Gone Baby Gondola

2018 gondola route map (with older ballpark design)

Two related bits of ballpark-related news came out of FanFest over the weekend. First, the Chronicle’s Phil Matier picked up on the transportation study that shows that people will continue driving even if the A’s come to Howard Terminal, which belies the notion of an “urban” ballpark. On a related note, Oakland’s Department of Transportation is now downplaying the prospects of a gondola bridging the nearest BART station (12th Street/City Center) and the ballpark. After all the hubbub coming out of last year’s FanFest, this news is what I feared. Dave Kaval remains optimistic. I have my doubts.

I discussed the prospects of the gondola at length exactly one year ago. It saddens me that the discussion may end there, not so much because the gondola dream is dying, but because all parties seem to be satisfied with the current lack of solutions to deal with the last mile problem. The prevailing attitude seems to be that technology will solve the gridlock problem. Of course, it’s much more complicated than that.

Transportation Network Companies, from Uber and Lyft to bike and scooter share startups, are supposed to bridge that gap along with walking. Profitability remains off in the distance. Strategies are largely confined to waiting for a competitor to go under and become a default monopoly player due to attrition, then jack up fares to become profitable once the competition is gone. Another possible scenario is a merger to eliminate competition, which makes some sense given that many drivers work for both Uber and Lyft. When that consolidation occurs, and more realistic pricing emerges, we’ll start to see how many people choose ridesharing as an option instead of walking or taking a bus shuttle. The upshot is that it’s a very difficult game to make transportation that merely breaks even, whether you’re talking public or private. (Note: Not touching the impact of AB 5.)

This is the point where I have to point out (again) that the Giants’ ballpark deal in China Basin was made with SF agreeing to a light rail extension from Market Street to the ballpark along the Embarcadero. That won’t happen in Oakland. Perhaps a BART extension could happen once everyone figures out how and where a second Transbay Tube will be built (and funded). That probably can’t happen until 2050.

Take it or leave it for now

For the majority of fans who will be driving to Howard Terminal, they could reserve parking spots at participating area garages depending on how much they’re willing to pay and walk. There’s enough parking inventory in downtown Oakland to handle the demand. How fans react to longer walks to their parking spots or BART is the coming source of friction. If fans encounter a fairly tranquil day as has been experienced for the Jack London Square version of FanFest, they’ll be encouraged to keep going to games. If they see difficulty in game night traffic, the parking experience, the walk/shuttle, or a train incident blocks the way in/out, that could mean one or more fans or families that choose to go on a weekend instead of a weekday, or simply less frequently than they used to. However the A’s and the City/Port are pitching this, convenience is not the main selling point. It will be convenient for some who live in Oakland near the park or a short AC Transit bus ride away. The problem is that it isn’t an improvement for practically everyone else who lives in the East Bay. There could be improvements with the bus schedules, helpful for those who choose to take the bus. I could see more Amtrak trains and ferry service. None of those options help the rest of the East Bay, where most of the fanbase originates.

Baseball, especially in Oakland, is dependent on casual fans who choose to go on a whim instead of being season ticket holders. The A’s even modernized their season ticket plan to effectively encourage going on a whim. But it’s not a good trend if the end result is lower friction to buy tickets and higher friction to actually attend a game. Bottom line: the only infrastructure being planned so far is the transit hub, a single pedestrian/bike bridge, and the addition of bus lanes. To be honest, I’m confounded at how this passed as a first draft of the transportation plan. A’s fans, whether you live in Oakland or Concord, whether you’re young or old or need assistance, deserve better.

P.S. – I chose not to go to FanFest this year. The lack of news about the ballpark, combined with the minimal turnover in the roster, made it easy for me to look ahead towards Cactus League play. Speaking of which, the A’s brought back their Spring Training Pass for those fortunate enough to be in the Valley of the Sun for the entirety of the spring. Maybe this time I’ll be able to go to more than a few games.

