Oakland approves its own term sheet, tells world, “It’ll be fine, we’re good for it”

We’ve seen a wide range of reaction pieces in the wake of the Tuesday’s City Council meeting in which the Council voted on their own proposal, not the A’s own plans. The A’s and MLB responded in the negative, which was to be expected. Since then, Howard Terminal supporters took the A’s choice to let their legal team review the City’s proposal and not dismiss it outright as a hopeful sign. Which was, well, also to be expected. The supporters are ready, bent over, crying to the A’s, “Thank you sir, may I have another?”

You have to wonder if Oakland likes being bent over

News links:

Ray Ratto on Defector

Scott Ostler in the Chronicle

Mercury News

KQED

NY Times

If Oakland wants to feed that appetite, it should be allowed to do so. It shouldn’t involve Alameda County in any part of it. I liken it to a recent college graduate who didn’t get the dream job right after graduation. Six months into the search, he has an opportunity to get a decent job, one that could give him a good income, pay back his loans, and move out of his parents’ house. All that’s required is a lengthy commute. He has a 2011 Honda Accord as his steed, but trusty as it is, it has 100,000 miles on it. He has designs on a Tesla Model 3. He tried to buy one earlier but found that without an income and a good credit score he’ll need his parents to co-sign the loan. Clearly he doesn’t need the Model 3, but it would make him feel good!

Alameda County, as the parents in this labored metaphor, want to empty the nest, downsize, and travel during retirement. That’s why they sold their half of the Coliseum. The City is holding onto their half despite historically having greater difficulty servicing their share of the Mount Davis debt. Alameda County knew when to call it a night. Oakland can’t do it. After the Tuesday Howard Terminal session, Council entered negotiations sell their half to one of two Black-led developer groups, with an upfront promise of a WNBA team at the vacant Oakland Arena and the future promise of a NFL stadium (AASEG) or a MLB ballpark (Dave Stewart/Lonnie Murray). 

The City will give itself six months to evaluate either bid, then decide on one to enter one of those vaunted Exclusive Negotiating Agreements. The A’s surrendered their position when they shifted completely to Howard Terminal, but thanks to their agreement to buy the County’s half of the Coliseum, they will have their own say in the Coliseum’s future. Six months is fine as I wasn’t planning to cover that deal until the offseason begins.

With that pending distraction on the back burner, let’s take a look at what the City approved during the Howard Terminal session. Out of all the mostly nothingburger was one really important bit of news.

I don’t know what the City and the A’s spent much of the weekend negotiating, but for the City to say they’ll handle the responsibilities of the offsite IFD is a mind boggling bit of capitulation on their part. Let’s take a step back and consider what this really means for the project. First of all, the A’s are essentially not responsible for any of the needed transportation improvements outside Howard Terminal. They’ll handle the cleanup and grading of the 55-acres, sure. The grade separations and other rail safety measures? City’s problem. The transit hub? City. The ongoing cost of whatever shuttles have to be run between the BART stations and the development? Also the City. In a previous post I lamented how the Howard Terminal vision didn’t include the transportation infrastructure onsite. Now that chicken is coming home to roost. You can try to argue how much this tax or that assessment will help fund it, the fact is that it’s the City’s responsibility.

In that capitulation, Oakland still has the temerity to request Alameda County’s participation in the Howard Terminal IFD. Supporters are actually saying the County just has to turn on the faucet and let the tax increment come out. No big deal, right? But they’re forgetting that once the County opts in, they have to create their own Public Financing Authority to run the tax increment collection and governance of Howard Terminal. That’s on top of the existing jurisdiction of the Port. So City is asking County to help create its own Coliseum Jr. on the waterfront. Sounds like a great proposal for a party that wants to get out of the pro sports game, no?

Hello, Coliseum Jr!

Naturally, those infrastructure imperatives will compete with community benefits, which are still being negotiated at the moment, and because they are being tacked on are likely to be the last items in line to be funded if any funding is left over. Maybe in 20 years when the vision is developed and mature, and the collected tax increment catches up. The A’s proposal sets forth $450 million, which all parties will end up competing for like Oakland’s running its own civic funding reality show.

But there’s state and federal funding to be had, right? A Politico report points to $280 million made available by Governor Newsom that could be leveraged for the Port. The report focused on this phrase:

“improvements that facilitate enhanced freight and passenger access and to promote the efficient and safe movement of goods and people.”

What does that mean in the context of Howard Terminal? Expanded ferry service? Maybe, though that doesn’t help the existing fanbase much if at all as most of them aren’t on the water or have access to a ferry terminal. The proposal doesn’t include a new Amtrak station at Howard Terminal. Freight? By repurposing Howard Terminal for commercial and residential use, the A’s and City are taking freight out of the equation except for the possibility of providing funds for the grade separation. Which is great in theory, but doesn’t actually make the Port’s shipping operations more efficient or productive than the status quo.

As for federal funds? Republicans filibustered the first vote on the current infrastructure bill yesterday. It looks like the Democrats will take a shot next week, pairing the bill with a social safety net bill as they try to get it through the Senate. Will it provide the kind of funding this project needs? Tune in next week to see what comes out of the sausage grinder. Note that Congress has its own recess in a week, just like their counterparts in City/County/State government.

