Howard Terminal EIR: Significant and Unavoidable

Here’s a tip for reading the 2,000+ pages of the Howard Terminal Draft EIR: Do a search for the term significant and read every paragraph that contains that word. It should give you most of the answers you need and reduce the amount of background info you would have to weed through.

Should you make that search, you would find that significant comes up 44 times in the Transportation and Circulation chapter (4.15) alone. That’s just one chapter, though as I intimated previously, it’s perhaps the most important one.

Normally when a big project like this is a released, there’s also a big splashy presentation of a potential solution to help mitigate whatever negative impacts are found. For Howard Terminal, that reveal was a gondola similar to what you might find in a ski resort. Though a gondola actually exists at the Oakland Zoo, its purpose compared to what’s being considered for the A’s is markedly different. At the Zoo, the gondola is way to move visitors quickly around the zoo grounds without disturbing the habitat beneath them. For Howard Terminal the gondola would fly over the decidedly urban jungle of city streets and a busy freeway, a habitat that openly invites visitor participation. Over at The Athletic, Steve Berman and Alex Coffey briefly examine the gondola with UC Berkeley’s Ethan Elkind. In the EIR, the gondola is on the CEQA procedural back burner (Chapter 5: Project Variants) because it would require its own land acquisitions and thus make it worthy of its own separate project analysis. That’s a bit of a cop out for something that was pitched as a sort of magic bullet. The reality is that it’s not, and the measures the A’s are proposing amount to chipping away at the last mile problem at HT.

Without a magic bullet, what’s a key solution? Quad gates. QUAD GATES??? For now, yes. Absent a vehicular bridge that would take Market Street car traffic – including emergency vehicles – over the heavily used UPRR line, the A’s propose to install automated quad gates, a beefed up version of what you typically see at a railroad crossing. The chief advantage of quad gates is that it should minimize opportunities for cars to try to get around the gates, which should in turn minimize chances for cars to get stuck on the tracks. Also in the proposal is fencing along the Embarcadero, much like the fencing available outside the existing Jack London Square Amtrak station.

Quad gates at railroad crossings are one of the mitigation steps (image from CAHSR)

In studying these mitigation steps, the EIR looks at traffic counts and interactions along the Embarcadero. While a handful of accidents are documented, it’s remains surprising how the A’s chose to focus their mitigation measures. You see, mitigation usually involves building infrastructure (very expensive) to avoid those interactions or creating barriers (not as expensive or effective) to prevent them, often both in tandem as needed. The A’s are choosing to go heavily with the latter by effectively creating a 1/2-mile bubble around Howard Terminal to exclude vehicular (and some pedestrian/bicycle) traffic. Cars in the area during events would be mostly limited to players and team officials, residents, and office workers of the new development. Gameday event traffic would be prevented from entering this bubble, especially A’s fans hunting for nearby parking or TNCs like Uber and Lyft. This is all done in an effort to appease Union Pacific and satisfy Federal Railroad Administration requirements.

Dotted oval represents car-exclusionary* bubble

A similar strategy was employed by the City of San Jose when the Diridon ballpark EIR was written with one major difference, the presence of an expanded transit hub that would include Caltrain, VTA light rail, and eventually, BART. Of course, that’s now water under the bridge and Google, not the A’s, is taking the arrows for the current project there.

Will the strategy withstand scrutiny? It might, but it will have to get more concrete if it’s going to pass muster. The 45-day comment period, which started when the Draft EIR was released, opened the window to what will assuredly be a lengthy negotiation between stakeholders. Speaking of some of those stakeholders:

So far the private interests at the Port and the A’s are negotiating by lawsuits against the state acting as proxy battles instead of trying to hammer out working agreements. Perhaps if UPRR, Schnitzer Steel, and the trucking companies see their lawsuits going nowhere fast they will more quickly come to the table, which is an outcome that the A’s would love. However, I suspect that the piecemeal mitigation measures are not going to be satisfactory for the Port interests, and that will come out in the comments and lawsuits to follow.

What will they be fighting over? Some of the conclusions in the report declare that impacts are significant and unavoidable. They mostly center around the rail crossing on the Embarcadero. There is a plan for a pedestrian/bicycle bridge at Jefferson or MLK that would connect the ballpark and development to the transportation hub. Beyond that, all crossings in the immediate area will be done at grade. As we’ve discussed previously, that invites danger.

