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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Park at the Park in 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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

Ghost of Blue Ribbon Panel Speaks Out in Favor of… The Coliseum

Former Giants VP Corey Busch, who was part of Bud Selig’s Blue Ribbon Panel to study the A’s future in Oakland (and San Jose) a decade ago, was interviewed by the Merc’s Shayna Rubin yesterday. And boy, did Busch had some thoughts.

The big reveal was Busch’s belief that former Giants owner Bob Lurie was never going to ship the team to Florida. Selling the team was, as Busch recounted, merely a ruse to motivate a local buyer for the franchise, which eventually happened when Peter Magowan stepped up. That’s not to discount the tremendous amount of drama at the end of Lurie’s ownership tenure, which involved St. Petersburg and dalliances with San Jose and Santa Clara. Exploration of the South Bay included A’s owner Walter Haas agreeing to cede Santa Clara County to the Giants, which was previously an unassigned territory for MLB’s purposes. The South Bay is now and forever San Francisco Giants territory, even though they will probably never play a game there.

Busch also went out of his way to defend the Coliseum, decrying A’s ownership’s desire for a downtown ballpark – and only a downtown ballpark – at Howard Terminal.

Busch determined the Coliseum site was viable in 2014 on Selig’s blue-ribbon committee to explore ballpark options. He still attests the A’s can build the ballpark village of their dreams around the site. MLB and the A’s declared this month that the Coliseum site “not viable” as a location for a new park.

“The notion that the Coliseum, if properly developed in its totality, is not acceptable is kind of silly. It’s nonsense,” Busch said. “I know for a fact there are people in the commissioner’s office who know the Coliseum site is a good site.”

All Bay Collective’s 2018 Estuary Commons concept (Coliseum/Airport area)

Right now the Coliseum is not in the conversation due to the stubbornness of ownership. At some point it will re-enter the picture, unless everything from this point forward falls in line for Howard Terminal. For all their posturing, the A’s still continue to attempt to buy the City’s half of the Coliseum. And even though Dave Kaval announced the A’s were on “parallel tracks” with Oakland and Las Vegas (I thought there was no “Plan B”?), it’s not hard to see a third path, one that brings them back home.

Another Prop Has Occupied My Time

Is everyone clutching their pearls tightly?

Oakland’s City Council has a non-binding vote scheduled for July 20 on the Howard Terminal project. If the majority of the council votes Yes, the project continues, including the tangled negotiations for community benefits, transportation, and mitigation for the Port stakeholders. HT proponents, who are mostly a ragtag bunch of volunteers at this point, are pushing the pro message.

But what happens if Howard Terminal gets voted down?

That’s a subject that hasn’t been broached much by local or national media. Honestly, who wants to spend much time gazing beyond the edge of a cliff? Given A’s ownership’s recent Vegas trip, Sin City would appear the be in the lead as a candidate for relocation. A’s President Dave Kaval even nixed a planned trip to Portland, desiring to explore Vegas further.

So Vegas is the ace in hand, while Portland is the ace in the hole. Except they’re not. They’re both bluffs at this point. Kaval’s trip to Vegas was exploratory in nature, with no definitive sites or organized funding instruments at hand. Kaval tweeted from a Golden Knights playoff game, which created blowback from fans. There were meetings with Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, representatives from Henderson (where the Raiders training facility is located), and Summerlin (where the A’s AAA affiliate Aviators play). The three options provided are far from ideal. Let’s break them down.

Mayor Goodman wants to redevelop the old Cashman Field/Cashman Center complex to include a domed stadium just as her husband did. As the site is within city limits and not in unincorporated Clark County like the Strip, that makes sense. However, going north past Downtown (Old Las Vegas), past a freeway, and to the Cashman site, is its own cliff in a sense. I visited Cashman a few years ago, before the stadium was converted for soccer use, and well, it’s the same dump the A’s played in 25 years ago while the Coliseum was refurbished for the Raiders, except that it has aged. The concept for now is to level both the ballpark and the small convention space next door and build a domed stadium on the spot. Kaval weighed in with the Las Vegas Review Journal on the subject, including one foul tasting nugget:

Domed stadium? Say it ain’t so, Dave.

Henderson doesn’t have a specific site to offer up to the A’s yet. Summerlin’s plan would presumably be to build the dome over the curiously named Las Vegas Ballpark. Both Henderson and Summerlin are 10 miles from the Strip, in nicer neighborhoods than Cashman. As I considered the options, the A’s and MLB’s likely strategy became clearer to me. It all comes down to Vegas’s previous successes with the NHL (Golden Knights) and NHL (Raiders). Though we haven’t heard about it, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the recently vacated Sam Boyd Stadium enter the picture. It’s also 10 miles away (east) of the Strip.