As Howard Terminal supporters look far afield for dropped coins to fund this boondoggle, I’m reminded of the lengths Oakland and Alameda County had to go to get the Coliseum complex funded initially. Some things don’t change. It also reminds me of former Mayor Jean Quan’s desperate attempts to get Coliseum City funded by the use of a controversial visa program and also by name checking the “Prince of Dubai.” It isn’t enough to do things on a manageable scale in Oakland. The thirst to become a big city never dies. It evolves into something more wretched, more complex. Who’s willing to co-sign this one?

7/20 #oakmtg Live Thread

Oakland’s City Council passed the City’s term sheet on Howard Terminal (6 ayes, 1 no, 1 abstention). With that the A’s braintrust is off to Vegas while they and MLB decide what to do next.

You didn’t really think this would magically come together in the last few weeks, did you?

Tweet-by-tweet coverage

… and a snap poll for good measure:

There’s a baseball game on today. In Oakland. Enjoy it. I’ll provide feedback on the meeting later today.

How to Turn Win-Win-Win into No-Win in a Few Short Hours

Well, that was a disaster.

Friday morning started off with great anticipation, as fans and the media eagerly awaited the City of Oakland’s version of a term sheet. As I wrote last week, the City and the A’s are working at cross purposes in trying to come to terms, as the A’s don’t want to stray too far from what they proposed while the City wants change enough of it for the City Council to pass it.

The term sheet with attachments dropped Friday morning at 9:15 AM. Reporters from all major Bay Area print and broadcast outlets swooped in to study it. Now keep in mind that the City is now dealing with two term sheets, the one proposed by the A’s during the spring and the version put together by City staff. While the A’s and City keep working to come to agreements on major deal points, the only big achievement so far is a consensus on a 25-year non-relocation clause, up from 20 proposed originally by the A’s.

The City’s term sheet entirely omits the offsite IFD (infrastructure financing district), called JLS though it doesn’t include Jack London Square proper. Instead the focus is on a single IFD at the 55-acre Howard Terminal site. From a passage standpoint this is the best move by the City, since the offsite IFD didn’t have broad support and likely wouldn’t withstand a vote of property owners to tax themselves. However, the A’s lobbied for the offsite IFD from the beginning and continue to push for it, turning the issue into a potential showstopper.

Casey Pratt from ABC7 and Brodie Brazil from NBC Sports California both interviewed A’s President Dave Kaval later in the day. Kaval didn’t budge much on the IFD stance, though Pratt caught Kaval not being forthcoming about the state of a potential short-term extension at the Coliseum. I started to feel uneasy at points in both interviews as I got the feeling that Pratt and Brazil were practically negotiating, but for what? The City has its own negotiating team, as do the A’s. Were they representing fans, who until now have been criminally underrepresented? Perhaps, though there are always dangers in turning this already public negotiation even more public. I understand wanting to give fans some nuggets of hope, but this isn’t the way to do it. It’s already a confusing mess, since if the resolution passes on Tuesday it will likely be rejected out of hand by the A’s. If it’s voted down, which the A’s prefer, the City will have to go back to the drawing board while the A’s will have license to look beyond Vegas in terms of relocation. Hell, they’ll have the freedom regardless of what happens on Tuesday. That Kaval already has a Vegas trip planned immediately after the vote indicates that Kaval and Fisher are anticipating either outcome.

What I find puzzling is that at some point in the past 3/6/12/18 months the City should have recognized the offsite IFD was a loser and proactively adjusted the plan accordingly, or at least pushed the applicant (the A’s) in that direction. Now City has a funding gap of $351.9 million and no clear path(s) to bridge it. Kaval mentioned in one of the previous public hearings that the A’s could get the ballpark built with only $22 million in infrastructure built prior to opening day. My guess is that $22 million would go only towards the fencing and other safety measures that would be required for minimal rail safety, though obviously that’s far short of the full grade separation wanted by Union Pacific and Amtrak.

Howard Terminal ballpark with lots of park and open space around it

The A’s chose to propose the ballpark with all of the virtually all of the needed infrastructure, especially the transit hub, located offsite. In doing so, they made the offsite part of the project much more expensive. The transit hub, which will cover a two-block stretch of 2nd Street, is likely to cost $50-100 million to implement. There are also the bridges to build for grade separation. If the A’s included the transit hub as part of the Howard Terminal IFD, they could’ve reduced the offsite cost while providing a reasons for the City to invest in the transit hub: efficiency and better packaging. The team probably didn’t go this route because they didn’t want a transit hub right next to their luxurious condo towers. The funny thing about that is that because they already conceded the western blocks of the site as a buffer against Schnitzer Steel, those blocks are set up well for office uses, parking, and a transit hub if they want it.

Site plan with the southwest corner cut out for the expanded turning basin

Even if the transit hub is relocated, the grade separations remain a priority, even moreso because of the refocused traffic. That $352 million cost doesn’t magically go away. As I leafed through the term sheet it struck me that the offsite infrastructure cost is about the same as the construction cost for PacBell/AT&T/Oracle Park (not adjusted for inflation). It never gets cheaper, and as the A’s keep dillydallying with sites and cities, the price will continue to rise especially if new requirements they didn’t anticipate 10 or 20 years ago are piled on.

Other cities will be talked about as the A’s and MLB grow more frustrated with Oakland. These days that’s par for the course. Just remember that there are a couple factors that will have sway that no candidate city can control. One is inflation, or the rising cost of construction. That’s partly explained by building more complex buildings than what used to be standard (see my visit to Globe Life Field as the most recent example). Places that need retractable roofs and comprehensive HVAC systems can add a cool $300-400 million off the top. That’s an equalizer for Oakland. The other factor is written into the MLB’s constitution.

