New Howard Terminal Renderings from the BCDC 10/7 Design Board Meeting

The BCDC held its first public meeting about the Howard Terminal project on Monday night. Download the report and the exhibits addendum with all the lovely renderings for more details. Among the details was the description of what the A’s are planning to build. There’s a lot to cover, so in this post I’ll focus only one a couple of items. I’ll cover the rest of the interesting stuff in the coming days.

Before we get started, I’ll quote a few paragraphs from the report.

Baseball Park Development (Exhibits 11-17, 22-34)

For the purposes of organization in this staff report, the Baseball Park Development section considers all development east of Market Street which includes the ballpark, Athletics Way promenade, the development parcels surrounding the ballpark, Stomper Plaza, and the waterfront parks adjacent to the stadium.

The ballpark, with capacity for approximately 35,000 people, is proposed as an open-air bowl-shaped design. The ballpark includes a rooftop park that would reach an approximate elevation of +127’ NAVD881 and slope down to meet Water Street, along which home plate and the scoreboard are aligned. The ballpark seats are arranged in a configuration that creates a compact urban stadium footprint, with additional seating available on the rooftop park. The current proposal sets the field at approximately elevation +10.8’, which is about 3 feet below the existing grade of Water Street.

Athletics Way

Athletics Way is a proposed approximately 60-foot-wide 4.7-acre raised promenade with at-grade connections at Water Street that wraps around the ballpark. The promenade would serve as a public pathway and retail street for neighboring residents and visitors to the waterfront. The promenade would rise to elevation +34.8’, allowing for ballpark operational facilities to be tucked underneath the grade of Athletics Way. On gamedays and event days, the promenade would function as the stadium concourse and would be limited to ticketholders only.

One of the big reveals is the location of free viewing area beyond the right field power alley. In the diagram below, it’s where the green and orange areas intersect.

Game-Day Security Zone (with upper right inset of view from right field free area)

The feature is much like the free promenade area open for Giants games, except it’s not hemmed in by the water. At Oracle Park the policy is to limit fans to three innings in order to rotate through lines. The ballpark at Howard Terminal is symmetrical, so there is a similar area in left field. I would expect that to be utilized as a group picnic area.

Okay, now the good stuff.  I’ll make some observations as we go (click on each picture for a larger version). Focus on the scoreboard in the rendering below. Stay focused on the scoreboard as the perspective and viewing distance changes in the following renderings. And note how high the roof deck is. According to the report, the roof’s elevation is 127 feet. The field sits at nearly 11 feet, making the difference from field to top 116 feet. That’s taller than any part of the original seating bowl, and would land somewhere on the upper deck of Mount Davis. Again, look at the scoreboard. Then look at the gap between the roof and the seating bowl beneath it.

Rickey Plaza

It’ll be a trek to get to the apex of this ballpark. Multiple portals will allow fans to enter and exit the roof deck to shorten the journey. The portals will not be open on non-event days, otherwise it becomes a free-for-all. That leads to the best rooftop perch in the house, right behind home plate. Note the scoreboard and the batter’s eye. Looks far away, doesn’t it?

View from the Homeplate Terraces

BIG previously said that rim of the roof deck facing the field would be terraced, though not to the extent that there will be a large seating tier. Unless you need a wheelchair space or companion seat, it looks like you’ll have to stand. Considering how high up it is, that’s just as well. At least you can see in the image above a rail. You know how when you go to the upper deck during a typical A’s game there are always ushers to keep fans from loitering too close to the edge? Thankfully, there will be clear glass to prevent the pictured munchkin from plummeting. Assuming that’s how future A’s Access fans will be accommodated, there will surely be numerous opportunities to upgrade (not for free) to the good seats, on whatever basis their wallets can handle.

Rooftop Park

Back to the scoreboard. It’s slightly more visible because the new view looks further down the third base line. One consistent thing you’ll notice in all these images is how low the scoreboard is. Even the very first rendering has the scoreboard just above the batter’s eye. That’s more for the benefit of the folks in the seats as opposed to those on the roof. The roof is conceived in a way that will push most fans to the rim. Some of those fans will be 116 feet up. Others towards the foul poles will be lower, and the roof terraces will be placed lower as the roof descends to the field. I worry, though, that fans on the roof who don’t camp out early for a nice spot at the edge will have pretty bad or practically no views of the game.

