John Fisher to tour Howard Terminal with technical experts

After several months of keeping plans mum, A’s majority owner John Fisher will tour Howard Terminal Thursday. The Chronicle’s Matier & Ross report that Fisher will be accompanied by other team executives and Port officials and technical staff. City officials and Lew Wolff may not attend, but if Lew doesn’t there’s a decent chance that his son, Keith, will. The younger Wolff is the current VP of venue development, the same title Lew had when he was hired by Steve Schott and Ken Hofmann in 2003.

HowardTerminal2a

Howard Terminal ballpark site rendering (MANICA Architecture)

The tour is being characterized as “hush-hush,” so don’t expect much coming out of it in the way of a statement or anything else. The A’s environmental and legal team will have questions for Port staff about the state of the sealed asphalt cap that prevents toxic leaks. Relatedly they’ll discuss the soil and the water monitoring system embedded within. Most importantly, they’ll talk about requirements to get the site ready, including digging up and cleaning up the toxic dirt underneath the site.

It would take too long rehash all of the details, so I’ll provide links to previous posts instead.

Infrastructure will also come up, but much of that won’t be the responsibility of the Port. Any new transit modes that come to the HT area (BART, streetcar) will be the planning domain of the transportation agencies and the City more than the Port. The Port will be largely responsible for getting people efficiently in and out of Howard Terminal. To do this a system of vehicular and pedestrian bridges will need to be envisioned. This is of paramount importance because there will be some limited amount of parking at Howard Terminal that can’t be jeopardized by the presence of a freight train blocking the gate to the property. Additionally, pedestrian will be descending upon the ballpark from points north and east. Unlike the Coliseum BART bridge, which was designed to provide ingress for at most 10,000 fans for an event, the system in place at Howard Terminal will need to support 35-40,000 visitors smoothly.

The tour is part of the process described last year by Lew Wolff as a search for the best site for the A’s in Oakland. Only sites within Oakland city limits are under consideration. Wolff initially gave 6-8 months as the timeline, but chances are that the ongoing tenancy of the Raiders has complicated matters. Now the A’s are looking to the end of the year, though the A’s can’t fall into the trap of choosing first to wait for the Raiders and their Las Vegas plans. By taking steps to study Howard Terminal and perhaps other sites, A’s ownership is showing a more proactive effort than it had shown in Oakland previously. Nevertheless, it would’ve been nice if the folks who backed Howard Terminal for two years, OWB, published their (unfinished) work. Same goes for the A’s and their decade-old research. It would’ve given fans at least some insight into the process, which has been completely opaque from the start.

20 Years Is Enough

Turner Field and Chase Field opened for baseball in 1997 and 1998, respectively. Turner Field was a gift to Atlanta courtesy of the 1996 Summer Olympics, whereas Chase Field was a domed stadium borne of necessity in order to host the expansion team in the searing Sonoran Desert summer. Both are in the 15-20 year-old range, putting squarely in a sort of venue midlife crisis.

The Braves are leaving Turner for the richer suburbs in Cobb County. Turner will be renovated again and reborn as a football stadium for Georgia State University’s growing program. Georgia State had been playing its home games at the far-too-large Georgia Dome. They’ll play one more season there. Come Fall 2017, they’ll play in the reconfigured (and soon-to-be-renamed?) Turner, where much of the baseball grandstand will remain intact. The seats in right field will be ripped out, replaced by a new smaller grandstand that will run parallel to the sideline. Georgia State bought both the stadium and the surrounding parking lots for $30 million, all of which will be transformed into additional athletic facilities, dormitories, and academic buildings. GSU’s main campus is in downtown Atlanta, a similar distance between San Jose State’s main campus and its south campus, where Spartan Stadium and other outdoor facilities are located. Final capacity of the redone stadium will be around 30,000, 33% smaller than Turner’s baseball capacity and less than half of the Olympic stadium configuration.

turner_football_stadium

Turner Field renovation for Georgia State University football

Speaking of 30,000, that could be the new capacity of Chase Field, if an investment group that wants to buy and renovate the ballpark has its way. A partnership headed by Integral Group wants to modernize Chase and develop a few blocks of unrealized potential between the ballpark and Talking Stick Resort Arena down the street. Plans were approved for redevelopment of that area outside the ballpark in 2008, squashed by the recession. Integral is notable for being one of the partners in Ronnie Lott’s plans for the Coliseum which will include at the very least a new Raiders stadium. There are also plans (or at least space) for a ballpark should the A’s have any interest, though it’s unclear how that would pencil out.