 

United(?) Stakeholders of Howard Terminal

Earlier this week, the City of Oakland presented some findings related to transportation at Howard Terminal. While some of the observations were quite sharp, many of the proposed solutions were fuzzy and ill-defined.

Take this zinger for starters:

For a year or more, I’ve heard a ridiculous mantra, No one lives at Howard Terminal, which should pave the way for all manner of changes with few complaints. Problem is that impacts are not confined to the project site alone. The surrounding area is much larger and can suffer from being in close proximity. That’s the flip side to the economic improvements often claimed in stadium projects. Sure, Howard Terminal will get a lot of jobs. Is it worth the gridlock? The CEQA process is designed to help the public make an informed decision.

Squeaky wheel gets the grease, so to speak

To that end OakDOT has apparently decided to attack the gridlock problem by prioritizing certain types of traffic on specific streets in the area. Embarcadero West/1st Street has train tracks right in the middle of it, forcing rail activity there to take priority. A block north, A four-block stretch of 2nd Street is the location of a transit hub. Which sounds pretty exciting, until you scratch the surface and realize that it’s mostly a staging area for BART shuttles. That’s not stopping Oakland from full-on selling the hub’s prospects:

It’s Oakland’s version of the Transbay Terminal, except, not

There is talk of a potential BART stop there, though BART nixed any near term prospects. You can hope for 2050, which at the current rate of stadium aging is around the time that a Howard Terminal ballpark becomes obsolete. Bottom line, what’s planned is the stop for the bus bridge between the ballpark and BART, whether you’re talking about 12th Street/City Center, West Oakland, or Lake Merritt. Buses would line up along that stretch before turning onto a bus-prioritized Castro Street, then heading to one of the BART stations or the other parts of Oakland.

Bike traffic currently has 2nd Street as a designated route, which got the attention of bike advocates:

Strangely, 2nd Street is a designated bike route

Every redevelopment vision is going to have winners and losers, which makes it incumbent upon local government to work to protect the interests of those who can’t afford to buy their way out of the gridlock (hello, ridesharing). Keep in mind one of the bullet points above:

While BART serves a critical transportation role for communities of color, riders are disproportionately whiter than the residents around the stations

BART functions as a set of contradictions. It uses the same technology that powers metro subways, yet has less frequent, more spread-out stops and runs longer distances like commuter rail. For a long time it had those comfortable, e. Coli-infused wool seats. BART’s operational and spiritual hub is in Oakland, which makes it strange that the A’s and the City/Port are working so hard to propose a project that actively sidesteps it. Yet those contradictions make it difficult to justify an infill station nearby, as any slowdown in speed or efficiency within downtown Oakland could negatively impact ridership from the admittedly whiter suburbs.

Absent a direct connection to BART, HT proponents are pumping up that transit hub, limited as it is, and other solutions. As part of designating certain streets for certain types of travel, ballpark vehicular traffic is mostly confined to Market Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Way.

Rush hour gameday traffic map is a huge visual improvement from the old LOS (level of service) charts

You may remember that last year there was talk of a new ramp to the Adeline overpass to help route cars to the Nimitz. Evidently that idea encountered some resistance from Port interests, as there’s no mention of the ramp in the presentation. That’s probably just as well, since the ramp would mix ballpark traffic with Port traffic, which trucking companies have been fighting to keep separated for some time. It doesn’t help that the ramp runs through Schnitzer Steel, another opponent of the ballpark. Are those measures enough to satiate all concerned stakeholders? As usual, color me skeptical. Project mode splits show that with the move from the Coliseum to Howard Terminal comes a shift in cars to downtown Oakland, a duh moment but one with surprisingly minimal planning to deal with it.

10,000 vehicles is 10,000 vehicles, no matter how you slice it. Thankfully, fewer than half are expected around the ballpark on gamedays.