As a team in one of the largest markets, the A’s agreed to be taken off revenue sharing indefinitely. When that occurred I complained that Oakland, while in the powerhouse Bay Area, is functionally more of a mid-market team like San Diego or team in the Midwest due to its inherent disadvantages in media and location. Regardless, the A’s have to play by big boy rules, so they get no quarter, no revenue sharing. That means that any move to a new market (Portland, Las Vegas, Vancouver) must be contemplated not only as a new market, but also a market that will require the A’s to go on revenue sharing due to yes, inherent disadvantages in media and location or market size. If MLB’s philosophy is to get franchises off revenue sharing as a necessity (call it small market welfare), moving the A’s to a much smaller market contradicts that notion. Ironically, crippling the A’s revenue picture a few years ago may be the one thing that saves the A’s for Oakland in the end. If only they can get a ballpark built.

P.S. – The Oakland Coliseum is about 16 acres in size. It’s huge. The Howard Terminal looks very close, maybe 14 acres. The packaging could be a lot better for 30,000 seats.

You Got a Nice Franchise Here, It’d Be A Shame If Something Happened To It

It’s the All-Star Break, which means it’s time to take MLB’s temperature on the state of the A’s. To which, Commissioner Rob Manfred was only happy to oblige in an interview with the Chronicle’s John Shea.

Shea: You said in July of 2018 right here that “there is not another market in the United States that has the upside potential that Oakland has, and I think we would regret leaving Oakland if we did that.” Is that still true? What changed?

Manfred: Look, we have 100 percent made good on that point of view. John Fisher and Major League Baseball have done everything humanly possible to get a stadium built in Oakland. At the point in time that you come to the conclusion it can’t get done, whether you like the market or not, you have to find someplace else to play because you need a facility. It’s that simple.

If you’re reading the post, you’re probably a masochist. At least you certainly haven’t tired of this subject yet. To his credit, The Athletic’s Tim Kawakami has the pulse of the Bay Area with his incredulity:

For my part, I have to harken back to my own 2017 tweet:

Other than Wolff being out of the picture, nothing fundamentally changed until this spring when Kaval also starting playing the “bad cop” role. Nowadays, A’s ownership and MLB are looking more like they’re trying to shake down Oakland. That’s the standard playbook, my friends. Play nice until you don’t get what you want, then turn heel and apply consistent pressure. Then hope someone breaks.

The flip side of this is Sin City’s (sorry, Southern Nevada’s) role. They know they’re being used this time around. They also know that it worked when the Raiders came looking, though that took some serious effort and a Verbal Kint-Keyzer Soze turn of events to make it happen. It doesn’t appear those circumstances will line up that way this time around. Still, MLB knows the wound is still fresh from the Raiders’ relocation so they’ll do what they do. Manfred’s been spoiling for this for years. Now he’s got it.

Back in Oakland, what are they dealing with? The April term sheet is bunk, to be replaced with another term sheet that City staff are negotiating with the A’s as we speak. It’s due no later than Friday, to be voted on a week from today. Do you expect this all to be resolved in with some overly produced reality TV flourish in a week?

I sure don’t. Deals, especially ones like this which are extremely complex, generally don’t have breakthrough moments unless one side or another capitulates. The two sides are far enough apart that capitulation is unlikely. If Howard Terminal is going to be done, it will require further rounds of negotiation and some serious compromise that will make both sides and related parties very unhappy.

I look at all of this as a NRAF a few hundred miles away from the action and say, Good Luck. The Coliseum is still sitting there, unloved.

P.S. – ABC7’s Larry Beil and Casey Pratt had an insightful Howard Terminal discussion with Phil Matter today. You should check it out.

Union Pacific explains their Howard Terminal position

After the release of the Howard Terminal Draft EIR, I waited for the compiled comments to become available. Beneath the pleas from transit agencies and housing groups, there was a video provided by none other than Union Pacific (UPRR). The well-produced video comment is not much longer than a typical music video and comes with a highly professional voiceover.

Video illustrates hypothetical train parked in front of Howard Terminal

Union Pacific continues to raise concerns over the project, saying that it will impact its operations. The chief problem is that when a train stops at UPRR’s yard to the west of Howard Terminal, it will often be stuck there for 10-45 minutes as a long train is effectively split into three parts to fit it into the tracks at the yard. After that switching activity is completed the train can be loaded or unloaded. Presumably, the train has to be reassembled to some extent in order to begin its next journey.

Okay, we knew that going in, nothing new, right? Ah, but there’s a twist. UPRR acknowledges that despite its concerns, the City of Oakland could plow ahead with the project anyway. If that happens, UPRR is prepared to make demands. The big ask, which I heard from PMSA’s Mike Jacob in a discussion with Zennie Abraham yesterday, is that UPRR will request that all construction traffic be grade separated from the active rail line before construction on the rest of the project begins.