Homeplate Hill

Consider this image, on a hill behind home plate. Not only can you not see home plate, you can barely see the scoreboard. Yet it’s named Homeplate Hill, a rather ironic choice. That brings me to my chief misgiving about this ballpark concept. I get that incorporating a park into a roof can create some fantastic views. However, those views do very little for baseball fans. Baseball historically doesn’t have steeply terraced stands as is commonly done in hockey and soccer. Eyes tend to drift from the normal pitcher-batter confrontation to action elsewhere. But this might be a step too far. This works great as a park. It might curry enough favor from community and civic advocates to win the day. Yet it comes at a cost. According to the plan, a sold out ballpark will have 10,000 people on this roof, up to 116 feet above the action. When they scream and chant, the roar will extend out into the estuary and towards downtown, not at the players. Maybe the idea is to have the 27,000 in the seats create most of the noise. If so, they might want to consider piping in some crowd noise to make up the difference. Oakland has been home to numerous experiments in ticket pricing and marketing, many of them unsuccessful. A’s Access? Successful so far. PSL’s? A miserable failure. I’m afraid that this ballpark plan exemplifies the wealth gap… with an actual gap.

City of Oakland gets Temporary Restraining Order against A’s-Coliseum sale

Original Coliseum pamphlet provided by Peerless Coffee’s George Vukasin, Jr.

Do you remember the name Egbert Perry?

No?

Perry was the money-partner with Ronnie Lott for a short-lived 2016 offer to buy the Coliseum complex, including both the stadium and arena, plus the additional parcels purchased extending to Hegenberger. Then just like that, the City of Oakland nixed the offer. Vegas interests and the Nevada continued to work with the Raiders on site plans for the football franchise’s move, and the Raiders have been running out the clock in Oakland ever since.

The A’s weren’t part of the Lott-Perry plan, which may have spurred the City’s decision. The offer was for $167.3 million and was made prior to a reappraisal of the complex, completed later in 2016. It was that appraisal that provides the basis for the A’s offer on the Coliseum property, a half-interest (Alameda County) for $85 million. Do the math to buy out the City’s share, and you have $170 million, remarkably close to the old appraisal. A mere two weeks after the offer was made, the offer was retracted and Perry was out after a purported double-cross.

Previously, Floyd Kephart’s New City group offered $116 million in 2015. That also didn’t get far. Which makes the news that the City is suing the County over the sale of the County’s half-interest of the Coliseum land not surprising in the least. Let’s be honest about this. Modern politics in Oakland has been shaped – for the worse – by frequent, almost constant litigation. It’s practically the only way the City knows how to operate. As reported by the Chronicle’s Phil Matier:

The suit took on added significance Tuesday when Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch issued a temporary restraining order on the sale and set a Nov. 14 hearing on the lawsuit.

“We were very close. This will put a chilling effect on us being able to close the deal,” Kaval said following the judge’s order.

A’s CEO Dave Kaval expressed shock at the lawsuit. In his professional and personal time in the Bay Area, he surely learned some local political history, especially about Oakland and California as a whole. Kaval is the last person that should be surprised by this. Kaval (and John Fisher) were shocked by the Peralta blowback. You’d think they would’ve braced themselves for City-County political tensions. After all, Oakland and Alameda County spent the better part of the last 40 years mired in tensions. Everything you see, from the original Coliseum to Mount Davis, is a product of those tensions, along with the truly unquenchable thirst for pro sports that keeps being displayed.

Now that the A’s (and MLB) have Oakland to themselves, they can start squeezing. So it was on the day of the AL Wild Card game that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred started the squeeze. I opined at the time that I didn’t expect him to start this early. Manfred, via the Chronicle’s Susan Slusser:

“I made it clear that it’s time for the city of Oakland to show concrete progress on the stadium effort,” Manfred said. “It’s gone on too long, and things need to fall into place to get a new stadium here. The fans here, as demonstrated by the 55,000 here tonight, are great fans and deserve a major-league quality facility.”