Some infrastructure is planned. Again, whether that’s enough is up for vigorous debate. Consider the following legend from the pedestrian map:

The terms Proposed and Potential are the keys here. The pedestrian/bike bridge at Jefferson is Proposed. The vehicle/pedestrian bridge at Market is listed as Potential, as are some underpass improvements. Can you discern the difference?

You’ll notice a passing mention of the gondola above. You haven’t heard much about it since its splashy introduction a year ago. That should tell you how much traction it has. Whether it gets traction or evaporates like most non-traditional transit proposals, there still remains a big last mile transit hole that is being addressed with little efficacy. Not much new infrastructure is planned, other than the stuff the Port interests are pushing for. The above map shows a bus rapid transit station at 12th Street, a separate project from Howard Terminal. Presumably BRT would be expanded to include HT, effectively making the hub a nice BRT stop. The disjointed nature of how all of the various transit options (three BART stations, Amtrak, ferry, AC Transit) come close but don’t actually converge is rather disturbing, more than a year after studies started. Obviously, you can’t move a ferry terminal or the train stations, but that last mile problem remains vexing. The way to resolve it, as proposed, is to throw a bunch of rules, operational costs (buses), and gridlock at it. That doesn’t sound much like progress to me. I eagerly await the end of the month, when the draft EIR is scheduled for release.

Giles out as A’s COO to start own business

Fairly big news out of Jack London Square today:

Giles had been largely responsible for the subscription-style “A’s Access” plans that supplanted traditional season tickets, as well as other OOTB marketing ideas.

Next time you see Chris Giles he might be slinging a guitar instead of a bat

My immediate thought is that Giles was getting good feedback around baseball (and perhaps other sports) about how well A’s Access was implemented. He then saw a nice consulting opportunity coming out of that. His work, in the COO role, is more-or-less done for now. If Howard Terminal gets approved, which likely won’t be this year, Giles would be waiting like the rest of us for the next big steps. Chief Operating Officer was, for the A’s, created for Giles, so if Giles is replaced, I could see the A’s filling from within the organization or choosing not to replace Giles at all. Ron Leuty’s SFBT summary suggests that the A’s have a deep bench if the need arises.

Even if I were a huge Howard Terminal supporter, I wouldn’t be too concerned about the loss of Giles or some of the other organizational losses over the last few months. The A’s are, after a long period of running lean, growing a much larger sales and marketing side of the business. Some attrition is to be expected. As I’ve been saying throughout 2019, we haven’t hit the really difficult obstacles yet. Save your fretting for when those come up.

Clock Is Ticking, Says Manfred

After he threatened to move the A’s from Oakland to Las Vegas in October, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred pumped the brakes during the Winter Meetings this week. Asked about the state of the A’s, Manfred reverted to good cop mode:

“I think one of the things baseball has done well over decades is maintain its commitment to its current cities and we’d desperately like to maintain our commitment to the city of Oakland. I think the wild-card game and the excitement surrounding it shows there is a fan base there, but the clock is ticking. It’s time to get to it in terms of that stadium.”

It’s important to look at the A’s through the lens of Manfred’s entire tenure, not just through individual moves.

Throughout these five years, Manfred exercised patience with Oakland the market and Oakland the political sphere. The Warriors and Raiders announced their moves, giving the A’s the East Bay to themselves. If that was the goal, Manfred’s patience was warranted. However, emptying out a market couldn’t be the ultimate goal. A new ballpark in that market is the ultimate goal. The resistance to the Peralta site didn’t raise Manfred’s ire. The friction at the Coliseum did. Additional obstacles at Howard Terminal could do the same. Manfred’s “clock is ticking” comment is a gentle reminder that he can break out the move card at any time.