Block or charge? You make the call

It’s a reasonable request from a safety standpoint, one that I could see the Federal Rail Administration, Caltrans, and Amtrak supporting. If you’re going to reduce the risk of train-automobile or train-pedestrian/bike interactions, putting in a grade separation at Market Street (location not finalized) makes sense. The problem with that what we’re really talking about is putting in a big concrete bridge at Market, a piece of infrastructure that the A’s have been hesitant to commit to. As UPRR’s Robert Bylsma wrote in May:

So, apparently it was the Oakland A’s who made the decision to reject grade separation — the only safe and effective means of protecting Oakland A’s fans, as well as families residing in the Project area and other Oakland citizens, using Project facilities — as infeasible because of the “length of time it would take” to design and build, and would affect negatively “the Oakland Athletics’ competitive position within MLB.”

Of course, a fully grade-separated entrance to the site that can handle trucks and heavy iron won’t be cheap. It’s not a showstopper, since if that’s the cost of doing business at Howard Terminal, that’s the cost of doing business. It does push a major project cost to the front of the line where it would compete with other line items. Plus there’s the visual issue of an eyesore bridge going up before the ballpark or anything else along the waterfront. During last week’s session, City staff still considered the vehicular grade separation an alternative, not a requirement.

With the separate vehicular and pedestrian bridges added to the project, the grade separation cost alone threatens to run into the $300 million range. There’s no surprise there. Good quality infrastructure costs money. When HT was considered 10 years ago for a ballpark, guess how much a new BART station at Market or Brush streets was estimated to cost? $250-300 million. I guess in hindsight I can see why A’s ownership is being so tightfisted about an item as fundamental in 2021 as affordable housing. Even if your budget is projected to hit $12 Billion, every $300 million counts.

Let’s Take Stock

It’s the early morning of July 8. In less than two weeks, the City of Oakland is scheduled to vote on a term sheet, which despite it being a non-binding document, could play a major role in determining whether the Oakland A’s remain the Oakland A’s. Will it be the term sheet submitted by the A’s? A term sheet written by City staff? Or a compromise version that incorporates key principles from both parties? Or will the parties reassess this mess of a situation, and punt?

Towards the end of today’s study session, Council Member Dan Kalb, who chairs the Community and Economic Development Committee, offered his assessment of how Howard Terminal has progressed since the beginning of the year:

Tonight I’m hearing from the optimists that this all smacks of negotiation in one form or another. Looking at it through Kalb’s (and the other City Council members’) prism, the view is much more chaotic. We are now to believe that the A’s provided their term sheet in January with every intention of getting it approved with minimal changes. Then, having not received much feedback early this year, the A’s publicly released the term sheet in April. City staff, with its divergent goal of getting a term sheet in place that would get enough votes for the Council to approve it – a markedly different goal from the A’s take-it-or-leave-it proposal – scrambled to get that passable term sheet in place. As of now it’s still not finalized. Once it is, if it is passed, it will go back to the A’s for their approval or markup. Or the A’s could find points to compromise and approve it, or dismiss it altogether.

That’s a wide range of outcomes to have at this artificially late stage of the game. There are major deal points that have not been agreed upon yet, chiefly the issues of affordable housing within Howard Terminal and the fate of the “offsite” IFD encompassing much of the area north of Howard Terminal and going west to Mandela Parkway and east all the way to Oak Street. I tweeted out a snap poll to gauge which was most important among the four main issues I identified.

The affordable housing question seems like the most cut-and-dried issue. Simply put, any major development in Oakland requires a percentage of it to be considered affordable housing. The target is 15%, though because Howard Terminal is under the Oakland Army Base redevelopment rules, the target at HT is only 8%. That equates to 240 affordable homes in the final buildout. A lowered goal should be achievable, right? Not for the A’s, who feel they’re already providing enough via tax increment from the development that could fund affordable housing elsewhere. That argument worked well 20 years ago when California’s housing crisis was less stark. Now it’s downright unreasonable to expect that a developer could go this route especially with the historically poor yields of finished affordable housing throughout the Bay Area. 

To illustrate, let’s posit that a newer one-bedroom apartment at HT costs $2,300/month. Under one measure, affordable housing could mean that apartment costs a qualified renter $1,500/month, plus an $800 monthly subsidy paid by an affordable housing fund. That subsidy translates to roughly $10,000 per year, which multiplied by 240 units equals $2.4 million per year. I recognize I’m oversimplifying the problem with this illustration because I’m not tackling levels of affordability, but it should serve the discussion well. No matter how you slice it, that’s a hefty expenditure to be paid by tax increment, a developer, or a renter.

Next up, let’s look at the non-relocation clause. The City wants a term of at least 45 years, which would keep the A’s in Oakland for the next generation or two. The A’s are promising only 20 years, which they say is in keeping with other markets where, as Dave Kaval pointed out, the ballpark is often publicly financed (meaning the City is putting skin in the game). If the City isn’t directly subsidizing the ballpark, the A’s have less reason to take a longer than standard contract. From a practical standpoint, it’s rare to see relocation occur when the first lease term ends, mostly because a team has spent enough time and resources cultivating its home fanbase that it seems wasteful to pursue another so quickly. That generally holds true in baseball, where the last relocation was in 1972 (Washington Senators-Texas Rangers). In other sports it’s far more common, whether you’re talking about the Raiders or hockey in Atlanta. Usually whatever complaints a team has about its venue or market can be addressed by upgrading the facility or building elsewhere in the same market. The A’s sudden scorched earth campaign has sort of laid waste to Oakland, leaving Howard Terminal as the only desirable spot in the East Bay market.

