Hi there. It’s me, the occasional blog proprietor. I haven’t gone anywhere as I’ve been mostly frustrated by MLB’s labor situation and baseball’s flagging status as America’s pastime. Through that lens I watched the Howard Terminal ballpark process take multiple steps forward and back, each moment of doubt cancelling out hard-earned legal and procedural victories.
Chief among those victories was the certification of the final environmental impact report, which occurred on February 18. I thought that opponents would file a lawsuit before the certification. Instead they took the legal window after the certification to file their lawsuit, though if you were curious you saw previews in the numerous critical comments by constituent groups prior to the certification.
Whether or not you were following this closely, you had to know that the filing of lawsuit challenging the certification was a foregone conclusion. Legislation backed by the A’s allows for such challenges to be wrapped up in 270 days instead of dragging out the process for years. What’s not a foregone conclusion is how this will all play out. The only other sports facility that benefited from the CEQA streamlining provision was the Clippers’ upcoming arena in Inglewood. That legal battle lasted four months, until Steve Ballmer literally bought the Forum, whose owner, MSG, filed the complaint. Ballmer’s purchase ended the legal challenge. When you’re talking about millions of dollars, sometimes it takes a billionaire to end the debate. Is Fisher capable of that?
That buyout scenario is impossible in Oakland. Beyond the limits of John Fisher’s legendary thriftiness, unlike Inglewood, the two warring parties aren’t both in the sports and entertainment business. Their industries are fundamentally different, making any kind of buyout incredibly complicated and, in all likelihood, not comprehensive enough for either party’s satisfaction. Moreover, the working Port interests (shipping and transportation) are affected by a rezoned Howard Terminal in different ways – some acute, others long-term. One aspect of the lawsuit that hasn’t been discussed yet is that it is missing Union Pacific, whose rail line runs right down the Embarcadero next to Howard Terminal, and whose general counsel argued vociferously against the project. A’s President A’s President Dave Kaval indicated that more lawsuits are forthcoming. UPRR is clearly the next candidate to file by the Monday deadline.
EOSA is looking for $12 Billion in this legal pursuit, a curious number because the economic impact of Howard Terminal is ALSO supposed to be $12 Billion. Obviously, the two don’t cancel each other out in the modern world of overinflated economic impact claims. The City and Port as governmental entities keep trying to mediate the situation and convince the industrial entities that there is room for both a working port and redevelopment along the waterfront. That may or may not be a losing battle, as the two sides prepare for entrenched warfare over the next nine months or more.
On a YouTube post, Brodie Brazil attempted to discuss Port economics in an admittedly shallow fashion, to which I pointed out that the Port isn’t only measured by shipping containers. Perhaps it’s time for the City and Port to fully discuss the future of the Port. Is it in actuality a boutique version of an industrial port that only accepts containers? Is there room to deal with other types of cargo, which shipping interests want to expand but West Oakland community groups oppose due to environmental concerns? Already, coal exports from Utah were nixed. If sand and gravel don’t happen either, that starts to effectively limit the Port’s opportunities to containers and vehicles/equipment that don’t go to SoCal. The Port was bypassed during much of 2020 when it made more financial sense to queue offshore for San Pedro and Long Beach instead of going 300+ miles to an underutilized Oakland, so Danny Wan and his staff are fully aware of what could happen if they pigeonhole themselves. And it isn’t just about what the purpose of the Port of Oakland is. Hundreds of millions of dollars were invested over the past 20+ years to take over the decommissioned Army Base, repurpose much of the property for Port purposes, and provide support for many of the smaller companies that do business there. How much does that investment matter? Does the Port get scaled back even further over time? How do the agricultural customers that depend on Oakland adjust as their closest, best export facility faces transformation or increased competition?
Too much Port talk? There will be plenty more in the coming months. If you want to read more about what the A’s and Oakland are facing, take a look at the correspondence at the project website. For now, let’s talk baseball and ballparks.