Are these issues showstoppers? As usual, it depends on who you ask.

In the next installment, we’ll cover the transportation hub, its projected efficacy, and the methodology of this EIR.

Eye Candy: New Howard Terminal Renderings

The Transportation-oriented post will come later this week. I assure you, you won’t be disappointed (by the post, at least).

For now, I’m afraid we have to feed the beast. You see friends, when a team releases renderings or the rare instances when a city releases an EIR, there’s always a surge of new info. Included in that dump are always new renderings. So let’s take a quick look at these and see what’s changed.

The first look is the one that’s probably getting the most attention. Unlike the previous renderings, the two-sided centerfield scoreboard is now gone, placed under the roof in the left field corner and apparently expanded. The roof slopes down from both left (long) and right (short) to a plaza in right field, which should allow for the installation of a normal batter’s eye instead of the “garage door” vision in center. Most of the other stadium details are the same. The transformation effectively takes the roof deck and rotates it 30 degrees clockwise while the second and field levels remain intact. As this is 40-55 acres we’re talking about, the park dimensions should remain fairly normal and shouldn’t be hemmed in by lot constraints. The club/press box area behind the plate stays where it is, creating an asymmetry when viewed from inside the bowl.

New view from the opening in right (not center) field

I imagine that some of the feedback was from fans who didn’t want to be sequestered in the upper deck if they had a low-cost ticket or pass. Moving the plaza to right field provides a new viewing area with a mild amount of terracing made necessary by dealing with sea level rise. It’s a good compromise, though the idea of a bustling area running from centerfield to Jack London Square is no longer a given thanks to the modified fan traffic flow. Naturally, there aren’t many seats in right field anymore. It’s unclear where the RF bleacher crew would be relocated. Keep in mind that this ballpark will have 15-20,000 fewer seats than the Coliseum, so relocations are inevitable.

Overhead view gives a better look at the scoreboard

I can’t tell what those smaller disc-shaped things are on the roof deck. Concession stands? Cabanas?

While RF is reduced, LF is expanded. Will lower LF be a premium section as seen in most new ballparks? Or a traditional general admission bleacher-type section? Perhaps RF is the bone thrown to the cheap seat fans: Yes, you can sit or stand here with your flags, but you will be further away from the action. Cost of doing business, sorry.

There’s still a bunch of high-rise buildings behind (to the west) of the stadium. The A’s remain committed to creating a buffer between that residential/commercial district and Schnitzer Steel, which recently went through its own drama. I still think of a hypothetical sales pitch in one of the high rises:

SALES GUY: So you’d like to check out one of our units?

PROSPECTIVE BUYER/TENANT: Yes, one with a view of the ballpark.

SG: Oh, sorry, those were all reserved in the first phase. Would you like to look at a unit on the other side facing west? It has great views of Alameda and San Francisco

PB/T: Doesn’t that face the scrap metal recycling facility?

SG: It sure does. Just pick a unit high up and don’t look down from the balcony. But if you do, there’s a nice grove of trees to act as a buffer.

PB/T: A buffer from what?

SG: Oh, nothing.

PB/T: Where do I sign?

Lush roof deck conceived by James Corner Field Operations

Do you know of luxury housing that’s a deep fly ball away from a recycling plant? Because I would love to know about it.

There’s more to discuss in the coming days. Besides transportation, I’ll cover the façade, the theater component, and site cleanup.

Until then, watch Brodie Brazil’s “tour” of the renderings.

Howard Terminal EIR Preview

TRANSPORTATION

That’s it. That’s my focus to start. Transportation will make or break this project. I’m referring to bridging the gap between the Howard Terminal site and BART. I’m also referring to the truck and train traffic adjacent to the site. Both have to be addressed in equal measure.

My favorite of the original renderings suggests a bustling metropolis with nary a mention of the industrial neighborhood immediately to the west

The scope of issues addressed by the CEQA has expanded over the years, so there will be other items to pick through. I’ll look at the summary first, then dive in to specific areas as I see fit. While I mentioned the importance of transportation, the methodology is not expected to use the same eye-glazing traffic count charts you may have seen in the past. You can thank technology for that.