To push the Chase concept further, Maricopa County is looking to sell Chase Field for at least $60 million, depending on appraised value. That value could include those additional blocks along Jackson St. Phoenix is undergoing a resurgence which started in earnest around 2013, thanks to numerous tech companies opening campuses near Tempe and Scottsdale, along with gentrification of some of the older neighborhoods in Phoenix. The County’s motivation isn’t primarily to spur development. They’ve been in quite a battle with Dbacks ownership over who’s responsible for $65-137 million in improvements to the stadium. They already rejected the lower figure, meant to cover peripheral items like scoreboards, suite refurbishment, and cosmetics. Major projects such as reimagining the upper deck and outfield concourse are well down the road.

FanFest

Diamondbacks FanFest with Chase Field roof closed

If I were looking to rework Chase, I’d look entirely at the block containing the stadium. There are 3-4 acres of additional space outside the walls that isn’t properly used. The photo above shows what it looks like with the roof closed. Gigantic ads that double as windows (when the weather cooperates) dominate the view. When the roof is open for games, the place transforms into an almost fully outdoor park. It’s not as complete a transformation as Safeco Field or Minute Maid Park, but it’s close.

Limitations imposed by the building’s design and the need for an air-conditioning environment prevent a full opening of the outfield. The contents could be rebuilt to great effect. A gym exists in center behind the batter’s eye, with parking dedicated to it. All of that should be scrapped and rebuilt as a children’s play area and a midway with rides and a carousel. The current children’s area is in the upper deck left field corner, notable only for having the stadium organ located there as well.

The main plaza on the west side where most of the gates are is also wasted space. It deserves a revamp with restaurants and bars that are open more than on game days. There should also be a way to directly connect the buildings in the plaza to the ballpark so that the whole area can be navigated outside the stadium.

Back Camera

Then there’s that 30,000 figure. That doesn’t happen without knocking down most of the upper deck. Like US Cellular Field, that should help to make the place look less cavernous. Once that’s done they’ll have to put something behind the seats to fill that space. They don’t need more suites or amenities up there. Tacky looking signage? Curtains a la an arena? A second partial roof inside the original roof? It’s a tough task to make Chase Field look intimate.

While the Phoenix market’s economy has rebounded, downtown near the sports venues is still not a hotspot despite the numerous venues (ballpark, arena, convention center, theater, ASU’s downtown campus, museums). It’s largely event-driven, with more interesting restaurants and bars on the other side of downtown. It goes to show that no matter how much money and resources is thrown at a neighborhood it doesn’t always translate into a lively district.

downtownPHX1

20 years later, the area between the ballpark and arena remains mostly parking

Fortunately for everyone involved, the ballpark is debt-free and has been for years. Same goes for the arena. Like Oakland, Phoenix and Maricopa County find itself trying to please two teams looking for new venues at the same time. There’s no inherent competition between the teams for sites or land, but they will be pushing for resources. In the past Maricopa County financed numerous sports facilities using a car rental tax, which has now been deemed unconstitutional. A similar tax just for the City of Phoenix is also being challenged. Phoenix owns Talking Stick Resort Arena. And finally, the Dbacks have the option to veto any purchase of the stadium by a third party. The Dbacks previously discussed buying the park from Maricopa County, which seemed like that most natural route at the time. Let the team make the investments since they’ll get all of the proceeds. The process may end up with such a deal happening since the Dbacks are the linchpin to everything. That doesn’t mean it’ll be easy. The Dbacks could attempt to leave Chase Field completely in search of a location outside downtown Phoenix, but without the aforementioned tax revenue streams a move threat doesn’t have legs. There’s a really good shell at Chase that could be fixed up into a fairly intimate ballpark for far less than the cost of a new ballpark.

Manfred strengthens case for Oakland

As has become customary over the years, reporters asked the Commissioner about the state of new venue pursuits for the A’s and Rays. Since Rob Manfred took the mantle from Bud Selig, Manfred has taken a slightly more hopeful and defined stance than his predecessor. Taking that a step further, Manfred today said that he remains committed to Oakland, seemingly indefinitely.