The other major issue concerned the two IFDs or infrastructure financing districts. The A’s prefer two, one at the 55-acre Howard Terminal site and the offsite JLS site. City prefers a single IFD which would essentially be Howard Terminal with few surrounding parcels. City thinks the single IFD structure would be easier to get buy-in from Alameda County, which as you might have heard, isn’t exactly jumping for joy at the prospect. For their part, the A’s continue to say that they need both IFDs to ensure there’s enough tax increment revenue to cover all of the infrastructure and other costs. The problem with this is that without the JLS IFD there’s a major funding gap. As @hyphy_republic noted, City has identified Port-related sources that could backfill that need. Those would have to be studied thoroughly for their efficacy. As I started processing this detail, it occurred to me how ironic it is for the City go to the Port for funding while alienating Port stakeholders who are among the harshest critics of the proposal.

Lastly, there’s a question about the amount of community benefits in the package. The concern is that most of the money raised by tax increment usually goes straight to hard infrastructure in a straight line, or perhaps affordable housing. Other community programs may be more likely to be sacrificed in the event of a budget crunch or just plain old-fashioned value engineering.

Remaining milestones assuming it gets that far: Tell me how the City of Oakland is supposed to make a final approval of this project in September as Dave Kaval suggests

Look, I have no idea if the term sheet will pass in less than two weeks. It might, and then in September the County could choose not to take part, wrecking the project. Again, someone could punt on 7/20 and hope MLB doesn’t accelerate relocation talks. All I know is that this project has now come up in three separate major public hearings in the last two months: the Oakland Planning Commission, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, and now the Oakland City Council. In every venue there was serious tension and rancor between the governing body and the applicant (the A’s). You’re not going to just wipe it away by calling it negotiation. This is much deeper than mere negotiation. The City and the A’s appear to be at cross purposes, and if you throw the County into the mix, all three are. This is what I worried about when Howard Terminal was first proposed and when it came back to life. It’s an already complex set of circumstances made all the more complicated by the current regional economy. Maybe there is a breakthrough on the horizon. Judging from CM Kalb’s reaction, he was expecting a breakthrough sometime ago. It ended up being a mirage.

P.S. – The City has officially opened up discussions on its half of the Coliseum complex. I’ll save that discussion for another day.

P.P.S. – You read that right earlier and I almost forgot to mention it. During the hearding, the A’s filed a suit against Schnitzer Steel alleging a Clean Air Act violation. Now that’s some multitasking.

Thread for today’s City Council Study Session (with poll)

Update 7/7/21 4:44 PM – Session’s over. Now take a quick poll. Read the thread below for comprehensive coverage.

Public comments were scheduled before the presentations, so this is what you get. The study session is still going as of 3:30 PM.

Arlington: Now With Climate Control!

While Houston entered MLB with the flashy Astrodome and then retractable roof Minute Maid Park, the Dallas-Fort Worth area resisted domes for almost 50 years. They spiffed up a minor league park and made everyone endure the sauna that was Arlington Stadium. Successor The Ballpark in Arlington was a handsome structure during its baseball life, but it didn’t solve the existential crisis facing any MLB franchise in Texas: it’s too damn hot. Eventually North Texas would have to learn its lesson, so Arlington chipped in a third time to build Globe Life Field. For $1.1 Billion it does its job of keeping everyone comfortable while watching a baseball game. But as Jeremy Clarkson often asks, is it any good?

Now that’s a good looking scoreboard
The correct answer (to me) is 5 (including the suite mezzanine).

Is it any good? Before I attended a couple of games at Globe Life Field to answer that question, I took the brief 60-minute tour there. It was the lowest tier of tour packages, which meant that I wouldn’t be able to go on the field or into any clubhouses. What I learned from the tour, combined with the experiences from the two games, will inform my experience at every ballpark I visit in the future. Because like it or not, Globe Life Field is the new standard, being the last ballpark built in the 30+ year run of new ballparks.

A better look at the seating arrangement from the lower club level

The tour and the main entry for both games I attended started in left field, where a large public plaza leads fans into the main concourse. From inside you can get a sense of the ballpark’s size and complexity. Black columns and beams evoke an erector set appearance. There are five seating levels including a separate suite mezzanine, with the upper deck and club level both split into upper and lower sections.

Arched concourse, a nod to the old Ballpark in Arlington

On the tour I was told that the Rangers set the climate to 72 degrees year-round, regardless of whether there’s a game. In light of Texas’s recent power problems that seems reckless. The justification is that it would be more costly to turn the air conditioning on and off instead of maintaining a constant temperature, a more relatable phenomenon in Texas (or Arizona where I live) than in coastal California. The main stadium entry I used happens to be sponsored by TXU, a leading provider in deregulated Texas. TXU is also owned by Vistra, which also owns the small power plant next to Howard Terminal.

Coming in from 90-degree humid Texas heat to 72-degree air-conditioned comfort is, well, bliss. It’s truly a nice improvement over my experience at Minute Maid Park, where the cooling system wasn’t nearly as efficient and I spent a lot of time sitting directly under a duct in the upper deck.

So is there anything else to rave about besides the HVAC system? A little.