If MLB considers Vegas a small market from a population and TV audience size perspective, any relocation or expansion-to-Vegas strategy will have to include a plan to capture as many tourist fans as possible. In the past that was somewhat controversial for the potential competition between pro sports and other forms of entertainment, but now, it’s all fair game and can be somewhat synergistic depending on whatever events are happening during baseball season. That makes the location of the ballpark key, as a 30-minute ride away from the Strip is not conducive to capturing much of that tourist base.

Last year, Caesars put the off-Strip Rio Hotel and Casino up for sale. There were rumors that the site would make a good landing spot for a MLB team, with space for a domed stadium and a mega-development. Alas, a real estate firm gobbled up the property and is rebranding it a Hyatt Regency among other things. Given how the stakes for teams were raised by Commissioner Rob Manfred recently, it’s worth asking whether The Strip or an off-Strip site is the only location in Southern Nevada that makes sense. If we’re going by the standard of placing a ballpark in the middle of a downtown or central business district, Henderson and Summerlin don’t make the cut the same way Fremont or anywhere on the I-680 corridor wouldn’t work in the East Bay. Never mind that the ballparks for the Braves and Rangers violate the “downtown” standard.

Beyond Las Vegas’s stalking horse status, let’s consider next steps. For Vegas to work for three-quarters of baseball owners to approve a move, there needs to be a clear economic advantage in moving a team there. Southern Nevada had the benefit of a Stanley Cup Finals-bound team in its inaugural year, truly an enviable feat. There’s plenty of earned goodwill to keep attendance strong there for years to come, plus the Golden Knights get the spoils of being the pioneer in the market. Despite the pandemic-marred 2020 regular season, Raiders attendance should be strong thanks to its large migratory fanbase. MLB is different in that so much of a team’s revenue is generated locally from ticket/suite sales and local television rights.

Sportico reports that the A’s pulled in $220 million in revenue for the 2019 season, the last full regular season on record. 2019 also happened to be the last year the A’s received a revenue sharing receipt (25% share), which showed when the team stripped costs to the bone in 2020 by laying off front office employees, minor leaguers, even scouts. The teams in the middle of the revenue pack, Minnesota and Milwaukee, had figures of $289 million and $286 million in 2019. That makes the gulf between the A’s and other small market teams that opened new ballparks recently around $70 million, inclusive of all media and sponsorship deals but without revenue sharing thanks to the A’s big market status. If the A’s move to a smaller market, they will immediately become a revenue sharing recipient simply because they won’t be able to compete with the big markets. Despite the top-heavy big-market focus of MLB franchises, baseball realizes that it needs all 30 teams to compete at least once in a while. If Tampa Bay moves to Montreal or a Southern city there won’t be a revenue sharing change.

The A’s remain a unique case because of its place as the economically inferior team in a two-team market. The traditional markets, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, don’t have strange revenue carveouts or oddly gerrymandered territories. The A’s are a sort of enclave (think Piedmont or Newark) within Northern California, which is dominated by the Giants. The O’s and Nats’ relationship is defined mostly by the O’s owning the sports network that broadcasts both teams.

Howard Terminal or Bust” is effectively the admission that the A’s can no longer function as a big market team under the current operating situation. They must move to a newer (albeit not bigger) stadium where they can maximize revenue. The A’s are only starting to rebuild their radio presence after a controversial online effort. The A’s TV revenue is in the middle of the pack among MLB teams, which is fine for now and helps to stabilize the franchise. Altogether, the A’s exploration of other markets is ostensibly the search for a replacement level market. If the A’s can get that extra $70 million annually through Howard Terminal, the team can stay in the East Bay. If they can’t get that $70 million, they might as well find out if that money can come elsewhere. Personally, I think they’re going to find out that’s a much tougher task than it seems. Local TV revenue is transforming thanks to streaming threatening to make many RSNs obsolete. Radio is a wounded animal, a necessary annoyance. Ballparks are getting smaller while trying to cater a more exclusive clientele. If the A’s and Oakland are going to prove they can hang with the big boys, Howard Terminal is the way to do it.

That’s what they want you to believe, anyway. I’ll have more to say on that later.

P.S. – Henderson, NV, was in MLB’s sights two years ago, when the Arizona Diamondbacks used a trip to Henderson to help pressure Maricopa County to help fund improvements to Chase Field. A ticket tax was approved earlier this month, though the team is being coy about whether they’ll use it. Henderson played its role well that time.