For a more fulsome preview, read The Athletic’s write-up by Alex Coffey and Steve Berman. Good stuff in there.

My one lingering question heading into the Draft EIR reading: What exactly caused the project to qualify for streamlining now as opposed to a year ago or in 2019? (Please don’t say COVID, because this was in play well before COVID struck.) Maybe we’ll get that explanation shortly. To those who are as eager as I am to read through the report and appendices, happy spelunking!

Judge’s ruling provides glimmer of hope for Howard Terminal

Yesterday, the Merc’s A’s beat scribe Shayna Rubin reported on some important legal news: Judge Noel Wise of Alameda County Superior Court threw out the case levied by a coalition of shipping and trucking interests and Schnitzer Steel against the Howard Terminal project. Judge Wise opined:

“…It would be a perverse outcome if the Howard Terminal Project could not advance pursuant to a valid and operable statute because that statute includes a reference to the potential application of the guidelines for another statute that is no longer in effect.”

The judge hinted she might rule in this direction towards last month, and the ruling follows suit. Judge Wise effectively said that because Howard Terminal was passed under the auspices of AB 734, it was not subject to the deadline specified by AB 900, which expired at the end of 2019. Not meeting the deadline was the crux of the lawsuit.

So, full steam ahead, then? Not so fast.

The first step will be the release of the oft-delayed and long overdue EIR Draft, hopefully in the next few weeks. The point of AB 734 was to allow for fast tracking of the CEQA process, allowing approved projects to settle legal challenges in no more than 270 days. That period would be concurrent with the actual EIR approval process, which legally should take 45-60 days but in large project reality never does. Both the A’s and opponents are getting ready to file responses to the Draft, which will be long and likely tedious, albeit necessary.

A’s President Dave Kaval admitted that the A’s timeline for the project has slipped:

“How far it slipped, I can’t answer that. I don’t know yet. It depends on if the city can even get this to a vote this year. It depends on the other priorities the city council might have.”

It also depends on how the numbers work out for the A’s. The pandemic took the wind out of the economy in multiple ways. There’s a lot of uncertainty moving forward about how the commercial real estate aspects of the Howard Terminal plan pencil out. Who’s not hurting? The shipping industry, which has been going gangbusters since the pandemic unleashed this perverse economic transformation.

If their interest is in the status quo, it’s in the best interest of the shipping industry to use that entire 270 days. It’s my sincere hope that they don’t. I would rather all the parties hash out a working agreement like all businesses, government, and community groups can and do. Can the Port of Oakland force the opponents to the table? Or will the opponents continue to lawyer up and let the chips fall where they may?

Not to be lost in this is a $4.1 million settlement worked out last week by California’s DTSC (Department of Toxic Substances Control) and Schnitzer Steel. Schnitzer has been the proxy for the shipping interests all this time, though it was caught up in its own legal wrangling over the numerous fires that spewed toxic black smoke around West and Downtown Oakland. The settlement has a few knock-on effects. Does the settlement and the prescribed remedies help or shield Schnitzer in the A’s lawsuit against the DTSC? That might be for yet another court to decide. Do the A’s try to partner with Schnitzer to enhance the remedies? To me that would seem like the best case scenario, though it would also require an acknowledgment that both can co-exist as neighbors.

The A’s filed their initial development application for Howard Terminal in November 2018, after six months of lobbying and legislation paved the way for it. Kaval is right in that the City Council shouldn’t be expected to vote on this project in 2021 with far more pressing issues on the table. It would be nice to see, however.

New timeline (8/1)
A revision is in order

Unlike early 2019, when there was an all-out PR and media assault to sell the project, there won’t be quite the same effort in early 2021. Any momentum for Howard Terminal has to be built up again over time with a more clear-eyed vision (and less confusion over the details). I know Kaval has the stomach for that battle.

Does John Fisher? 🧐

P.S. – In an addendum to Rubin’s original story, the port interests are – guess what? – lawyering up. See you in Appellate Court.

P.P.S. – Kaval celebrates Governor Newsom’s certification of the project streamlining, which is not the same as certifying the full EIR (that comes later).