The question I have for you readers is, How much of a threat does Manfred actually hold? Vegas is a sore spot because they’ll be the home for the Raiders starting in 2020 and into the foreseeable future. Yet Vegas isn’t exactly ready to build a ballpark for the A’s, or the Dbacks, or anyone else for that matter. Vegas plays the classic stalking horse role at the moment, same as they did when Oscar Goodman was parading showgirls in front of The Lodge 15 years ago. A ballpark in Vegas would be predicated on the same ancillary development scheme being considered in Portland and yes, Oakland. In addition to the 2-3 years needed to build a domed ballpark, Vegas or Clark County or the State of Nevada would have to fire up the political machine to put together a land deal and financing scheme for the ballpark-cum-village, an effort that will surely take at least two more years.

Last week St. Petersburg’s Mayor shut down the Montreal-shared-custody Rays plan. Manfred responded by continuing to push the plan with far less fervor. Instead, he said that for now, the lease at Tropicana Field would continue to be honored. Of course, another city like Nashville or Charlotte could act as a new stalking horse for the Rays.

Manfred supported Stu Sternberg in the latter’s cockamamie scheme. Kriseman said no. Back to the drawing board. While some Rays fans are left dreaming of a new home for their team, the team itself remains status quo, for better and worse. They’re not going anywhere until after the 2027 season, unless a successor ballpark is built in the area. The A’s are in the same scenario until 2024. Just as threats to move the Rays ring hollow, so do the threats to move the A’s. Honestly everyone, don’t fall for it.

Enjoy the walkoffs

As the media starts to write their farewells to the Raiders, it’s important to remember that one team remains and should be here for years, if not decades, to come. It’s not time to scramble to make any deal just because the A’s are the only team left in town. Everyone – the team, the fans, the citizens of Oakland and Alameda County – deserves a fair deal. That means questions need to be asked. Questions that you might not want to ask. Questions that some of us haven’t even considered to ask yet. Maybe some of those questions won’t be fully answered. It won’t be for lack of trying. For now, enjoy the team that calls Oakland home. As we’ve seen with the other teams, nothing is forever.

Offseason News: Sans-Oakland Edition

Next week the MLB’s annual GM meetings get underway in San Diego. Before that, the business sides of several franchises used this week to take care of, er, business.

The Angels struck a deal with the City of Anaheim to extend their stay in town until at least 2050, as reported by the LA Times’ Bill Shaikin. The team will also develop much of the Angels Stadium parking lot, which should help fund a new stadium on the 153-acre site. Much like what deal the Giants made with San Francisco to develop the parking lots near China Basin, and the more complex reimagining of the Coliseum by the A’s, ownership groups are using their teams to propel nearby real estate investment. In the Giants’ case, the process was delayed until the stadium was practically paid off. The A’s are trying to manage two sites several miles apart, while the Angels want to keep everything in one place. The one major complication for the Angels is the status of the The Grove, a city-owned 1,700-seat auditorium on the north side of the lot. The Grove’s location is right on Katella Avenue, the main arterial street in the area.

Locals will undoubtedly complain about the eventual loss of easy ingress/egress as the area is redeveloped. Some may also point to the notion that dev rights or entitlements are a form of indirect subsidy. Pro sports has its price, and if indirect subsidies are what keeps the team from moving to Long Beach or Las Vegas that’s the price. Anaheim’s City Council votes on the deal on December 20.

**

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman laid the hammer down on the Rays, killing any idea of the team having a split home situation: spring/early regular season in Tampa Bay, summer/fall in Montreal. Or did he? As Noah Pransky opined:

Yikes. In any case, the Rays are stuck in St. Pete through 2027. Or until someone concocts the next scheme to get them out. Underneath all of this is the existential problem facing the Rays that no other market has to deal with. The Rays are a major league team in an area saturated with minor league teams. The area is also saturated with spring training teams on a seasonal basis, plus many east coast teams have year-round training facilities there. In the past few years, teams have left the Orlando area to concentrate on the Suncoast or Gold Coast, leaving Orlando as a possible MLB relocation candidate. Former Orlando Magic exec Pat Williams is leading the effort. Orlando may seem to be a sideways move at best for the Rays, but it’s important to point out that Arizona cleared the decks for the Dbacks by getting rid of minor league teams and consolidating spring training facilities. The playbook, however unlikely, has been used before.