Summer officially started the week I arrived, and there was no chance I’d get to see the roof open or experience an open-air game at GLF. That’s too bad, because the way the roof is designed it probably would be the best open-air experience of any retractable roof stadium aside from T-Mobile Park in Seattle. Unlike most of the retractables of years past, GLF’s roof doesn’t open towards right field or symmetrically like in Phoenix or Milwaukee. In Arlington the roof opens to the west and stows behind third base. The Rangers open the roof during April and some May homesteads depending on weather. Whether the roof is open or not, there remains a fixed roof in right field that houses the scoreboard and part of the outfield as well. The roof takes 12 minutes to open. The resulting opening is 5.5 acres in size, much larger than the football field-sized hole at JerryWorld.

View of roof from center field upper concourse

About that GLF roof: I’ll be nice and say it’s functional. Like US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, the top of the roof is covered with mostly transparent ETFE panels. ETFE allows for natural light to filter in. Unfortunately, the other two-thirds of the roof (nearly 4 acres) is covered with a rubber membrane. The Rangers got some flack locally when they revealed this, as their initial renderings showed a glistening roof that would’ve been covered in ETFE. Sadly, value engineering won out because of materials costs and the need to control the energy bill, so they went with a better insulating material for most of the roof. When I saw pictures of it online a couple of years ago, I thought the rubber sections were actually steel, as is often used in retractable roofs. Only when I got closer did I recognize what happened. The explanation made more sense in hindsight. It’s really too bad they didn’t use ETFE all the way around, as it promised a visual appeal that isn’t possible now. That said, I wonder if it would’ve been like what was done originally at the Astrodome, where skylights were installed to help grass grow there. That experiment failed miserably.

The retractable part of the roof meets the fixed part in right field, scoreboard visible

The field at GLF is 50 feet below street level. Fans can take separate escalators to the upper decks or the lower club level, which is more easily reached by elevator. The playing surface is Shaw Sports B1K, just like the recently installed turf at Chase Field. Something about how these surfaces diffuse and reflect light makes them look better in person than on television, where the effects appear harsher. At GLF there’s a normal dirt infield while the warning track is made of crushed brick.

The closest row of seats is only 42 feet from home plate, though the seats are part of one of the lower club suites. The Rangers pioneered the bunker suite at the old Ballpark, expanding the offering at GLF. Now there are suites all the way around foul territory with the exception of the dugouts. Add to that the netting from foul pole to foul pole, and you have the first ballpark with no field-accessible seats. For that, GLF deserves the moniker “first post-pandemic ballpark.” If the best regular seats are a buffer and a net away from a fake grass field, is it truly baseball? I suppose it’s a type of baseball, and given the compromises, worth it for some. 

One of the many unused picnic tables

Throughout GLF the Rangers installed touches to give it a more cozy feel. Like the old Ballpark, picnic tables are all over many of the concourses. While they look inviting, they’re rendered unnecessary in a climate controlled environment. At the old ballpark, the picnic tables were a nice refuge for fans stuck on the concourse in the sticky heat. At GLF, where the walks to the seats are shorter thanks to shallower seating decks, fans aren’t as compelled to find a respite and are more motivated to return to their seats. As a result, I rarely saw any fans using the picnic tables during the two games I attended.

Rocking chairs on upper concourse

Former Rangers minor leaguer Alex Smith started his own company, Rockerman, which supplied wooden rocking chairs for use in the upper deck in left field. After some fan confusion about whether the chairs were ticketed seating or first come first serve, the team decided to sell them for games. The chairs help humanize a place that surprisingly lacks much of the down home Texas charm I expected coming in. Maybe that will all settle in the way a person breaks in a pair of jeans. Maybe not. The upper deck in left field also has an lounge area that doesn’t require a separate admission to enter, making it convenient for meetups.

Open office plan or ballpark?
Mall or ballpark?

The upper concourse behind home plate is truly baffling. It’s a cross between a hospital wing and an incomplete mall extension. Unlike other concourses, there is no view of the field. Instead there are stairs and tunnels leading fans to their seats, including a half-level serving the 300-level sections. What’s missing is fun and color. If the Rangers are guilty of value engineering the roof, they’re equally culpable for the upper concourse drabness. It’s nothing that couldn’t be fixed by some paint and vinyl, but you have to wonder how much regard the team has for fans in the cheap seats when they couldn’t be bothered to provide fun branding or signage (ads?) when the place opened.

Airport terminal or ballpark? Note impressive ductwork

I know many of my critiques come off as reverse snobbery. Believe me, I understand that there’s a budget, and every project has to set priorities as no budget is unlimited. As a venue, GLF comes off as competent. The scoreboard is huge and well placed over right field. The main goal, to get more fans via a more comfortable experience, is working to an extent. For now, though, Globe Life Field feels way too uptight. The black beams everywhere are a step towards formalwear when all you want to do is get rid of the button-up and wear a T-shirt. The sound is decent and will be tested by Elton John, who plays GLF in September as part of his farewell tour. Someday I’d like to come back when the roof is open. Maybe that’s all the place needs to loosen up.

Comparison of three generations of Rangers ballparks

Baseball in Arlington, Take 3

During its baseball tenure, I visited The Ballpark in Arlington (now Globe Life Park) three times. Other than the last time I went in early April 2017, every time it was as hot as hell. After living in the desert for a few years, the pure heat doesn’t bother me anymore. The humidity can be stifling. On Thursday I walked the neighborhood around my hotel, a mixture of budget accommodations and light industrial buildings. If that sounds like the Coliseum, it’s not far removed.