P.P.S. – The City of Oakland is urging the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to fork over a matching share of funds from the EIFDs (Enhanced Infrastructure Financing Districts) proposed for the Howard Terminal project. One of the EIFDs is for the 55-acres of Howard Terminal. The other is for a large swath of Jack London Square and the surrounding neighborhood, which got me thinking:

I thought Alameda County wanted out of the pro sports business?

Brodie Brazil captured how I’ve felt this month

Just watch Brodie Brazil from NBC Sports California, dissecting the A’s relocation drama point by point, including some historical references. It’s excellent.

I’ll have more to say later today or tomorrow.

Pandemic Spring, Take Two

UPDATE 2/15: Spring Training tickets go on sale February 18.

At the last sporting event I attended on March 10, 2020, I took the following picture:

Gabriel Cancel remains a Royals prospect despite not playing in 2020

It felt eerily ominous at the time. There were few if any masks in the crowd. People were mostly milling around casually like it was a normal Cactus League game. I kept moving around the stadium and stayed away from mass gatherings for the most part. Still, it felt like the plague was looming in the distance.

Sure enough, two days later, the NHL, NBA and MLB suspended operations. That canceled spring training for baseball and left uncertainty around basketball and hockey, whose regular seasons were near their respective ends. Though I felt it coming and I mentally braced for the impact, the news was no less shocking. The waiting was, well, you know.

Summer came, the big pro sports leagues started their truncated seasons, and ended them largely without fans. By the time the first 2021 spring games are played on February 27, the United States will probably surpass 500,000 COVID-19 deaths.

Last week, being what someone called an ARAF (Arizona Resident Athletics Fan), I decided to drop by Fitch Park and Hohokam Stadium to see what was going on in preparation for Cactus League. The D-backs and Rockies chose to jump the gun, announcing presages of tickets at the beginning of the month before Maricopa County temporarily put the kibosh on that. MLB is trying to experiment with having partial crowds, up to 25% of normal capacity (Spring Training ballparks typically have a 10,000-seat capacity). MLB even tried an 11th-hour deal of postponing the start of the spring in exchange for a slightly shorter regular season and expanded postseason. That fell on its face, so here we are with the season as scheduled, fingers crossed everywhere.

The last couple of years I parked near the Mesa Convention Center, where I could easily park and charge my tiny electric vehicle while watching a game/batting practice at Hohokam or Fitch. The entire parking lot where I normally would park was transformed into a large free COVID testing site run by ASU. I imagine it will become a vaccination site when supplies are ready.

Sign outside Mesa Convention Center, down the street from Hohokam Stadium/Fitch Park
ASU-run COVID testing site at Mesa Convention Center parking lot

Last March I was worried about the remainder of 2020. Still, I was happy that I got to watch some baseball during the spring. Fans didn’t get to watch any games at the Coliseum last year, but I got a taste and given everything we experienced in 2020, that was enough. If the A’s offer a Spring Pass again as they did last year, I might buy in even if I may not attend many (or any) games. Heaven knows the team could use every bit of revenue it can get.

As for actually going to the games or practices, I’m still uncertain. I expect Fitch to have very limited or no access to fans. I felt like a kid walking along the corridors at Fitch last week, no one else around except the City of Mesa groundskeepers. I exchanged greetings with one as he drove by on a riding mower. Hohokam may go with the trend of 25% capacity, masked and spaced out as we saw with football games towards the end of the NFL season. The situation remains fluid, so there’s a chance they won’t allow fans at all per city ordinance. Scottsdale has been far more loose with the regulations than the other Cactus League cities, who have generally followed Maricopa County guidelines, though Scottsdale’s cavalier attitude is changing with a new mayor and city council in office. And yes, I still drive around Old Town Scottsdale daily and see uncovered faces everywhere.

On a related note, the A’s old spring home Phoenix Municipal Stadium is a vaccine site.

In any event, pitchers and catchers report in a week. Position players a week after that. Many of them are already here. I might see an A’s spring game or two at the end of February or early March. I may wait until the regular season starts and the A’s drop by Chase Field to play the D-backs on April 12-13. Or I might wait until I get vaccinated, which would be the safest route. I have a doctor’s appointment in late March which should guide me. Maricopa County’s vaccination schedule looks like this:

Maricopa County’s current vaccination phasing program. I’m probably in Phase 2, maybe in 1C.

Maybe I’ll watch games from the beyond the left field fence if it’s allowed. Who needs an actual seat anyway?

Hohokam Stadium in 2014

The more I think about it, I can’t imagine a better way to spend part of an afternoon. With no one in spitting distance, of course.