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Speaking of Arizona, the Dbacks put together a 67-page wishlist for their new park. The list has all the current trending items:

  • Smaller – 36,000-42,000
  • Retractable roof
  • Integrated concert venue/auditorium seating up to 5,000
  • Lots of ancillary development

While Henderson, NV pitched a plan earlier this year, the team says it’s focused on Maricopa County (the Phoenix area). It’s worth asking if the point of all this development is to help pay for the ballpark, or to use the ballpark to fatten owners’ portfolios. Some might call that synergy. As I live in Scottsdale, I am following this one to some extent. The team continues to look at the Scottsdale-Tempe corridor for a solution.

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The Marlins are installing the new version of artificial turf similar to the kind installed last year at Chase Field and slated to go into Globe Life Field for its inaugural season. They’re also bringing in the fences.

I ventured out to Chase a couple times this year to check out the turf.

We’re getting to the point where the difference between natural grass and artificial turf matters less and less aesthetically. Turf technology continues to incrementally improve in terms of playability and player safety, making the choice between grass and turf mostly a value proposition. Teams in the Sun Belt face dying grass fields indoors, which leads to novel solutions like grass trays that roll outside. That’s harder to accomplish with an irregularly-shaped field used in baseball than with a smaller football gridiron or soccer field, so baseball is trending back towards the fake stuff in some cases. Sun Belt teams also face huge air conditioning bills, which teams can reduce those costs by not keeping a retractable roof with debatable effectiveness open. In California, where it rains infrequently during the baseball season, or the Midwest or Northeast, where there are no baseball domes, there is no debate.

As for bringing in the fences, Marlins Park was extremely triples-friendly and below average for home runs last year. This follows a similar effort in 2016. I suppose it’s better to build big and bring the fences in than to build a bandbox and have little space to expand out.

****

Staying in the Sun Belt, the Rangers held batting practice in Globe Life Field. The dimensions were released as well.

Joey Gallo likes it. I’m sure Matt Olson will too. It isn’t as extreme as Minute Maid Park to left, but right field is pretty much the same. Unlike predecessor Globe Life Park, the crazy winds should be kept in check thanks to the dome even when open. Maybe the Rangers have finally built a place that Bill King would be happy to step foot in.

Contraction Comes To The Minors

Change is a-coming. Maybe.

The above map shows the 42 cities MLB is considering to wipe off the face of the earth. That is, if the face of the earth constituted of affliated minor league baseball teams. (Go ahead, take a few minutes to expand the map and study it.) Some people call this a restructuring of the minors. Others call it contraction. I come from the tech world. We call this downsizing.

Read about what’s being proposed:

I’ve been thinking about this for much of the weekend. My initial reaction is to try to preserve professional baseball in all cities and towns that have it regardless of size or affiliation. I do recognize that, historically, baseball has undergone numerous transformations regarding its relationship with its farm system(s) for decades. If you look at the map, you’ll see that California is mostly safe from this downsizing, with the exception of the high-A Lancaster JetHawks, whose current stadium opened in 1996. But if you scratch the surface, you’ll see that the California League has itself undergone a great deal of restructuring, losing teams and changing affiliations at a rapid rate recently. (Remember how the A’s used to have two Cal League affiliates?) The new trends of vertical ownership (MLB teams owning choice affiliates) and minimizing lower level team affiliations is foreboding for cities in the Pioneer and Appalachian Leagues, where the cities are literally several hours from the nearest MLB stadium and long bus rides from each other. Dropping teams is a surefire way to kill baseball fandom in those places, by making it much less accessible to the average fan or family.