Left to Right: Globe Life Field, AT&T Stadium, Texas! Live, Globe Life Park

Anyway, a mile into my journey I checked my watch, which showed it was 90 degrees outside at 10 AM. I was feeling the humidity, so I decided that after I completed my walk and returned to the hotel I would take a quick shower because I was feeling sticky. For all its retro design cues and outdoor feel, the old Ballpark in Arlington was not designed to comfortably accommodate tens of thousands of people during the brutal Texas summers. It became obsolete for that reason alone. When an opportunity arose to extend an Arlington sales tax to build a new retractable roof ballpark nearby, Arlington jumped on it. The Rangers, who previously flirted with moving to Dallas, jumped on board. The rest culminated in air conditioned bliss.

There were talks in the past about building a retractable roof over the old 17-acre ballpark, which fits into a neat superblock within the Arlington Sports and Entertainment District with little buffer around it. From an engineering standpoint that made it difficult to plan how to incorporate the retractable roof, which would require additional acreage to store itself when it was open. In addition, the cooling costs for a more voluminous building and footprint were clearly not attractive from a business standpoint. The Rangers looked across the street for a site where architect HKS could conceive the team’s 21st Century requirements: fewer seats, more concourses, and most importantly, air conditioning.

They ended up with Globe Life Field on that spot south of Randol Mill Road, covering 13 acres to the east of the Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium. Adjacent to GLF is Texas Live!, a combination of restaurants, a Loews hotel, and public congregation space. Just outside the commercial development is a tiny standalone 7-Eleven location. 

While Globe Life Park is a bigger stadium on a bigger parcel than successor Globe Life Field, when combined with the ancillary development Texas Live!, GLF’s footprint is larger. Before the game on Wednesday, I explored Texas Live! to get a feel for it. Wanting a pre-game bite after the 1 PM tour, I settled on the Lockhart Smokehouse location in the complex. It was mostly empty as you would expect several hours before a game. I asked the bartender if this was normal and what business was like during games. She said it’s pretty slow around 2 (when I dropped in), picks up quickly for the pre-game crowd, and drops off once the game starts. I followed up by asking if fans are allowed to go back-and-forth between the restaurants and the ballpark after first pitch. She replied in the affirmative, though she said that it hasn’t happened yet. It might be a behavioral conditioning phenomenon, as fans may not yet be aware that they could order from their seats, walk out to pick up food from one of the restaurants, then walk back. Pro-tip: If I was with family or on a date, that’s how I would roll. Incidentally, I had a half-pound of the brisket (fatty, excellently cooked, could use better bark) and jalapeño mac-and-cheese, washed down with a couple of Shiner Bocks.

Texas Live! including the Arlington Backyard 5,000 outdoor concert venue

As I had time to kill, I wandered out to AT&T Stadium and the Wal-Mart across the street to pick up a couple of items, as there are few places for provisions in the area. After picking up my items, I decided to walk all the way back to the hotel. Curiously, the 1.7 mile distance was nearly the same length as the entire Jack London Square IFD in Oakland from west to east. As you can imagine, I had to take shower when I arrived at the hotel. Then I took a nap, which prepared me for Wednesday night’s 7 PM first pitch. I took a Lyft to the ballpark, where there was a proper queueing area for rideshare, unlike the predecessor.

View west from outside Loews Hotel with Globe Life Field in the background

The Rangers upgraded ballparks in a big, expensive way with the opening of Globe Life Field. Arlington itself remains remarkably the same. Decades ago the city fathers decided to remake the area with a focus on sports and entertainment, creating an economic district to that effect. The first company from the industry was Six Flags, which opened its Six Flags over Texas location in 1961. Next was the Rangers, who moved into an expanded Turnpike Stadium in 1972 after the mayor directly solicited teams by handwritten letter. The Ballpark in Arlington replaced Arlington Stadium in 1994. The Cowboys moved from nearby Irving to Arlington in 2009. During the intervening years, Arlington attracted the International Bowling Hall of Fame from St. Louis, an eSports venue, and soon a small convention center on the site of Arlington Stadium. Globe Life Park is being redeveloped, with the field converted for football/soccer/rugby use, new office tenants including the world headquarters for Six Flags, and approved residential uses on site. Despite Dave Kaval’s insistence that a MLB ballpark must be built “downtown,” Arlington is the antithesis to this notion. Downtown Arlington is 2 miles southwest of the Sports and Entertainment District and has far less overt corporate branding. A rail line runs through the Downtown area, another nod to the city’s Wild West origins. Sadly, there is no train depot. The nearest train station is near DFW airport. Public transportation remains pathetic. Bike lanes are scarce. Large stretches of streets have no sidewalks. Arlington is an urbanist’s nightmare.

The City of Arlington knows what it is: North Texas’s playground

Arlington got these attractions and got itself on the map in the process. No pro team will ever name themselves after Arlington. Yet its population is nearly 400,000, just behind Oakland and slightly ahead of Cleveland. It has a large commuter school (UT-Arlington) on the other side of downtown. How much is it worth to be the playground for North Texas sports/entertainment even if you don’t get much credit for it? Judging by Arlington’s desire to keep this economic model going, they seem to be okay with it.

Later this weekend I’ll post my review of Globe Life Field. For now, consider the choice Arlington made, and how it in some ways mirrors what Oakland has done over the past 50+ years.

Coliseum Purchase Agreement, or The Detail I Missed

I have to apologize for something.

