San Diego: How To Deal With Trains In An Urban Ballpark Setting

Petco Park and SDMTS figured out how to make it work, can Oakland?

The A’s played a short set at Petco this week. I couldn’t make it, though I really should’ve planned better because I could’ve had the unique doubleheader of an A’s road game and celebrating the birth of a nephew as my brother and his family live in San Diego. I mean, how often does anyone get to experience that?

(Update: Nephew was due Tuesday, not delivered yet which makes him technically a squatter)

While I’m not nervously waiting in San Diego this week, I was able to visit over the recent holiday weekend. While there I made my first visit Petco Park in seven years. The Padres were out of town, so no game. I had already taken the tour previously, so no tour either this time. Instead I walked around the Gaslamp District and contemplated it.

Much has been written about the Gaslamp, the mostly commercial area between the docks and Downtown. Redevelopment there started in earnest in the 1970’s with preservation efforts. The district had its share of urban blight which allowed city leaders to decide which building merited keeping or a bulldozer. As that was decided, the Gaslamp got swept up into the urban renewal craze. That led to redevelopment misses like the Horton Plaza mall and hits like Petco Park.

I started my trip on a SDMTS bus from my hotel in North San Diego to Downtown. The trip ended at Broadway and 10th Avenue, a half-mile walk from Petco Park. As I crossed the street I was greeted with the familiar scent of urine. Ah, maybe the East Village isn’t fully gentrified yet, I thought. The walk was otherwise pleasant with a slight downslope all the way to the ballpark. I got a snack and beverage nearby and planted myself in the Park at the Park, which based on my previous experiences changed for the worse. The park remains publicly accessible yet feels far more restricted due to many of the spaces within it being claimed for different types of private uses. When it first opened the Park also had a number of transients in it whenever I went, so I imagine that renting it out was just as much to keep out that element as anything revenue-related. Should Howard Terminal come to fruition, the A’s will have to figure out how to manage that element in what will be a much larger and more complex space, from the roof deck to the waterfront spaces beyond the playing field.

Park at the Park in 2014

Petco Park arrived as the Gaslamp’s redevelopment went full blast. Some of that was boosted by a huge land giveaway to then-owner of the Padres, John Moores, and his development wing JMI Realty. Petco Park was completed in 2004 after securing $300 million in public funding. Moores also got a development rights to 24 blocks around Petco, which led to nearly 3,000 housing units, millions of square feet of retail and commercial space, and a separate 7.1-acre Ballpark Village to the east of the ballpark (note incorrect graphic in link). Getting to opening day was a bumpy road, as the project was rife with political scandal over illegal gift-giving and lawsuits.

The delays allowed SDMTS to catch up in terms of building infrastructure. The Blue and Orange Trolley lines were already in place a block east of the ballpark, but another plan was coming into place. To get more fans from the I-8 corridor all the way out to SDSU and beyond, MTS planned to extend the Green Line from the Old Town station East of I-5 and into Downtown. Eventually the line would terminate at the 12th Street/Imperial station, the same transfer hub for the Blue and Orange lines. Until then, Green Line users would have to transfer at Old Town to Blue/Orange Trolleys. The finished system downtown effectively creates a loop around all of Downtown San Diego, including the Convention Center and tourist attractions along Harbor Drive. In addition, a new Silver line historic trolley now runs that loop.

View from pedestrian bridge spanning Harbor Drive and the BNSF/Trolley tracks with good buffer space

Infrastructure is a long game, though. While the Blue and Orange lines were already in place prior to the Padres’ 2004 Opening Day, the Green Line wouldn’t start operation until 2005. Its extension to downtown didn’t start service until fall 2012. The Green Line’s Gaslamp Quarter station is a mere Fernando Tatis, Jr. blast away from the third base gate, while the 12th/Imperial station is 800 feet away from the home plate gate. At least that’s better than nearly a mile, which is the distance to the Santa Fe Depot for Amtrak/Coaster trains (or Howard Terminal’s distance from BART for that matter).

