Today we’re gonna have a little history lesson. Ready?
The date was October 17, 1989.
Remember that? It was the date of the Bay Area’s most unforgettable recent tragedy. The Loma Prieta earthquake struck at 5:04 PM, shortly before the scheduled first pitch of Game 3 of the 1989 World Series. The world’s eyes were trained on the Bay Area. After the temblor, nothing would be the same.
Houses fell and caught fire in San Francisco’s Marina district. The Cypress structure (880) in Oakland collapsed, as did a segment of the Bay Bridge and much of Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz, which was close to the epicenter. When the quake struck I was a 13 year-old in my parents’ bedroom, watching the pregame on a 13-inch Goldstar (later LG) television. I didn’t have a table to hide under. I didn’t seek out a doorway to protect me. Instead I backed away from items that could fall, switched off the TV, and kneeled like I was praying the Novena at my local Catholic Church. The house was a classic single-story, postwar tract home that sustained no damage. After the shaking ended, I went outside and gathered with the neighbors. Power was out and would remain that way for two days. There was a rotten egg smell wafting in the air. Bewildered, we all took stock. There were no injuries on our block, no medical emergencies to further tax the public safety department.
Officials all over the Bay had much more damage to assess after the rescue efforts. The Marina would be rebuilt, as would the east span of the Bay Bridge. The Cypress structure’s replacement was eventually rerouted around, not through, the residential areas of West Oakland. The old structure was torn down to make room for a boulevard called Mandela Parkway. When I visited downtown Santa Cruz as a college freshman, much of Pacific Avenue was not yet rebuilt and would take years to be completed as the region dealt with the recession.
Loma Prieta triggered a series of planning decisions that would change the Bay Area in major ways. Besides what happened in West Oakland, the closure of the Oakland Army Base allowed the City and Port of Oakland to start planning for an expansion of the Port. The quake gave SF the excuse to tear down the unsightly Embarcadero Freeway and shelve forever any plans to complete the network of freeways through the city. That provided the impetus for SF to beautify the inner waterfront area, turning the Embarcadero into its own tourist and commercial attraction. Development creeping southward into SoMa finally resulted in a winning ballpark site proposal at China Basin, on the waterfront near the Caltrain terminus. Out of tragedy came rebirth and triumph.
As part of the Embarcadero rebuild, SF essentially ceded much of its shipping industry capacity to Oakland and Richmond, who were only happy to take up the slack. Miltary cutbacks included facility closures (OAB, Alameda NAS, Mare Island, Moffett Field NAS, etc.), prompting those cities to accommodate workforce transitions however they could. Since then, the BCDC has been careful to balance out the various needs of industry, residents, and civic services on the Bay’s navigable waterways. To that end, there is precious little residential development right on the water. Even the Brooklyn Basin project, which went through its own form of development hell for more than a decade and won’t be fully completed until 2038, was only approved with a mandated open space buffer for public use. Those same principles guide the development of Howard Terminal.
Last month the BCDC released an updated Seaport forecast, projected to run through 2050. The last Seaport plan is over 20 years old, so updates are welcome. The document was commissioned in January and completed by The Tioga Group, a freight shipping consultancy. An appendix dealing with the issue of Howard Terminal was tacked on at the end (page 177). Among the document’s observations include the following items:
About Bay Area Seaport growth and how Howard Terminal fits in:
- Under moderate cargo growth assumptions the Bay Area will need more active terminal space, estimated at about 271 acres by 2050.
- Under slow cargo growth assumptions the Bay Area will need about 36 acres more active terminal space by 2050.
- Under strong growth across the three cargo types, the Bay Area will need substantially more seaport terminal space, about 646 more acres than is now active (and will need to activate additional berth space for larger container vessels).
As part of maintaining that delicate balance, it’s up to the BCDC, Coastal Commission, State Lands Commission, and cities and counties to best determine how the extremely limited resource we’re discussing – waterfront land – will be allocated and used. Howard Terminal is not being used to anywhere near its capacity, that much is clear. However, does its current state foreclose opportunities for the future? The report indicates that it would be foolish to do so.
As the analysis of overall seaport acreage requirements shows (Exhibit 199), Bay Area seaports are expected to be at or near capacity by 2050 under moderate growth assumptions, and to require space beyond existing active container, ro-ro, and dry bulk terminals. Howard Terminal would be one option to supply part of that acreage. Howard Terminal cannot, obviously, serve all three cargo types. If Howard Terminal is used for container cargo, other sites must accommodate the need for ro-ro and dry bulk capacity. If Howard Terminal’s’ long-term ability to handle containers is compromised by a truncated berth, ro-ro or dry bulk cargo may be a more suitable use.
Is the best way to utilize a limited resource to give up on it completely? That is the real question here. Not only is there not enough existing capacity for future growth, Howard Terminal’s small size and capacity means it can address needs one way at a time. Keep in mind we got to this point thanks to a combination of back room deals. Port operators sued to get better terms, which led to one of port operators to claim bankruptcy and pull out of Oakland altogether. During the City Council session earlier this week, a representative of GSC Logistics hinted that there’s talk of that same kind of withdrawal occurring again if the Port/City proceeds to build the ballpark at Howard Terminal. If that seems like dirty pool, you’re right, it undoubtedly is. Problem is, what is the line between a negotiating tactic and a long-term strategy? Moreover, what is a proper compromise? The A’s are willing to give up 10 acres of Howard Terminal to get approval from the Port shipping interests in what clearly will be part of a much larger package of concessions. Even if a compromise is reached, it doesn’t address the overarching issue above.
The photo above imagines Howard Terminal with a Ro-Ro (rollon, rolloff) facility built on it, which would be used for transporting cars. The rail spur currently at the terminal would be improved as part of a package of improvements. It’s not stated as the preferred option, but it is an option, and it’s quite convenient that the Tesla plant in Fremont happens to be the closest car plant that could use a Ro-Ro like this.
There’s also a tidbit about Schnitzer Steel thrown in for good measure.
The three export scrap metal terminals in the Bay Area are located at the ports of Oakland, Redwood City, and Richmond, and each have substantial material handling infrastructure that could not be readily moved or duplicated. Should existing terminals reach capacity, there are limited expansion opportunities within port complexes.
As a private terminal in Oakland, Schnitzer qualifies as one of those facilities that can’t be readily moved or duplicated. So much for my idea from a few months ago.
I didn’t bring up Loma Prieta as some wish for divine intervention to spur civic planning. But it’s becoming clearer everyday that something more than a back room deal will need to happen to will a Howard Terminal ballpark into existence. The shipping industry is particularly livid with their claims about not being heard by the Port/City. Something has to give, and it has to be something big. Getting all of these parties to co-exist peacefully was always going to be a difficult ask. The issues have come into sharper focus in the last several months.
Last week, Dutch shipping giant Maersk announced an initiative to get to zero carbon emissions in its operations. When I read that I immediately imagined Oakland as a completely green port, with supertankers running on biofuels, electric cranes and port equipment, and non-fossil fuel powered trucks transporting goods all over the country. There’s no telling how much it would cost for such a transformation, but there is no better time to figure it out than right now, while everyone’s figuring out how much infrastructure will cost at Howard Terminal. If something like that comes to fruition, it could solve all of the problems that plague this concept: infrastructure, pollution, and traffic. And if that is part of the grand bargain that comes with a ballpark at HT, so be it. Like everything associated with this project so far, there’s no shortage of feature creep.