From the AP:

manfred-oakland1

And another Manfred comment from the Chronicle’s John Shea:

manfred-oakland2

Hear that? The commissioner is bullish on Oakland! That can’t be said for any other time since the A’s have been in the Town. Baseball was more concerned about Charlie Finley than Oakland in 1968. Throughout the Finley, Haas, Schott, and Wolff tenures, no one inside or outside baseball talked glowingly about Oakland’s economic prospects. Now Manfred is, and for good reason. By the numbers, Oakland is exploding in terms of real estate values and rents. It’s attracting tech companies and their employees. For the Lodge, Oakland has finally become more than a centrally-located fanbase, it is a healthy market unto itself. What’s more, Manfred likes Oakland’s prospects into the near future. If you’re wondering what took so long, consider the economic prospects of Oakland in 2009.

Manfred continued to push the notion that the A’s should pursue the stadium plan regardless of what happens with the Raiders. He hasn’t gone so far as to set a deadline or mention consequences (for either the A’s or Oakland), but if you’re paying attention, you know that this fall is the time for MLB to make hay with Lew Wolff and John Fisher.

The current CBA calls for the A’s to get off the revenue sharing dole once a new stadium opens. So far, Wolff has pledged to pay for the stadium without requiring Oakland to issue any new debt or raise taxes. But if Wolff and Fisher are going to pay full freight on the stadium, they’re going to need some relief from that debt service. The best arrangement within baseball would be to allow the A’s for the possibility to receive revenue sharing if they hit a shortfall. That shouldn’t be an issue for the first few “honeymoon period” years after the ballpark opens. There are some potentially lean years in the future, so allowing the A’s to stay within the revenue sharing pool could be an effective safety net, especially if the A’s start entertaining larger payrolls normally shouldered by a new stadium.

One other interesting quote came from Manfred:

Baseball is the best economic investment for a city because of the number of home dates it drives.

Unless you’re a Raider die-hard economic denier type (they exist), this is a basic truism – at least relative to football. However, buried in there is the term best economic investment for a city. That could mean infrastructure, or public funding, or a quasi-governmental agency like the JPA to get bonds or loans, or free land, any number of things. That’s an indicator that for Manfred’s belief in and protection of Oakland, he’s going to want Oakland to make its own investment. To what extent is unclear. Rest assured that Manfred will play the bulldog at some point in the future, and he won’t be a pushover. Look at how he’s treating the “threat” of a minimum wage or overtime vs. the economics of minor league baseball.

Wonder out loud threateningly about the future of the minors, an institution where no team pays its players? That’s the lawyer we all know and fear.

Rangers and Arlington Working On Third Ballpark

Third? You ask. The Ballpark in Arlington was the first true ballpark in Texas. Arlington Stadium was an overstuffed minor league park not worthy of full MLB bonafides, right?

Arlington Stadium was an overstuffed minor league park, true. But it held up for 22 years in an era where ballparks were not as obscenely specced as they are today. Arlington Stadium was redone during the time of the cookie cutter stadia. It was a round bowl. A bare bones facility. It had no roof. There were no cantilevered decks, and the press box attracted the North Texas winds like a vacuum. It was odd and disproportional, yet I had a slight affinity for it when I saw the A’s play road games there. Perhaps that’s because I never had a chance watch a summer game there.

Arlington Stadium (photo by Mike Fitzpatrick)

In 1994 the Stadium was replaced by The Ballpark in Arlington (review), an early entrant in the new era of retro-classical ballparks. TBiA (now Globe Life Park) was built to hold 50,000 fans, a bunch of offices in center field, and the new standard of club seats and suites. What TBiA lacked was any kind of roof with an air conditioning system. A fixed roof was not really in the cards, and the only retractable roof at the time was at the hulking SkyDome, far too expensive for the $191 million budget. So to compensate, the Rangers built ultra large covered concourses with an open facade. It felt airy, and felt pretty good in April and sometimes September. July and August were punishingly brutal thanks to the humidity. George W. Bush, who was looking for a trophy to propel his burgeoning political career, didn’t have six years to wait until the retractable technology evolved to the point of affordability, as it did for the Astros. So TBiA was built, Dubya became governor, and the Rangers stayed in Arlington.