The other aspect to the infrastructure long game was the BNSF’s active rail line west of the ballpark. Sandwiched between Petco and Harbor Drive, BNSF also had to make room for the Green Line expansion. To make it all work, vehicular access across Harbor Drive near the ballpark was limited to two intersections, 1st Ave and 5th Ave. Fencing was built all along Harbor to dissuade pedestrians from playing chicken with trains, though occasionally a train would stop in front of the ballpark, allowing for some interesting interactions. The idea is that mitigation measures should reduce those interactions as much as possible. A pedestrian bridge was built over Harbor, connecting the San Diego Convention Center and the Hilton Bayfront to Petco and the 12th/Imperial station. Besides the convention center and hotel access, the two facilities also housed more than 3,000 parking spaces. 

The Trolley tracks act as a buffer between the ballpark and the active BNSF rail line

The way Petco is situated, most fans won’t cross the tracks along Harbor Drive. They disembark at one of the Trolley stations nearby and walk safely to the ballpark. Or they take a bus or ride share to within the vicinity of Petco. Or they’ll park at one of the nearby lots in the East Village. There’s even a designated Tailgate lot, which seems inconceivable in a downtown area in 2021. Regardless of the method of travel, the average fan is unlikely to interact with a freight train due to how everything was planned. At Petco, the Trolley serves as a buffer surrounding the ballpark. Again, it’s well conceived and serves the City and County well. If you’re coming from SDSU, Santee, San Ysidro, or Mission Valley, you’re covered. The Trolley is in the midst of an expansion program, which will finally bring service all the way to La Jolla and UCSD. They’re also building express lanes on I-5 to benefit people who are less likely to take transit.

The EIR describes the mandatory grade separation for pedestrians, which is planned along Jefferson Street. The vehicular grade separation is practically a given at Market Street, especially if Union Pacific and the Federal Rail Administration demand it upfront as a condition of their project acceptance. Now that the City is taking responsibility for the off-site infrastructure, the grade separations are now the City’s problem. They will try to get money from the new federal infrastructure bill, of which a Senate version passed today with bipartisan support. Should Congresswoman Nancy Skinner succeed in competing for and securing the funds, the City will be part of the way there. To do it right they’ll also have to expand the fencing along Embarcadero. Remember how I pointed out that there are only two at-grade crossings near Petco? When you take away Jefferson and Market, Howard Terminal has *six* crossings to worry about. If this is to be done right, that fencing has to expand big time.

P.S. – The bus yard next to the Tailgate lot was once considered for a Chargers stadium.

2016 rendering of a Chargers retractable roof stadium and convention center venue

P.P.S. – For more info on the history of the SDMTS Trolley system, check out this fine video.

10 thoughts on “San Diego: How To Deal With Trains In An Urban Ballpark Setting

  1. Article is irrelevant. Very little rail traffic and the ballpark is on the inland side of the railway.

    • Agree,
      Most (if not all) fans don’t have to contend with the heavy rail line as they enter/exit Petco Park from points north/NW and east/NE/SE. The rail line as you stated isn’t as busy as Oakland’s either, but even if it was still no issues.

      • Irrelevant and yet they made the necessary changes for fan and visitor safety and to address stakeholder needs. Yet Oakland is trying to do far less 20 years later. Interesting take.

      • As I have said previously, Howard Terminal is a terrible site for a ballpark. Bad access(the congestion will kill local retail and depress housing values), bad adjacencies, no parking, no access to BART, impacts the regional money maker (Port). My 980 air rights proposal has none of these issues. Nor does it need a community benefit extortion. Because the community will benefit by being reconnected to Downtown and not impacted by air quality and noise impacts of the Freeway.

      • @begrunwald

        “As I have said previously”

        980 is not, was not, has not even been mentioned as a realistic possibility,
        has absolutely no chance of happening as it stands right now.