Here’s the thing that has always puzzled me about the Howard Terminal initiative. The A’s brass knew 20 years ago that this would be a long slog and they kept at it anyway when they started the HT gambit in earnest in 2018. They got a reprieve when their streamlining legislation held up in court, limiting the legal challenge to 270 days after EIR certification. The problem with that is that it condenses the negotiation period with multiple opponents (EOSA, UPRR, others to come) to that 270-day period. All of those parties are going to exact a price for the A’s project either in terms of money or time. Since time is money, these negotiations threaten to push out the groundbreaking and opening dates past 2027, possibly long past 2027. Now that much of the project’s decision-making is outside the City’s and Port’s purview, there’s less incentive to make the deal work by the BCDC and SLC. Think of it this way: If you live and work in Sacramento or San Diego, how much does Oakland’s civic pride and baseball team matter to you? It’s a big state. If the A’s leave California, the state will still have four MLB franchises and three iconic ballparks. The City and Port still have to work out the development agreement, but decisions by other agencies could gum up the works as the BCDC’s Seaport Advisory Committee did two weeks ago when they recommended against the project moving forward.
One question I’ve heard more frequently recently is: Did the A’s propose Howard Terminal specifically because they knew it would be difficult to get approval? Fisher is a Bay Area native, and much of the new money partners are based in the Bay, so despite my well-known misgivings over the project, I’ll give Fisher the benefit of the doubt regarding his initial intentions. I’m sure he and his people truly believe in the transformative nature of the project. Heck, I believe it too, though I don’t know if there’s been enough discussion over what “transformative” means besides providing a ballpark, some market-rate housing, and expanding Downtown Oakland. The EIR was certified as a project-level EIR, which limited its scope. It will get picked apart as the opponents claim it should be a program-level EIR, far more expansive that originally envisioned. A key issue that will come up in the negotiations or in court is how on February 3 the A’s submitted a letter in support of the EIR alternative that eventually approved, which included the six-lane vehicular bridge that will connect the development and designated ballpark parking to the rest of Downtown Oakland. For some reason, the A’s did not publicly support this alternative until two weeks before the certification. The reason why was not given, but I suspect it had to do with the A’s not choosing not to commit to the funding of that aspect, which will run into the nine figures and will be borne by the City, which is searching for federal and state grants to make it happen. If it’s built, the bridge will be one of the first things to go up, even before the ballpark. Again, this threatens to push out groundbreaking and opening of the ballpark while also pulling from whatever limited public resources are available for off-site infrastructure.
This much is certain: Fisher, like most of his other stadium endeavors, has a hard limit of what he’s willing to spend. If you read the reports out of Vegas, the A’s have a set budget for what they want to spend on land there, apparently $150 million or so. They plan the use the same recipe they’re using in Oakland, with proceeds from entitlements funding a ballpark. What’s unclear is how much better the Vegas deal has to be to make the A’s leave. It sounds incredibly crass due to how it disregards the rich history of A’s baseball in Oakland, but if you take into account how Fisher is willing to burn down both the team and the fanbase to get what he wants, it’s a natural progression. “Howard Terminal or Bust” is more than a slogan. With the Coliseum declared not viable, it’s the only hope for A’s baseball in Oakland. It didn’t have to be that way.
The Raiders declared their move to Vegas before Opening Day 2017. The City of Oakland, in its infinite wisdom, took the Raiders and the NFL to court again. And they lost, again. They’re taking the current challenge all the way to the Supreme Court, hoping that the conservatively-tilted court will rule in their favor. Don’t worry though, the lawsuit was taken on contingency so it isn’t costing the City anything. Imagine that instead of tilting at windmills, the City decided to support the one team staying in Oakland and gave the A’s all the benefits provided by the Coliseum City project’s EIR. By the time the Raiders left after the 2019 season, the A’s could have started building a ballpark next to the Coliseum without worrying about the SLC, BCDC, EOSA, or UPRR. There would’ve been a groundswell of support and, if they got something designed and approved in the requisite lead time for such projects, a ballpark could’ve opened in 2023. That’s right, next year. Instead, we’re talking about whether they can break ground in 2024. That’s where we are, well past the debate of the perfect as the enemy of the good. If Oakland’s fate is to lose all of its major sports franchises, it’s because it couldn’t see the opportunities for what they were: matters of timing and luck. If that happens, I will be immeasurably sad. Not as sad as people who reside in the East Bay, but sad nonetheless. Because Oakland had something good in its grasp and is choosing to throw it away.