Recently, Rangers ownership, now changed twice, started looking for a more technologically modern home, citing the need for a retractable dome thanks to the heat and humidity problems. A dome over the top of TBiA was considered problematic because of the lack of a support structure (and infrastructure) to carry the roof’s load. Prominent Dallas interests quietly started talking up a ballpark within the city, perhaps close to American Airlines Center. Arlington pulled the rug out from Dallas by working with the Rangers on an eventual replacement for TBiA, even though eight years remained on the lease.

rangers1

What will be the price tag for improved climate control? A cool $1 billion, half of it charged to the citizens of Arlington via extensions of existing sales/hotel/car rental tax hikes. Arlington pols feel confident about the plan because they may pay off the debt at the Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium 10 years early. Sure, they’ll outfit the park with more restaurants, bars, club levels, different types of suite boxes, and custom bat/bear/doohickey booths. And there will be a huge fan plaza with retail and a hotel, finally giving the immediate area something else walkable from the park. That mini ballpark village will be called Texas Live!, located kitty corner from the current ballpark to the southwest.

rangers2

There are a few sobering takeaways from this whole exercise.

  • Public money makes a stadium project move faster. Once those coffers are open, stakeholders are willing to move heaven and earth to make these projects happen. This is the #1 reason why no stadium is happening in Oakland right now, why San Jose’s ballpark fizzled, and why the Earthquakes’ stadium was delayed. Owners and leagues want municipalities to have skin in the game or a pound of flesh, whatever you want to call it.
  • There is little virtue in paying off a stadium early. Just as AT&T Stadium is projected to be paid off early, Phoenix’s Chase Field had its debt retired early. For Phoenix, all that meant was that the Diamondbacks asked for a new ballpark earlier than planned. Same goes for the Rangers in Arlington. Considering how so many sports venues don’t pay for themselves, such moves take a lot of chutzpah.
  • The next wave of ballparks is here. Cobb County’s park for the Braves will open next year. The Rangers are shooting for 2021. Arizona is asking for their own smaller, more intimate park. Arte Moreno has been saber rattling Anaheim for years. Other teams will call for extensive renovation plans. This new era may not have the same wholesale turnover of venues as it did during the Selig era, but whatever happens promises to be very expensive, and for most teams, largely unnecessary.

Sometimes it feels like the world is passing the A’s by. This is no more clearly evident than in the stadium game. At least the Rays are here to keep us company.

Wrigley Field gets long-needed facelift

For the last several years the Cubs have adorned the façade of Wrigley Field with vinyl signs, as I witnessed firsthand in 2013. While they were bold and colorful, they distracted from the structure itself.

Vinyl covered exterior seems loud, no?

Vinyl covered exterior seems loud, no?

Back then I wrote about the contrast:

Wrigley famously has very little façade. Behind home plate is the light gray concrete structure accented by green and the distinctive red marquee. It’s not brick or sandstone, and there’s little to write home about. At some point recently the Cubs decided to have huge vinyl signs of the players cover up much of the concrete, as many newer parks have done. As much as I appreciate the blast of color, I miss the old humble concrete. Along the first and third baselines are chain link fences, so the back of each deck is exposed to the street it faces.

As part of Wrigley’s multiyear renovation project, the vinyl and chain link have been torn away, replaced with elements that open up the space and hark back to Wrigley’s earlier pre-war state.

Now that’s better. Gone are the concrete board and cage-like chain link fences, replaced by much more ornate galvanized steel gates.

The terra cotta facade, better seen in the Chicago Tribune’s article on the makeover, is somewhat more controversial than the rest, since the material is not exactly in keeping with steel ballpark construction. However, it is a throwback to Wrigley during the 30’s. At scale, it’s applied only to provide a warm accent that wouldn’t otherwise exist, and certainly would be less effective with mere paint or another metallic surface. It makes Wrigley even more approachable, if that was even possible. Wrigley’s famed red marquee was reinstalled only two days ago, and it remains as hot as ever. I look forward to going back sometime soon, even just to admire the exterior.

P.S. – Note the amount of roster turnover signified by the players on the vinyl signs.

2016 Cactus League – Few Changes In Store

It nearly hit 90° in the Valley of the Sun this week, so you know that spring training is rapidly approaching. Pitchers and catchers report to Fitch Park today, though many of them and the position players have already been working out in preparation for the season.