        The only thing that might happen is HT.(at present)

      • SPUR just released a report “Ten Transportation Ideas for Oakland” endorsing my concept for decking over I-980. Looks like Oakland will get Federal infrastructure to implement it. HT is dead meat. It is a good time to think for an alternative to make everyone look good.

      • @begrunwald

        “Ten Transportation Ideas for Oakland endorsing my concept for decking over I-980”

        With all do respect (congratulations on endearment), an endorsement is a long, long, long way from even a starting point.

        “Looks like Oakland will get Federal infrastructure to implement it.”

        Sorry, if they do get federal infrastructure money at this point its going towards HT, if/until that changes those are the facts.

        “HT is dead meat. It is a good time to think for an alternative to make everyone look good”

        If I believed everything that was written in the comment section of this blog, I might believe your statement.
        The unfortunate truth at the moment is if “HT is dead meat”, then so is every other option in the San Francisco Bay Area including your precocious I-980 idea.

  2. Living in San Diego, I’m inclined to agree with those saying it’s not really a comparison. First the rail line is a fairly lightly used slow speed single rail line that only had one or two freight trains during daylight. Most of them run at night. All passenger rail stops at Santa Fe Depot a mile north. Howard Terminal borders a far busier double line that carriers far more freight and passenger rail traffic at generally higher speeds. Second is the location, as others have pointed out, that Petco is on the city/access side of the tracks, only 3 hotels and the convention center are on the far side of the tracks where the stadium itself would be on the far side of the tracks in Oakland. Yes San Diego made some changes to the rail crossings and added fences, but they also weren’t trying to bring more people across the tracks like the A’s are going to have to do with Howard Terminal.

  3. ML,

    First, comparing Oakland with San Diego is relevant.

    1. Both cities have only one remaining professional sports team.
    2. Both cities face surface level rail crossings. (The San Diego trolley is built almost entirely at surface level and LRT and heavy rail pedestrian crossways have more in common than different).
    3. Both cities face similar outlier issues such as a homeless population and attracting and keeping retail in the downtown core (Jack London Square vs Horton Plaza).

    Second, comparing Oakland and San Diego’s infrastructure decisions are relevant.

    1. The majority of the pedestrian crossings for the San Diego trolley appear to be at surface level.
    2. San Diego is still considering adding grade separated crossing 20 years after the park opened. (The A’s could argue that current infrastructure plans are sufficient. Improvements to infrastructure can be built in the future.)

    Third, comparing Oakland and San Diego’s bid for government infrastructure funds apparently in the pipeline are also relevant.

    In conclusion, government infrastructure funding appears to be the last chance (slim chance) for a ballpark at Howard Terminal. I am guessing that Oakland bid for infrastructure funding will be.

    1. Infrastructure is necessary for continued port operations even if a ballpark is not built and the Port of Oakland is vital the nation’s economic growth.
    2. More need (more rail traffic, more economic depravation) in Oakland than San Diego or other competing cities.
    3. Oakland A’s are willing to spend on infrastructure (private enterprise has skin in the game).
    4 California, Alameda County, and Oakland are willing to create at least one tax increment district (state and local government have skin in the game).

    I am also guessing that the bid will be too little too late given the MLB/A’s timeline and the intense competition for these infrastructure funds.

  4. Pretty quiet around here (and elsewhere) since that momentous July 20th day in Oakland. Way OT ML, but watching Sunday nights Gold Cup Final at Allegiant Stadium got me thinking: would a hypothetical Vegas ballpark really need a retractable roof, or could it simply be a fixed dome like Allegiant? The reason I ask is because of all the times I’ve seen an Astros home game (when I was an avid MLB fan), the roof has always been closed. Can’t remember watching a game on TV and seeing the roof at Minute Maid open. I’m sure it’s open in the early Spring and perhaps late Summer/Fall, but in the case of Vegas, why even contemplate a retractable roof if it’s only going to be open for a few months (week?) out of the season?

    I say go the Allegiant route: fixed roof with perhaps some outfield “lanai” doors for those cooler days/nights. Could be a money saver in terms of costs, or maybe not. Just a thought.

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