Oakland is consistent with previous actions.
Unfortunately, the confusion over Oakland’s plans (or lack thereof) is also consistent with its previous actions. Friends, that is not a good sign. The Supervisors and their Oakland City Council counterparts put a positive spin on how things are progressing. HT supporters slurp it up without bothering to inspect the problems beneath the surface. The bottom line is that the Council is divided. The Board of Supervisors is also divided. Everyone wants to get to Yes, as Supervisor David Haubert suggests. The problem is that no one knows what Yes means except in the most vague, general terms. As Jeff pointed out in his post, 33 regional/state/federal agencies have to approve this project. Howard Terminal should be part of the Downtown Specific Plan, but that would have first required removing its maritime designation, cleaning up and disposing of the land through a public process, and numerous other steps which can’t start because of related complications. According to the A’s, time’s running out for Oakland. I don’t believe that because I believe in practical, real solutions. The A’s and MLB’s greatest tactical weapon is to ratchet up the tension on Oakland to get their desired outcome, whatever that is, however long that takes. They’ll do it again and again until they see results. It’s easy to confuse tactics with strategy, which so far the A’s and baseball have not shown an ability to execute either in Oakland or Tampa Bay. Yes, in absolute terms the A’s could move, but MLB has made it intentionally difficult to do so. I wouldn’t worry about that in the near term. Right now there’s a drought and a heat wave in the Bay Area. It’s not even summer yet! Frankly, it feels poetic.
Be safe out there.
P.S. – Google is not moving its headquarters away from Mountain View.
P.P.S. – The City of Oakland will release a revised term sheet after its study session on July 7. The release will occur no later than 7/16, which will give them 4+ days to review the terms prior to the 7/20 vote. My reaction to that news: