A Confluence of Events

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.

Could a ballpark be part of a grand bargain?

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.

Scrap metal

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.

The Future is Fake? version 4.2

My younger brother bought a house in Mesa several years ago. I stayed with him at that house when I moved to Arizona. While he owned it, he chose to rip up the concrete patio and put in an artificial turf surface, a popular thing to do with a desert backyard. While we rode out a particularly rough monsoon, I watched as the rain threatened to flood the remaining concrete areas, yet efficiently and efficiently drained at the artificial turf patch.

Since then I’ve had a chance to take tours of several stadiums. I walked on natural grass and artificial turf systems for baseball, football, and soccer. Mind you, I didn’t field ground balls or practice cutting on turf, so I can’t speak to how well it’s working. A great deal of R&D has gone into perfecting these turf systems over the past 50+ years, which you can see on display every weekend. So-called third-generation products like Field Turf have become the surface du jour for football and field hockey, while soccer and baseball players tend to be more skeptical. It’s gotten to the point where there are formulations for the specific sports based on how much contact the ball has with the surface. We’ve come a long way from the old Astroturf with its rock hard carpet that caused ridiculously high bounces and rug burns. The new stuff is designed to be better playing, better draining, and most importantly for fans, better looking.

It’s not perfect yet, but in three ballparks I visited over the past three years, it’s easy to see how the technology has progressed. I capped off the 2017 season with visits to Toronto and Tampa, where new turf systems developed by AstroTurf and Shaw Sports Turf. Here in Phoenix, the Diamondbacks decided to replace their grass at Chase Field with a newer version of Shaw’s turf. So now we have three different iterations of the product in three MLB domed stadia to judge.

The Blue Jays’ Rogers Centre was the first with the latest generation of turf in 2015. In conjunction with the new turf, a full dirt infield was implemented. This was possible because the stadium’s football and soccer tenants moved to their own venue, BMO Field. The turf is called AstroTurf 3D Extreme, and nearly four years in, it’s a huge improvement over the old stuff.

Rogers Centre upper deck

Rogers Centre field level from dugout

Rogers Centre surface closeup (note warning track)

Cosmetically, it still looks like carpet. At least it doesn’t have the strange sheen of the stuff at the Trop in St. Pete. This product is named TruHop.

Tropicana Field from upper deck

Tropicana Field club level view

Tropicana Field outfield view from lower deck

Over in Phoenix, a newer version of the Shaw product was installed before this season, called B1K. These products are subject to nearly constant iteration. The old versions of artificial turf would often have a multi-year life span. Right now the emphasis appears to be on getting as true a bounce as possible while reducing the amount of “splash” from the crumb rubber infill, so it’s likely that the composition of the turf or dirt could change from year to year.

Chase Field outfield view from LF corner

Yours truly on the Chase Field warning track

Sorry guys, when I saw this picture from the tour guide I recognized this shirt is WAY too big for me now.

Here’s the funny thing about these technologies. As turf becomes a more complex product to install and maintain, it requires more resources. It’s normal to water the turf, not because anything’s growing there, but rather to keep its plastic and rubber from compacting and drying up. Meanwhile, grass always seems like the more environmentally sound product due to it being organic, yet it requires lots of precious water and fertilizer has numerous chemicals.

Look, the next ballpark in Oakland is not likely to have an artificial surface. Baseball’s ancient pastoral feel is more than a field, it’s a milieu. Whether we’re talking about kids running the bases after games on Sundays, or the occasional fireworks or movie night on the grass, people want to experience it. It matters more in place that, unlike California, actually experiences all four seasons. Yet it still matters on the West Coast. It’s just nice to know that science is working the resolve many of the problems that plagued the older versions of turf. Chase Field may be replaced in the next 10 years. If it does the replacement will probably utilize turf. The next ballpark for the Rangers will be in a dome and will also use turf. MLB and the owners are looking at the turf experiments in Phoenix, St. Pete, and Toronto to guide their processes in the future. Who knows, ten years ago there were several improvements in grass (mostly by impregnating plastic) to make it more durable. Perhaps more innovation is due on the grass side. Whatever happens, it’s good to know that the gap is closing. Here’s to hoping the green we see out there is more than a color, it’s an attitude.

SunTrust Park: More Braves, Less Atlanta

SunTrust Park in left field as twilight approaches

After visiting the Braves’ new park a month ago and giving it a good amount of thought, I came to the conclusion that in many ways, it is the future of ballparks. That is not necessarily a good thing. The advent of full-scale ancillary development with ballparks will change the economics for some franchises where it’s available. We can’t truly judge that impact yet, so I’m going to mostly focus on the ballpark itself, with some observations about The Battery, the development surrounding the ballpark, along the way.

I’ll start with the good news. SunTrust is a real improvement on Turner Field inside the gates. It’s much more compact and intimate than Turner, while also having more amenities and luxury within. While I’m with the near-universal criticism that the Braves chose to make this move far too early, abandoning a perfectly functional 20-year-old building in the process, I also have to note that ballparks have come a long way in 20 years. I just don’t know that it’s worth the investment, especially if you’re not getting a public subsidy to help pay for it.

Four decks and three separate concourses serve the stadium

33 rows fill the lower deck, which itself is split into upper and lower sections. The club and premium seating sections are all stacked behind home plate, much like Marlins Park. Large group seating exists down the lines, with the Hank Aaron Terrace overlooking left field and the Coors Light Below The Chop bunker beyond the right field wall.

Braves Monument Garden on lower concourse behind home plate

The biggest achievement is the Monument Garden, a spacious and quiet mini-museum along the lower concourse. Suites block access access to regular seats, allowing Populous to eliminate restrooms and concession stands, replacing them with this meditative space. The Braves are the longest continually operating franchise in MLB, and the team will let you know about it with numerous old jerseys, a long timeline covering the team’s history in Boston, Milwaukee, and Atlanta, and the various Hall of Fame Braves. BBHoF plaques are mounted along the concourse wall, while their numbers stand in water features in the center of the Garden. While it doesn’t have a bar as in Seattle, there’s a lot more history to cover, so take your drink in and meditate in the Garden for a while. Having a concourse view is preferable, but if you’re going to remove that view, at least give fans something cool like this.

Hank Aaron statue atop Monument Garden

This same attention to historical detail is repeated all over the park. The terrace club allows the patricians to feel the same sense of history without having to share space with the plebes.

Technology is solid, as one would expect with a park dubbed the “future of ballparks.” The two large display boards in the outfield complement each other, though at times it can be confusing determining which one is the main board. There’s a single ribbon board above the lower deck. WiFi antennas are ubiquitous, with internet provided by Comcast. The cable giant even moved its local operations to The Battery, occupying the big glass office building in right-center.

Banks of LED lights can be turned on, off, partially lit, or with strobe effects.

Sandlot kid’s area behind CF

As perhaps an unintentionally nod to the declining popularity of youth baseball, there is no sandlot diamond at Hope and Will’s Sandlot, the designated kids’ area. Instead, there’s a zip line and a climbing wall, which when I think about it, would be neat additions to the actual playing field. Think about it, Rob.

The REAL future of ballparks

The level-by-level diagram shows you the real future of baseball. Every perceived premium space and seat is now at the field, along the infield, and most importantly, behind home plate. I wrote about this evolution in May. With the opening of SunTrust Park, it’s further confirmation of the concentration of high-$, high-amenity seats, as well as the separation of those premium sections from the regular seats. The Rangers’ ballpark is sure to follow in these footsteps, if not surpass the Braves’ efforts entirely. Think about that the next time you sit in 315-319 at the Coliseum. The cheap upper deck ticket behind the plate is not long for this world.

Catwalk leading to upper deck sections behind the plate

Like the lower deck, the upper deck concourse behind the plate has no view of the field. The press box is located there instead, with few amenities (a couple concession stands and restrooms) available. Since there are seats in the upper deck, access to them is granted by stairs leading to a catwalk on the roof of the press box. It’s these inconveniences that make me wonder what’s next in terms of ballpark development.

Pre-construction rendering of The Battery ATL and SunTrust Park

Like it or not, the theme everywhere at The Battery is Coming Soon. While the main plaza beyond right field has retail and restaurant tenants, many of the other buildings to the south (bottom of pic above) are not fully completed. The developers managed to get commitments to thousands of apartment leases, ensuring that there will be some amount of activity when the Braves aren’t playing. Signs on the ground level advertise a good mix of retail chains and local establishments to come. It’s hard to say how successful this will all be because the Cumberland area where The Battery is located already has three large shopping centers in place, including a major regional mall. And with the Braves treading water at the .500 mark, the team for now is a coming attraction, whereas the ballpark is already in place.

I didn’t drive to the park when I was there thanks to accommodations only a mile away. Many of the parking lots are in office parks on the other side of I-75, requiring a stroll over the interstate on a newly constructed pedestrian bridge. Some parking exists at The Battery, though most of it is for VIP’s and residents of the complex. It’s a mess, albeit one I didn’t get to experience directly. Since the area doesn’t have a MARTA (BART-like) stop anywhere close, fans hoping for reasonable public transportation are bound to be disappointed by having to use at least two bus transfers from the Midtown stop. A better option if ridesharing from Midtown, which for me cost about $15 a ride.

My hotel would be in the lower left of this map, putting me closer than a lot of fans who parked nearby

Planning for the ballpark always seemed like a head scratcher to me. The land on which the ballpark and the development sits is 60 acres of former forest land that is sloped down from northeast to southwest. That makes for suboptimal ballpark placement and orientation. The Braves chose to place the ballpark in the northeast corner, with home plate facing nearly true south. When sitting in the ballpark one can look towards right field and see the rest of the Battery. The rest of your vision is freeway and greenery interrupted by the occasional office building or hotel. It’s not a skyline, the site’s distance from downtown Atlanta is too far to incorporate the skyscrapers in the distance. It may have made more sense to put the ballpark at the south end, orient it a more natural northeast, and build the surrounding stuff to fit. The plan could have allowed for fans parked to the north to descend to the park, creating a grand entrance in the process. The location is clearly suburban and while it’s suited for a neighborhood ballpark, the plans reach much higher to be more of a downtown ballpark (there are clear differences). All in all it feels like a missed opportunity.

The Chop House is a restaurant. Don’t make it more than what it is.

That brings me to the most popular criticism of SunTrust Park: the park’s lack of a signature feature. It’s hard to come up with such things when there’s no existing building to incorporate into the park (San Diego, Baltimore) or a small, hemmed-in site to force design decisions. The Braves so far are trying to use the Chop House as that signature element. The effort falls flat because it tries to puff up the Chop House to being more than multi-level restaurant that it is. Even if you accept the premise, the Chop House is not impressive enough nor of a scale to demand that kind of attention. It’s only open during games. Other group accommodations are directly above it, blunting its visual appeal. The Comcast building looms behind it, much more imposing but outside the actual ballpark footprint. I’m not going to call it the whole package “fake” or “artificial” because those are cheap shots that don’t get at the heart of the issues. Over time the place will fill out and wear in like a pair of jeans. Question is, will those jeans be out of style in 10 years? Knowing what we know about the last 30 years of ballparks, the answer is probably yes.

Hypothetical: If the Raiders left, how would you improve the Coliseum for the A’s?

Before I begin, let me preface this post by stating that I have no information that says definitively that the Raiders are leaving Oakland. This is mainly a thought exercise. The Raiders could conceivably leave for a new football stadium next to the existing Coliseum. They could go to Santa Clara or San Antonio for a few years before returning permanently. They could leave for Inglewood or Carson for good. In any case, this is meant to be a discussion about benefits for the A’s, nothing more. What happens to the Raiders is not under the A’s, A’s ownership’s, or fans’ control. There’s little East Bay politicians can do save for writing enormous checks to Mark Davis. So for the purposes of this post, let’s leave what the NFL and the Raiders may or may not do out of it. 

Should the Raiders leave for God-knows-where after the 2015 or 2016 football seasons, the A’s and the Coliseum JPA will have some serious choices to make regarding the old venue. The main goal would be to make the Coliseum a more pleasing baseball environment for players and fans alike, while not costing an arm and a leg to do so. The cost issue comes into play because, if we’re assuming that the A’s would pay some amount for this transformation, there’s a question of how much they’d be willing to put into this project as opposed to funneling more money towards a ballpark on the same grounds. That’s the tension at play, and when considering the various decisions that have to made cost-benefit should be at the forefront.

The immediate change we can safely assume the A’s will make is to take control of the Raiders’ locker room, one floor above the A’s current leak and sewage-plagued clubhouse. The Raiders got control of the old, 50,000-square foot exhibit hall space when the came back, turning it into spacious locker rooms for themselves and visiting teams. The A’s will occasionally use the area for hosting groups, since the Coliseum lacks proper breakout spaces at any level except for the East Side Club. Once the A’s commandeer the exhibit hall, the old clubhouse problems should go away. The old clubhouses could themselves be remodeled into memorabilia-filled bunker suites or other premium accommodations that are currently lacking at the Coli. It might cost $10-20 million to renovate the space properly, which might include moving the workout room, trainer’s room, and offices at the clubhouse level. Since all of the benefits would go to the A’s, it would make sense for them to foot the bill for the remodel.

Beyond that, changing the Coliseum could go in any number of directions.

Option A: Return to the pre-Mt. Davis Coliseum (cost estimate: $35-50 million). The frequent refrain I’ve heard so far is a call to transform the Coliseum into the pre-1995 version, with the old bleachers in the outfield and the ice plant above it. Doing so would require the demolition of most if not all of the Mt. Davis structure, plus the construction of replacement seating and landscaping. While that would be perfectly acceptable to the A’s and A’s fans, the City and County are still on the hook for the Mt. Davis debt, so the idea of spending more money on demolition and additional seats that would not generate anywhere near the requisite revenue to pay for them doesn’t sound promising in the slightest. Besides, how many years would this configuration be used? Five? I would expect all parties to pass on this plan if it were ever proposed.

Want the hills back? It'll cost ya.

Want this again? It’ll cost ya.

Option B: Lop off the top part of Mt. Davis ($10 million). The best way to bring back the view of the Oakland hills, without incurring the cost of completely demolishing and rebuilding the Coliseum, is to take down the upper part. What’s the upper part, you ask? Well, that depends. It could be as little as the upper deck, which practically starts as high as the rim of the original upper deck. Or it could include removing the upper two suite levels, making the total struck roughly as tall as the original upper deck’s lower rim. The BART plaza, East Side Club and associated seats (Plaza Reserved) could be kept around, though with the large number of obstructed view seats they’d serve a better purpose as an outfield restaurant bar, much like the kind many ballparks are instituting these days. On the downside, there would be a lot of expense just to open up the views. Again, it’s a high-cost/low-benefit situation.

Top of the original bowl is as tall as the bottom of Mt. Davis

Top of the original bowl is as tall as the bottom of Mt. Davis upper deck

Option C:  Leave Mt. Davis as is, fill in foul territory with seats ($25 million). Given the $100 million lower deck renovation at Dodger Stadium, this seems like I’m undershooting things quite a bit. But most of the money at Dodger Stadium went towards extremely well outfitted clubhouses and a large, swanky club restaurant behind the plate. There are some structural things to address, such as dugout expansion and realignment. The bullpens might have to be moved. One way to go would be to scrap the existing lower bowl and make it more like one of the original cookie cutters, like Shea or Riverfront. Chief benefits would be more seating at improved angles, plus additional concourse space in theory. However, it would be expensive to implement and would eliminate most of the views from concourse, at least down the lines. Plus the way the concrete beams that support the Plaza level are only 4 feet above the lower concourse floor, so a concourse expansion would have to be another 4 feet lower than the existing lower concourse in order to allow for proper circulation.

An expanded concourse has its downsides and challenges

An expanded concourse has its downsides and challenges

Option D: Move home plate back eight feet, bringing every seat on average 6 feet closer to fair territory ($5-10 million). Also known as the Ken Arneson plan, this proposal would sacrifice views from the Value (upper) deck in order to bring everyone else several feet closer. I like the idea of the Monster-type seats in the outfield, though I would also like to see a wholesale rework of the bleachers with steeper pitched seats if they’re going to add a premium option. That way the first row could be as little as 8-10 feet above the field, instead of the 15-foot high scoreboard wall that exists in the power alleys. While they’re at it, the metal “notch” sections that fill in either down the lines for baseball (sideline for football) should be replaced. They have a nasty tendency to pool water when it rains, and they’re more weathered than the permanent concrete sections. Changes like these certainly won’t be eye popping or easy to spell out in an offseason ticket sales pitch, but they can certainly help the vast majority of fans without incurring great expense.

The Giants and Cardinals both made changes to their venues as they waited for their purpose-built ballparks to materialize. In both cases, they built fan goodwill that was cashed in when their ballparks opened. Just as the A’s built new training facilities and rebuilt a ballpark in Mesa, a similar investment could pay off in Oakland. It couldn’t come until everyone knew the Raiders were leaving, so we wait. And wait.

Coliseum City: The campus that wants to be a downtown

Quick – can you guess how many downtown ballparks are in Major League Baseball? Downtown ballparks?

Would you guess there are 18?

Well, you’d be wrong. There are 15 downtown ballparks, half of baseball. They are:

  1. AT&T Park, San Francisco
  2. Busch Stadium, St. Louis
  3. Chase Field, Phoenix
  4. Comerica Park, Detroit
  5. Coors Field, Denver
  6. Great American Ball Park, Cincinnati
  7. Minute Maid Park, Houston
  8. Nationals Park, Washington
  9. Camden Yards, Baltimore
  10. Petco Park, San Diego
  11. PNC Park, Pittsburgh
  12. Progressive Field, Cleveland
  13. Rogers Centre, Toronto
  14. Safeco Field, Seattle
  15. Target Field, Minneapolis

All of these parks have one thing in common besides being located in a city’s central business district: they opened in the last ~25 years. Some are considered part of the portfolio of new classics, such as AT&T, Petco, PNC, Camden Yards, and Safeco. The rest, while perfectly good venues, are outclassed in one way or another. Many were anchors of large-scale redevelopment projects. Some were wildly successful (AT&T) while others couldn’t quite deliver on their promise (Comerica, Busch). Some are on the fringes of downtown. Others were placed on land that had a hard time being developed into more common uses (residential, office).

Missing from the above list are the most iconic older ballparks and their replacements. Fenway Park is in the Fenway-Kenmore neighborhood, 1.5 miles west of Boston’s compact downtown or central business district. Wrigley Field is 4 miles from Chicago’s Loop. Yankee Stadium is 8 miles from the southern tip of Manhattan, progenitor of the term downtown. Instead, these parks are in established neighborhoods.

5.2 miles from the Coliseum to downtown Oakland

5.2 miles from the Coliseum to downtown Oakland

Having legacy parks built away from the urban core was largely an economically driven decision, since it was often easier for team owners to assemble land away from downtowns. A century ago up through the end of WWII, parking was not a major issue, so the complications of having huge parking lots or garages didn’t come up. It was the pre-NIMBY area, with no environmental impact reports or CEQA. To say it was a simpler time would be an understatement. The ballparks thrived, gave the neighborhoods character, and became the landmarks we know today. Some of them at least. More likely, peers like Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field or Crosley Field in Cincinnati were phased out because they were too small, lacked parking for postwar suburban fans, or other reasons. In those situations, owners often turned to big, modern multipurpose stadia, usually in downtowns. As those modern replacements turned into ugly relics, they were themselves replaced by “retro” ballparks that harkened back to that simpler era. But they were situated in downtowns, not neighborhoods, so they didn’t quite have that magical character Wrigley and Fenway have. To date there hasn’t been a neighborhood park concept developed anywhere in MLB during the modern era.

..

An early rendering of Coliseum City

An early rendering of Coliseum City

Which brings me to Coliseum City. Throughout this entire Coliseum City process, backers have been selling the idea of this new, exciting, urban landscape, marked by glittering venues and tall high-rises. It looks like a second downtown for Oakland, doesn’t it? That’s a sentiment I had been hearing a lot since renderings by JRDV were released. Today this was confirmed by Andy Dolich, who wrote in an excellent piece at CSN Bay Area that the A’s have a good bargaining position for a future Oakland ballpark. The thing that bothered me was this:

Oakland is a gritty yet highly competitive city with suburbs, exurbs, and even far away counties with fans, businesses and broadcast entities that will support a coherent stay-at-home strategy for the Raiders and A’s. The desolation of China Basin turned into the Miracle of Mission Bay with AT&T Park as its nucleus. That same dream can turn into reality in and around the Oakland Coliseum site.

Let’s be clear about something. Coliseum City is not China Basin. Any attempt to draw similarities between the two is fanciful. China Basin is less than a mile from downtown and only 1/4 mile from South Park, long the ground zero for startups in SF. Combine that proximity with the touristy allure of the Embarcadero and you create that “miracle.” Oakland has a lot of land available at the Coliseum, but it doesn’t have any of those factors. The Coliseum complex is more than 5 miles from downtown Oakland. That’s nearly the length of Alameda, or longer than the Bay Bridge.

Coliseum City was conceived as a grab bag of everything a city politician might want to see developed on his/her watch: high quality office space, high-rise hotels, a fancy transit hub, housing, and yeah, those sparkling new sports venues that will keep the teams from escaping to other markets. Other than the presence of the existing BART station, there’s little to truly propel development. The complex is not a downtown, it’s an industrial area, so convincing developers and financiers to take a chance on the project has proven exceedingly difficult.

Take a look at the road plan below. The complex is somewhat screwed, because it’s hemmed in by a creek, railroad tracks, and the Nimitz Freeway on three sides. The lack of streets feeding into it creates a handful of major chokepoints. Tying them all together is a new loop road that traverses the complex. Downtowns don’t have loop roads. They have main streets. A loop road is something you’d find at a campus development. The infrastructure in place in and around the Coliseum is more suited to a theme park than a downtown.

Road plan for Coliseum City

Road plan for Coliseum City

A true downtown has a spine, a major arterial road through which transit and cars run. That’s not part of the Coliseum City, nor can it be. The major streets are a freeway plus San Leandro Street and Hegenberger Road, all of which form the perimeter of the core (downtown) area. BART also doesn’t run through, and it only provides one stop that can only access the “downtown” via a new pedestrian bridge. Downtown Oakland is served by two BART stations, both of which can be accessed from various streets and directions. Downtown SF has four stations.

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An elevated concourse serves as the spine of the plan and provides open space

See what I’m getting at here? The lack of multiple ingress/egress points makes this a complete nightmare in terms of access. Imagine a dual-event scenario at the Coliseum in which both the stadium and arena are in use (you could also use a 36,000-strong sellout baseball crowd as a benchmark). Both have events that start at 7 PM on a weeknight. Now imagine two-way traffic added to the mix: a few thousand office workers leaving while another few thousand residents arrive. That’s bustling, right? There’s another term for it: gridlock. Established downtowns have a street grid that by its very design can help mitigate that gridlock. Coliseum City doesn’t, and it shows in the EIR’s traffic study. Only small mitigation measures are identified, and some intersections have no mitigation at all. As a result, the main intersections or gateways all end up with Level of Service (LOS) F grades, the worst you can get. Traffic is a dual-edged sword. When in a neighborhood it’s a sign of vitality. It’s also a major annoyance. Expanding BART at the transit hub would help encourage patrons to use transit, but that’s not going to be for everyone.

The spine is an elevated grand concourse that connects the BART station/transit hub to the football stadium and extends to the rest of the development via stairways. It could even run across 880 to near the Estuary. While it will deliver people from the hub to the rest of the complex, it will also serve as a huge wall separating the complex in two. I’m sure the idea is to evoke the wildly successful High Line in New York, a former elevated train line that was converted into a greenbelt on the West Side. The concourse is going to be much wider and serve more uses than the High Line, which at most points is rather narrow. The High Line snakes through Chelsea, a little piece of heaven in a part of Manhattan that lacks parks. The thing about the High Line is that people generally don’t use it as a main way to move between places. It’s a diversion. CC’s concourse is meant to be a main drag, so much that it has a streetcar embedded within. I’m going to guess that if the development doesn’t expand much beyond the Coliseum complex, that streetcar is a nonstarter.

Concourse at Coliseum City

Concourse at Coliseum City

The High Line in Manhattan

The High Line in Manhattan at dusk

There’s a philosophical question to ask about Coliseum City. If so many people are talking about it in terms of a second downtown, what does that mean for the current downtown? Oakland’s downtown/uptown areas have survived the recession, riots and protests, and have gotten funkier and cooler in the process. It becomes a matter of how Oakland balances out the needs of a downtown that grew up on its own versus a planned campus development designed to resemble a downtown.

When you look at old parcel maps of the complex, you can see dotted lines where streets were supposed to be laid out. Originally the area was supposed to become a subdivision, carrying over the street numbering convention found on the other side of the tracks. I can’t help but think that the project would be more feasible and ultimately successful if its proponents tried to make it a real neighborhood instead of a planned campus. That would be the truly retro move: a neighborhood that works in scale with a ballpark, that doesn’t have pie-in-the-sky planning goals, that echoes the growth of other neighborhoods in Oakland. Yes, there would be parking as that’s a necessary evil piece of infrastructure. The plan would be complementary to downtown instead of competing directly against downtown. Chances are it would be more egalitarian than Coliseum City. If Oakland really wants to stand out, to make something special, it should stop looking jealously across the Bay for something to copy like a waterfront ballpark. A neighborhood ballpark, done the right way, would be that unique plan. Oakland could do that if it wasn’t so starry-eyed. Honestly Oakland, what would you rather have: a second competing downtown, or Wrigleyville/Fenway?

P.S. – When we saw the plans, Jeffrey (Editor at large) and I talked over some of the possibilities. One thing that we agreed on was that Oakland might have the best chance of developing the whole thing if Coliseum City attracted one or two major employers to take much of the office/R&D space. Say that a growing tech company in San Francisco wanted to escape the ultra-high rents there, but wanted space to expand on their own terms instead of leasing multiple floors in different buildings. Coliseum City presents one of the few opportunities to build a campus close to SF. It’s a potentially great deal for Oakland: high-profile company relocates to Coliseum City, leases a large amount of space, has its own BART station. In a way that feeds into the idea that Coliseum City is really a campus, because instead of 12 or 20 different companies taking up different amounts of space, you have one. The company has its own big commuter shuttle buses and a fleet of private Ubers coming in and out, just like Silicon Valley.

A Day at the Diamond, Hohokam Stadium Preview

The parking lots filled up fast, so that by the time I arrived at Hohokam Stadium around 11 I was directed to park in the grass soccer fields south of the ballpark. With the construction debris gone and systems in working order, it was time to show off the renovated ballpark to the community.

Fans walking in front of the clubhouse mural

Fans walking in front of the clubhouse mural down the 1B line

There were no surprises for me. I’ve checked out the place throughout various stages of construction over the last two years. What I wasn’t quite ready for was how it looked with a bunch of people in it, sitting in seats, traversing concourses, hoping for home run balls. For me that’s when it became more than a bunch of features and improvements upon Phoenix Muni or even the Coliseum. That’s when it became real.

Back row behind the plate

Back row behind the plate

From the top of the stadium you’re afforded views of the McDowell Mountains to left, Four Peaks and Red Mountain to right. Down low it’s all baseball. While the A’s have sold ads in the outfield, don’t expect the same kind of ad explosion you typically see in minor league parks and other spring training parks. The big scoreboard in left will probably be used for getting those messages across.

Exterior outside 3B

Exterior outside 3B

If you had visited Hohokam at any time since its 1998 renovation, you know about the edifice’s underwhelming blandness. A 90’s  ode to beige stucco, there were only the most minimal nods to the Southwest. Under the A’s, the Gensler-designed makeover is all green and gold. The exterior walls are the forest green we as A’s fans are very familiar with, perhaps darker than you might expect at first glance. Gold painted aluminum panels line the gates and box office. Originally the gates were to have famous player numbers, like 24 for Rickey Henderson. This was scrapped sometime in the last year, probably because having gates named in a “random” manner would look confusing to non-A’s fans. Not that the gate naming system matters, it’s unlikely anyone will get lost here. One bit of technology not available in the 90’s was large format, photorealistic vinyl, which was put to good use depicting major events in A’s history on the outside of the stadium (above) and throughout the concourse.

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The inner concourse felt somewhat cluttered with numerous memorabilia sales tables on both sides. Only a few concession stands were open, so the space was made available. Most of the concourse is white, with gold accents to highlight fan amenities, from tunnels to the grandstand to restrooms and concession stands.

Ferguson Jenkins was even on hand, as he used to be when Hohokam was the Cubs’ home. Jenkins usually makes the rounds at every Cactus League park, so if you want to meet the Hall-of-Famer you’ll have your chance.

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Unlike Phoenix Muni, at Hohokam fans will now be able to walk completely around the park. As a 90’s-era Cactus League park, there’s no 360-degree concourse like the kind you’d see at the newest parks: Salt River Fields, Camelback Park, Sloan Park. Even so, you can get your full stroll on, and the upper tier is elevated enough above the walkway that you won’t have to worry about obstructing views.

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When Hohokam was redesigned, the Cubs made sure to get a large canopy placed over much of the seating area, as the old Hohokam had no shade whatsoever. That feature was carried over to Cubs/Sloan Park, and while the shade isn’t truly necessary for March in Arizona (75-80 degrees, dry heat) it’s welcome. If you want shade from the start, sit in the upper sections on the 1B side or behind home plate. The A’s also removed large bleacher sections down each line and replaced them with shaded patios, one a family and kids area, the other a beer garden. Along with the downsizing, all of the seats and bleachers. The plastic fixed seats are 19 or 20 inches wide, provided by Hussey Seating. Bleachers are contoured and have backs.

