It’s strange being an A’s fan these days, isn’t it? Between the lockout, the unceremonious dumping of star players, a team whose only goal these days is to get the next #1 draft pick (not guaranteed because of a new draft lottery), and empty Coliseum crowds night after night, we’re in a bad, bad way. Comparisons to “Major League” have never been more apt. The only hope on the distant horizon is the promise of Howard Terminal bringing stability and relevance back to the A’s and the East Bay.
The slog of making Howard Terminal a reality became clearer on Thursday, as the SF BCDC (Bay Conservation and Development Commission) approved the de-designation of the 56-acre waterfront parcel near downtown Oakland from Port Priority Use, which allows the A’s to further pursue their $12 Billion ballpark mega-development there. There’s still a long way to go before ground can be broken, but removing PPU was a crucial step which isn’t easily done despite the seemingly overwhelming 23-2 vote. Development of the land is still conditional pending the A’s obtaining a permit, a process that will incur more rigorous review when the time comes. No date is scheduled for BCDC review yet, as the next steps are to be taken by the City of Oakland, other state agencies, and the courts.
From the BCDC’s standpoint, the approval allowed the “hot potato” that is Howard Terminal to be passed back to the City, which will vote CM Noel Gallo’s proposal to place the project on the November ballot as an advisory vote. Gallo argues that the citizens deserve to give their say publicly, while opponents say that such a measure is a waste of time, never mind that the City Council just approved about a dozen ballot measures for November. Among those measures is a controversial one that will allow non-citizen residents of Oakland vote on the OUSD board. Perhaps they could extend the non-citizen logic to all Alameda County residents voting on the ballpark? (Kidding.) The best way to go would be to let Oakland voters decide on a finished project whenever it’s ready, which is not going to be this November. That wouldn’t make the A’s braintrust happy, but it would at least allow the citizens to decide on a sports project, which has been documented ad nauseam, hadn’t been the case previously.
After the advisory vote question is resolved (or not), the City and the A’s just might be able to nail down the details of the development agreement. The deadline for to happen is either the November election or January, when Libby Schaaf’s successor and multiple new council members take office. Previously I predicted that Howard Terminal will have an impact on the election. It hasn’t yet, though election season is still young. The filing deadline for candidates is August 12, with three current Council members (Loren Taylor, Sheng Thao, Treva Reid) in the running plus a slew of others. As a midterm election with several public offices and measures in play, turn out should be brisk with or without an additional ballpark measure.
Would the A’s dare call their negotiations off if the ballot item, even an advisory one, were added in November? Over the last three years the A’s had no qualms turning up the heat when they had the choice, from playing hardball with with last summer’s term sheet to calling the BCDC vote key in their #HowardTerminalOrBust campaign. Every time, the City, Port, and State agencies managed to extend the game by deferring an important decision to the future or changing the terms enough to appear inscrutable. In baseball terms it’s akin to fouling off two-strike pitches.
But enough of the hacky sports analogies. The worst thing we can do in trying to communicate this extremely complex project is to try to boil it down to an at-bat, an inning/game/season. Those are all fairly linear affairs with simple to understand results that can be easily printed on a scoreboard or standings table. What Oakland is dealing with now is multi-faceted and subject to so many externalities that it can be hard to describe the players in terms of roles. Take MLB and commissioner Rob Manfred, for instance. In the game analogy, what is Manfred? The crew chief umpire? A dugout manager? Or a front office presence like Billy Beane? And what is the BCDC? One of the outfield umps they use for the postseason or the video review team in New York?
Anyway, it’s all kind of silly except for something I’ve noticed over the last 9-12 months. A pattern has emerged from how these deliberating bodies act. As much or as little as these individuals want to keep the last major pro team in Oakland, what they don’t want to do is be blamed for the last major pro team leaving. Some time ago, I heard an unsourced story emanating from within Oakland that indicated that the pols there are mostly interested in keeping conversations going to keep teams in town – and that was while the Raiders and Warriors were still at the Coliseum. As for the actual dealmaking part, they’re gun-shy because public funding is a third rail issue within city limits. Sure, there are claims and counterclaims about how much funding will be required, the “but for” nature of the funding, etc. The simple fact of the matter is that the off-site infrastructure (train fences and bridges, curb ramps and sidewalks, signage and lighting) will be funded by one or more bond issues. The danger is that, as is often the case with big public works projects, the revenue required to pay the back the bonds will be insufficient to start. You might say, that’s impossible, this will be a smash hit, and you may be correct. It isn’t guaranteed, not in the slightest.
If the real estate market undergoes a correction like 2008, it will severely impact the ability to pay back those bonds. And the thing that has always concerned me about this project is that no one really has a handle on how much the off-site infrastructure will cost. I’ve heard $200 million, $380 million, $500 million, $700 million, and now EOSA’s FUD is talking a cool $1 Billion. That number will continue to climb rightly or wrongly because it’s not being discussed publicly. You might think it’s worth it, and that’s a valid opinion. I’m just saying it should be hashed out. Not in private, not in closed session. In public. If Oakland is going to do this right and not repeat the mistakes of the past, it can’t just leave it to the Council. Those saying voters can simply choose not to re-elect whoever made the bad decision apparently never heard of closing the barn door after the cows escaped. Did you watch the beginning of the BCDC meeting, where all of the commissioners disclosed who they had conversations with on Howard Terminal? They mentioned everyone, from the building trades to the longshoremen/EOSA and of course, the A’s. That should be the case for all discussions on a project worth $12 Billion. Is good governance not bigger than baseball? If not, it should be. It’s not enough to Git ‘Er Dun. They have to get it done right. And so far any promises to that effect have mostly been lip service.