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.

Howard Terminal EIR maybe in early ’21

Sometime before Thanksgiving, I reached out to Peterson Vollman, the City of Oakland’s planner overseeing the Howard Terminal ballpark project. I asked if there were any updates on the project. Vollman’s response:

We are anticipating publishing the DEIR in Q1 of 2021 pending AB734 Certification by the Governor.

Just so we’re clear, that’s the first quarter of 2021 for the Draft version of the document, pending the certification through AB734.

Anyway, those of you still on the HT bandwagon have the patience of saints.

Thankgiving also happened to be my birthday. Somehow I managed to get presents, including this:

Coliseum pint glass
Pint glass from @welltolddesign

I would like to carry this pint glass everywhere I go, thank you very much.

A’s sue California DTSC over Schnitzer Steel

Quick version:

Need more? Okay.

The A’s filed a lawsuit against the State of California, claiming that the State didn’t enforce 2018 environmental regulations meant to keep metal recycling facilities like Schnitzer Steel from accidentally starting fires. A website, SchnitzerWatch.org, was set up by the A’s, along with a change.org petition which has around 1,200 signees as of 8/5 @ 10 PM. The petition also has a number of donations, which is good for the A’s legal fees supporting this effort. Considering that they already list two law firms and may have more on retainer, they’ll be making withdrawals quite frequently.

Additionally on my tweet, is a reference the March lawsuit brought by coalition of Port companiesalso against the State, over Howard Terminal. That lawsuit was about the CEQA streamlining the A’s were seeking, and whether the A’s got certification by January 1, 2020 (they didn’t).

If you’re keeping score, both the A’s and Port interests are not suing each other, but rather the State of California (DTSC and SLC, respectively) over those agencies’ treatment of the offending parties (Schnitzer and A’s, respectively). So in both cases, the complainants are snitching. This doesn’t mean these lawsuits automatically cancel each other out. There may be a way to come to an agreement, but considering how both sides have had six years and nothing’s happened yet, I wouldn’t hold my breath. It’s much more likely that both will go to court in separate cases, whenever it’s safe to add those cases to the dockets and hear them. It’s also worth nothing that the A’s only role in the area is as a lessee of office space at Jack London Square. They don’t own any property yet, unlike Schnitzer.

On Sunday night, I wrote about the timeline slippage for Howard Terminal the A’s published over the weekend. Fast forward to Wednesday, the A’s file the lawsuit, and President Dave Kaval makes the media rounds.

Deeper in Kaval’s tweet thread is an interesting nugget:

Caught up in all the talk about helping West Oakland, Kaval says, “We’ll fight this fight regardless of what happens with the ballpark.”

And right there, the A’s created an escape hatch for themselves. If this fight becomes too difficult, they could abandon Howard Terminal, retreat back to the Coliseum (which they may entirely own in a few months), and pledge to clean up Schnitzer for the sake of West Oakland. Maybe those change.org donations will go towards an environmental fund, who knows?

On the other hand, let’s posit that the A’s take this all the way in court. What are the A’s asking for?

When Schnitzer accepts old cars or appliances to scrap, those hunks of metal are often contaminated. Those contaminants (oil, chemicals, rubber) aren’t easily cleaned away, and some may turn into lighter fluid for scrap metal fires. From skimming both the complaint summary and DTSC’s explainer of the metal shredding process, there aren’t many good alternatives. And if you look at the news, it’s a pretty widespread problem, one not yet solved with technology. A similar metal recycling facility in Chicago was closed in May after a series of fires, controversially reopening yesterday. For the benefit of West Oakland residents, it would be best to copy the operating model of another facility that functions without causing fires. A City of Chicago document outlines one method of storing the scrap indoors in a fireproof enclosure, which sounds like a good idea for Howard Terminal (Note 8/6 11:30 AM: At least one West Oakland activist agrees). Is anyone proposing that? Would that be enough? I’m as much an environmental expert as I am a lawyer, so I can’t speak with any more clarity on the efficacy of that method.

Schnitzer Steel can’t keep skating beyond well-expired deadlines. Neither can the A’s with theirs. In both cases, companies are going to have to make significant investments to prove their worthiness. If they don’t, they’re not doing West Oakland or the entire City of Oakland any good. All this posturing we’re hearing from both sides is just a way to delay making those investments.