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A's training facility at Fitch Park

A’s training facility at Fitch Park

Hohokam is 0.6 miles north of Fitch Park, home of the Lew Wolff Training Facility. The facility was not named LWTF in the initial drawings presented by Gensler nearly a year ago. Whether Wolff decided to do this at the last minute or was pushed to do so because of the drawn out Coliseum lease negotiations or other factors, the Wolff name is unmistakably on the A’s building in Fitch Park and on way finding signs outside Fitch. Wolff’s name is nowhere to be found at Hohokam, and both Hohokam and Fitch have retained their original names. Wolff turns 80 this year, so I can’t blame the guy for celebrating an achievement, no matter how distasteful it may look to many Oakland fans.

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The outfield berm areas at Hohokam are arguably the largest in the Cactus League. In right, the berm is so large that it’s split into a good-sized lower part and a large upper hill, descending to a second walkway next to the warmup fields. The A’s have plans to rework these areas to include a food truck alley and a grotto in left, but for now they’re being left alone. In any case, you’ll have plenty of area to stretch, and maybe the team will add more kid-friendly attractions with all the space, as is seen at Peoria.

It's huge

It’s huge!

Last but not least, there’s the new scoreboard, which I’ve talked about previously. The A’s are experimenting with different graphics and sound packages, and from what I hear they’re not final, so you if you have suggestions chime in. One dilemma I heard about was whether to bring the “A*Team” theme and graphics over from Oakland or trying something different for Hohokam. I have a bunch of lawn tickets for games in March, and I made sure to plant myself in front of the display to see if I could stand the up-close pixelation. It looked fine to me, so I’ll make LF semi-permanent instead of RF, where I thought I’d be sitting prior to today.

The final price tag on Hohokam Stadium was $27 million, $17 million from the City of Mesa and $10 million from the A’s. The original budget was $20 million. Some of the extra $7 million went towards technological improvements, such as proper wiring for broadcast video throughout the park. While the A’s and Comcast don’t broadcast a ton of games during the spring, it’s good to know that the capability is there. Visiting teams will be able to take advantage as well.

A spring training ballpark is only used for a month every year. Games held there don’t count in the standings. It is more intimate than regular season baseball, more accessible. Every fan should take the opportunity to visit his/her team’s spring training home at least once. It’s warmer in more ways than one.

Shrinkage

When Coliseum City was originally conceived it was supposed to look something like this when fully completed, 800 acres in all.

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800 acre concept

 

Last last year we heard from Floyd Kephart and others that the project would be scaled back to around 200 acres.

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Coliseum City at 200 acres

 

Now we hear that it’s down to 120 acres, which is basically the original Coliseum complex plus the Malibu and HomeBase lots leading out to Hegenberger.

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120 acres

 

With the Raiders and A’s signed up to offer competing bids, the team working on Coliseum City now plays the role of facilitator and competitor, all at once. A single stadium’s footprint will be 14-20 acres. Two stadia would cover 35 acres. When you add the necessary streets and easements for other infrastructure, that should leave 60-70 acres to develop. I was not terribly optimistic from the get-go about the financing coming through, so I wasn’t surprised when one financier after another bailed out on the project. Now that the project’s size has shrunk a whopping 85%, the questions about its viability are even more pointed, especially when trying to pitch it as a way to keep both the A’s and Raiders in town. Just as we saw over the last year, we’re going to let the numbers (or lack thereof) prove these concepts out. If the Raiders can make it work with whatever developer they’re trying to get onboard, bully for them. If the A’s plans prove most feasible, then they get the spoils of developing one of the last large infill developments in the Bay Area. And if Kephart’s New City group somehow gets capital and the teams on board, they will have truly worked a miracle.

However, ask yourself this: If capital wasn’t biting at 800 acres and two stadia, why would they bite at 120 acres and two stadia? 

P.S. – The infrastructure price tag on the whole 800 acre project was supposed to be $344-425 million. Now that it’s 85% smaller, did that cost also proportionately decrease? Nope. The cost of infrastructure for the 120 acres, including the new transit hub and utility relocations, is $170 million. Factor that into your thinking. Some of that figure will be offset by grants, though really only for the transit hub. It’s still a nine figure infrastructure price tag.