The thing is, I see the point of the ruthless efficiency at work here. I live in Scottsdale, within walking distance of the Giants’ Cactus League stadium and training facility. I’m 15 minutes from the A’s in Mesa. I’m practically down the road from Phoenix Muni, where the A’s used to play and ASU’s baseball program now plays its home games after the A’s left for Mesa. I can see baseball for cheap or free nine months a year, without having to pay escalating MLB prices. That is a tremendous gift to me, and an enormous convenience for the 15 teams that have Cactus League facilities. They can do regular spring training, extended spring training, summer league, fall league, and rehab all in one place. Bus rides are mercifully short. Living costs are manageable. That doesn’t mean that minor league ball is obsolete. In fact, MiLB drew over 41 million fans last season, and there continue to be new venues popping up all over the country. Prospects still need to prove themselves at different levels. Yet there is an argument for some sort of consolidation.

That said, looming over all of this is potential backlash. If MLB chooses to cut ties with dozens of cities, good luck trying to get the next smallish municipality to buy into the baseball-as-boon concept. There’s talk of lawsuits. Surely there would be many of those, though MLB’s antitrust protection only extends to major league games and the cities that host MLB teams. It’s not surprising that the idea may have originated with the already-on-the-hot-seat Houston Astros organization. Whether this is merely a trial balloon or the start of a major reform effort, minor league baseball has major issues to address, such as paying a living wage.

As much as I am a fan of an analytically driven approach to baseball, there are limits. Baseball is still a game played by human beings, in communities, not entirely on spreadsheets. Not everything about the sport should be boiled down to being a revenue or cost center, or an investment with an ROI. As we saw during the World Series, there has to be room for drama and feeling. That’s what loving baseball – or any spectator sport – is about. If you suffocate the communities, you kill the game. I hope that the Lodge, in its infinite wisdom, doesn’t forget how important that is.

*BLINK*

 

It figures that right before a hearing, hours after I mention the latest lawsuit in a post, that one of the parties chooses to drop the lawsuit.

That’s what happened tonight, as the Oakland City Council ordered the City Attorney to drop the lawsuit over the Coliseum land. Per the Chronicle’s Sarah Ravani:

That was followed by the A’s own release:

Okay, now what? Well, don’t break out the shovels just yet. Why? Because the key sentence in the City’s statement is this:

Additionally, the Council directed the issuance of a surplus land notice on the Coliseum site, a legally required precursor to selling public land.

According to the checklist (PDF) put together by nonprofit law firm Public Advocates, that’s gonna add at least 60 days to the land sale process. I expect the City to continue to negotiate concessions from the A’s in the interim. As affordable housing is not a huge moneymaker without some sort of subsidization effort, I wouldn’t expect a ton of better offers than what the A’s can provide. The important thing, though, is that the process is being followed properly, and codified in the Surplus Land Act is a desire to approve bidders that can provide 25% of the constructed units as affordable or below market-rate.

There’s also a provision to approve park uses for surplus land, which may require a small zoning change if it’s what the A’s have on the drawing board – converting the Coliseum into a park/amphitheater.

Throughout all of the legal and political wrangling during the fall, both City and County had rather different takes on who was following the right procedures with the Surplus Land Act. Both the park and affordable housing are in the A’s plans, which has me wondering why the City and County couldn’t get on the same page in September when this mess started. Similarly, why would the A’s go along with a plan so likely to face political friction? Perhaps they wanted to take the procedural express lane to Howard Terminal. So much for that. Over at Beyond the Box Score, Sheryl Ring provided greater insight into the specifics of the law.

For this whole concept – ballpark at Howard Terminal, redevelopment of the Coliseum – there’s a great deal of work to flesh out the details. If the A’s end up putting no affordable housing at Howard Terminal and try to place all of the affordable units at the Coliseum, that’s likely to go over like a lead balloon. Then again, it’s unclear if Howard Terminal itself is subject to the Surplus Land Act, which would really throw a wrench into the A’s projections.

I was surprised when Rob Manfred used the move threat card at what I considered a very early juncture. Then I remembered that the commissioner can use it whenever he likes without fear of reprisal. Antitrust exemption, you know. Exhale, everyone.