I made my last post of 2019 in mid-December, thinking little would happen between then and the following FanFest. In hindsight that was a miscalculation. That’ll teach me to take a break, I guess.

What happened during that gauzy holiday season? You may remember the A’s were in talks with Alameda County about acquiring the County’s share of the Coliseum complex. Having followed the trials and tribulations of the post-Mount Davis Coliseum era, I figured this would be a relative cakewalk compared to the lawsuits and threats of the past.

On this point I was wrong.

The talks dragged on for months, culminating in an announcement on December 23, which also happens to be my baby brother’s birthday. So you’ll have to forgive me for the familial distraction. When the announcement was made, I saw it and retweeted it. There was no post about it as I didn’t feel it merited the effort. I figured the A’s would simply assume the payments on the debt payment schedule and assume control once the schedule was completed. On that point I was correct. But I missed a pretty large detail which only became prominent when the A’s and MLB started exploring markets outside of Oakland.

Remaining payments due on Coliseum debt

Again, I was wrong.

The Coliseum’s debt was refinanced a while back, extending the payment schedule out to 2026. That’s two years after the last season on the A’s current lease, which ends with the 2024 season. In the negotiation, the A’s got a bargain basement price for the County’s half of the complex, $85 million. During last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting, Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson admitted that the deal was done to encourage the A’s to stay in town. You might call it a literal hometown discount.

Okay, the A’s got a deal on the land. So what took so long, and what did the County get out of it? This was the detail I missed. As I was in yet another debate over a related topic on Twitter, I went into the archives for the County’s press release on the deal. I found an important detail I hadn’t noticed before.

The missing detail

Practically, this shouldn’t matter much if the A’s stay in Oakland, regardless of whether it’s at Howard Terminal or the Coliseum. In that context it’s a reasonable exchange. The County added a poison pill provision in which the A’s have to pay off all remaining debt within 180 days of announcing they will move away from The Town. Hypothetically, if the A’s announce they’re moving this week while they’re hobnobbing in Vegas, they will owe the County $65 million by the end of the year. Presumably, that’s on top of the existing lease obligations with the Coliseum JPA, of which the A’s won’t be a full partner until the debt is retired.

Before you tell me this is no big deal or not a poison pill, let me refer you to the Warriors’ lease at the Coliseum Arena. When the Dubs announced they were moving to SF, it was assumed that the team would pay for the lease on the years the continued to play there, then leave the JPA stuck with the remaining bill. The JPA fought that tooth and nail, eventually winning in court in 2020. When the move was announced I said at the time that the Dubs might not be able to easily escape the remaining years on the lease. I was told back then that the Dubs would win out. The dispute dragged on for 5 years and may have killed the prospects for a Bay Area WNBA franchise in the process. In my estimation the Dubs have been on a pretty steady losing streak since they moved to SF, on the court and in the courtroom.

This matters vis-a-vis the A’s situation for a couple of reasons. First, there’s now obviously a precedent set thanks to the Dubs. And since the County set up an agreement for the A’s similar to what they did for the Dubs, it’s probably equally enforceable. That’s good for the County even if you think they were lowballed, which they willingly were. At least the bills are getting paid. 

Second, if you think ahead a few years there are a number of endgame scenarios. Let’s say the A’s, frustrated about the progress in Oakland, formally announce they will leave for Vegas on Opening Day 2024. Based on the lease terms they would be absolutely in the right to do that. Under the existing lease they would have no obligation past 2024, a clean exit. But because they entered into the purchase agreement with the County, they’re now on the hook for $15 million a year in 2025 and 2026 for a place they left in the rearview mirror. Sure, in the process they got development rights and veto power over future plans at the Coli. The right of first refusal almost as powerful as any development agreement. Yet $30 million is a tough pill to swallow if, as the A’s keep saying, there is no future there. Does that make any sense to you?

The other more extreme endgame scenario would be to announce they are leaving now. That also doesn’t make sense because the A’s would be responsible for $65 million, plus whatever’s remaining on the lease through 2024. Not to mention there is no MLB ballpark in Vegas for them to move into for 2022. If you think teams can break leases as easily as a lothario breaks hearts, look at what’s happening to the Tampa Bay Rays. They are stuck at The Trop until 2027 thanks to an ironclad lease. The A’s have effectively brokered a deal that does the same thing. Maybe that dovetails with moving into a Howard Terminal at the now-2027 opening date. It’s worth emphasizing that they didn’t have to do any of this. They could’ve stuck with the existing lease and walked away after 2024 with clean hands, or negotiated yearly leases after 2024 while a site elsewhere shook out. If you think $30 million is pocket change to a billionaire, what makes you think John Fisher would so cavalierly dismiss $30 million given how frugal he is?

In my pondering the implications of this detail, Chronicle Sports Editor Christina Kahrl promptly pointed out that her colleague, reporter Sarah Ravani, included the detail in her summary the day it happened. All credit is due to the real newspeople, of which I am not one. Have I mentioned how wrong I was about this?

In the end, it’s yet another wrinkle that adds some color to the existing ballpark talks. The City of Oakland is holding out, even talking about competing bids for their half of the Coli. The A’s are in Vegas right now, continuing to say “HT or bust” while perhaps formulating a strategy to get out of the lease/purchase terms. It’s all so petty. If history serves as any guide, that scheming will be futile. Maybe they leave anyway. It won’t be without a fight.