Finally, there’s an unusual footnote to this whole affair. Today’s lawsuit by the A’s was brought by the law firm Keker Van Nest & Peters. March’s lawsuit filed by PMSA/Schnitzer was brought by Pillsbury. You may remember that both firms helped the Giants fight off the City of San Jose’s territorial rights challenge. Now they’re effectively on opposite sides: Pillsbury reps the Port interests while Keker is working for the A’s. Even in these pandemic times, life is good when you’re on a retainer.

Spiderman pointing meme

Added at sierraspartan’s suggestion

P.S. – Almost forgot, the Schnitzer Watch site has no A’s branding on it, even though the A’s filed the lawsuit. Why? Who knows?

Pushback causes Howard Terminal to get pushed back

Saturday morning is not normally I time to check sites for updates. However, it was August 1, so there was a small chance of seeing something new. If you checked the A’s We Are Rooted site for Howard Terminal over the past several months, you were greeted with this graphic:

Old timeline

By June, it was becoming embarrassingly obvious that this graphic would need to be updated. So I sent out a tweet asking Dave Kaval for it. Ask and ye shall receive, as they say:

New timeline (8/1)

The differences? First of all, there’s no groundbreaking date in 2021 or 2023 Opening Day. In fact, neither is promised at all. What we’re left with are dual Oakland City Council and Port of Oakland votes a year from now, which at this point looks and sounds like a rapidly deflating balloon.

Second, the Draft EIR period is being undersold, as usual. That’s the period when opponents normally launch lawsuits against projects. The problem now is two-fold. While the A’s spent a lot of time and lobbying money trying to line up bills to streamline Howard Terminal through the CEQA process, the project is currently stuck in legal limbo while the state tries to figure out if the A’s successfully applied by the end-of-2019 deadline. It’s bad enough that there’s a protracted battle over the streamlining issue, where the A’s consultants keep submitting addenda to support the project while opponents file letters claiming that the project isn’t eligible.

Excerpt

Excerpt from Port companies letter against project (highlight mine)

Here’s the thing. I didn’t even want to write this post. When the sh*t hit the fan in March, I felt it would be best to let the dust settle and resume coverage when the EIR is released. Reasonable plan, right? Well, you know what they say about best-laid plans. Kaval says the EIR should be published by September. Which sounds okay, except that’s already a year delay from what was promised previously. At this point, we don’t really know when the document will be released. If past is prologue, I have to put the likelihood that we’ll see the draft version at 50/50.

Sadly, that’s all too typical of A’s ballpark projects since I started this blog 15 years ago. The EIR process, which for most people sounds like a tediously boring bureaucratic step, became a crucial gating mechanism for the viability of big projects. Last week, I tried to recall all of the sites beyond the Coliseum that the A’s have studied so far.

  1. Coliseum North (2006, no draft or final EIR)
  2. Pacific Commons (2008, no draft or final EIR)
  3. Warm Springs (2009, no draft or final EIR)
  4. San Jose (2010, EIR certified by City – who also was applicant)
  5. Laney/Peralta (2017, no draft or final EIR)
  6. Howard Terminal (2018, waiting for draft)

It doesn’t end with the draft, though. Publishing the draft kicks off the review and comment process, which opponents are already throwing a wrench into with their pre-emptive lawsuit. The 45-day comment period is a minimum guideline and tends to get drawn out as comments pile up and staff has to write responses or even make major or wholesale changes to the project.

This is why I cautioned so many readers and A’s fans against jumping on the HT bandwagon too eagerly. It, like most of the other past initiatives, is rife with conflict and litigious opponents. For now, I’ll continue to stay the course, hoping that the draft EIR is released and we’ll have something cool to talk about. Perhaps I’m asking too much. I’ll end with my favorite John Wooden quote:

Never mistake activity for achievement.

P.S. – When I first referred to the changed timelines yesterday, I got the usual blowback from HT fans who for some reason cannot comprehend why I’m not on the bandwagon. If those people can’t understand why from reading the post above, I can’t help them. Sorry, folks. Hope is not a strategy.