The A’s haven’t announced any changes to Hohokam, the renovated stadium they moved into a year ago after decades at Phoenix Muni. Most of the big-ticket items were taken care of the first go-around. It’s a spacious, comfortable place to watch and should remain so for years to come. The biggest change I know of is not the facility but rather a new way to get to it, or at least close to it. Valley Metro finished the first phase of its Mesa extension last August, stretching to Central (downtown) Mesa. The station at Main Street and Center Street is the closest to Hohokam, 1.7 miles directly south of the stadium.

1.7 miles from the Center & Main light rail station to Hohokam

1.7 miles from the Center & Main light rail station to Hohokam

That distance is probably a bit too long to walk for most. Credit to those who do. Alternately, Mesa’s Downtown BUZZ free shuttle operates Monday through Saturday between Main Street and Brown Road, the major street just to the south of Hohokam. BUZZ runs all the way out to the Cubs’ Sloan Park if you’re interested. There’s also Valley Metro Bus 120 ($2 ride), which runs on Mesa Drive and Brown Road, stopping south of Hohokam. Pedicab would be a good option if it were available. And remember, if you go early you can visit Fitch Park along the way in the morning, catch a couple workouts, then head over for the 1 PM first pitch.

Speaking of Fitch Park, the City of Mesa announced that it renamed the unfortunately monikered “East 6th Place” at Fitch to “Athletics Way.”

The “Dead End” sign has to stay because it’s factual.

One difference for the A’s is the addition of two night games:

  • Monday, March 14, 7 PM – Giants
  • Thursday, March 24, 7 PM – Rangers

For those two you’ll have to drive/cab/rideshare.

For those driving everywhere or taking Uber/lyft to ballparks, there aren’t many changes of note. There are no new ballparks to speak of. There probably won’t be one until the Brewers decide to leave Maryvale.

Scottsdale Stadium is getting a new scoreboard. The new LED board is sized 24′ x 40′. That’s not as large as Hohokam’s jumbo 26′ x 56′, but it’s still a massive improvement over the old traditional scoreboard/postage stamp video combo.

Map of Cactus League parks from Royals Review

Map of Cactus League parks from Royals Review

If you’re touristing down to Arizona to catch a weekend’s worth of games or longer, chances are that you’re staying in one of four places:

  • near Sky Harbor Airport (PHX)
  • Old Town or South Scottsdale
  • Tempe
  • Central Phoenix (downtown)

All four of those locations are fairly close to the eastern bunch of Cactus League parks (Salt River Fields, Scottsdale, Tempe Diablo, Hohokam, Sloan). The five West Valley parks (Maryvale, Camelback Ranch, Surprise, Peoria, Goodyear) are a good 15-25 miles away from the preferred cluster of hotels. You shouldn’t stay in the West Valley unless you intend to spend most of your time at one of the facilities or you’re staying with family in, say, Glendale or Peoria.

If you’re getting around the Phoenix area, it’s best to look at just the area as basically two freeway loops. The largest is constituted by I-10 to the south and Loop-101 acting as the west, north, and east perimeter, about 15 mile x 20 mile rectangle. Camelback and Peoria are close to the west segment of Loop-101, while Surprise is way out beyond, and Goodyear is on the way out to LA. The Maryvale neighborhood is somewhat sketchy, though it shouldn’t matter since the Brewers’ home schedule is all day games. Meanwhile, the east cluster is nice and compact, with all ballparks within roughly 5-10 miles of each other. The other freeway loop is Loop 202, which covers a 10 mile x 20 mile section known as the East Valley, including Mesa, Chandler, and Gilbert. I-17 runs north to Flagstaff, whereas US-60 comes from the northwest, merges with I-10, then heads east towards New Mexico. The funny thing about driving around Phoenix is that even though the area is much smaller than the Bay Area, I find that I’m less tolerant of driving long distances. Maybe that’s because I’m conditioned to driving longer distances in the Bay Area, and there are more freeways to handle those distances. It may also be Phoenix’s monotonously endless street grid. Either way I’m surprised at how the landscape affects me as a driver.

If you’re planning a trip to the Cactus League and you have questions, drop a note in the comments. I’ll be happy to answer whatever I can.