We’ve seen this movie before. If the City folds on the lawsuit, Manfred will back sometime in February to praise City leaders for “coming to their senses.” If the City keeps on, we’ll start hearing louder murmurs about Portland. Or Nashville, Charlotte, Las Vegas, or maybe Salt Lake City or Sacramento. Probably not San Jose, as that ship has sailed. But don’t put it past Manfred to tighten the squeeze on Oakland, even if MLB’s apparent leverage is debatable. I wouldn’t discount the concept of Manfred taking over negotiations from Kaval and Fisher, using a team of negotiators to do the dirty work. Or Manfred could go the same route as he did with the Rays. In that case he started by granting the ability for the Rays to look at the City of Tampa/Hillsborough County. That resulted in the Ybor City domed ballpark plan, unveiled in June 2018 and dead by the end of the year. That was followed by the announcement of a potential split season situation, half in St. Petersburg and the other half in Montreal. Montreal backer Stephen Bronfman even showed up in Oakland last night, the better to get the Tampa denizens thinking.

Here’s the tough part. Oakland has barely stepped onto the legal battlefield. The EIR is supposed to be released before the end of this month, and that will bring its own lawsuit. Whether it’s from port operators, transportation companies, or Schnitzer Steel – or all three – it’s almost guaranteed to tie things up. Fortunately, the exemption the A’s lobbied for in Sacramento limits lawsuits to 270 days prior to certification. From the perspective of the A’s, it makes sense for them to prepare for that particular legal onslaught.

But the City getting on the same page with the County? They probably figured they had that in the bag. In May 2018, I saw a lot of remarks about how so many key figures were in the same room singing praises of the A’s plans.

The problems, as I pointed out back then, relate to the complexity of the projects. That’s right, projects – plural. As you know by now, there is the Howard Terminal part, the actual ballpark, located on the waterfront near Jack London Square. Then there’s the Coliseum, which will keep its arena (if anyone can afford to run it) and an amphitheater where the old stadium currently stands. Around that redone complex are a sizable urban park, commercial and residential development, plus some additional community facilities. It’s a way to throw a bone to East Oakland for leaving.

The plans also provide for some amount of affordable housing to be built and either or both locations. Just how much is the big topic of negotiation, as City Council President Rebecca Kaplan cited the state’s Surplus Lands Act in trying to put the kibosh on the sale. The main issue is the percentage and number of affordable housing units to be built:

…if the disposed land will be used for residential development, at least 25% of the total number of units in the development must have rents or sale prices that are affordable for persons and families of low- or moderate-income.

Of course, over the post-recession period, the Bay Area has been plagued by an inability to build affordable housing. Call it a perfect storm of rising construction costs, the ridiculous never-ending seller’s market, and the loss of decades-long affordable housing subsidies when former governor Jerry Brown killed redevelopment. There are perfectly reasonable arguments to be made on both sides of the debate. From the City’s angle, surplus land is an extremely limited resource that shouldn’t be handed out without a competitive bidding process. For developers including the A’s, having to bake in an allowance to accommodate a greater amount of affordable housing will undoubtedly cut into the profitability of the project. In the A’s case, it could impact the feasibility of both projects, though the A’s launched their own PR offensive to counter such notions.

Thing is, the A’s haven’t done a very good job of explaining how the two projects aren’t connected. They did a media tour of Howard Terminal a couple weeks to reaffirm their stance. From reading the Community Engagement document available at the A’s Ballpark site, the two efforts appear to be directly related, if not joined at the hip. That’s a tough position to be in, because once you decouple the two projects, it’s easier to argue that one doesn’t need the other.

The explanation is not that difficult. If the A’s are approved to build at Howard Terminal, they plan to build the ballpark in the first phase, hoping for a 2023 Opening Day. The ancillary development at Howard Terminal, whatever form it takes, will take place after the ballpark opens and will take perhaps decades to complete. That makes the A’s ballpark village next to Jack London Square part of the long tail. Meanwhile, the Coliseum is already approved for some 3,000 housing units right now. That makes the Coliseum a sort of bridge financing for the ballpark. Fisher and Lew Wolff employed this to success at the separate Avaya Stadium and iStar developments in San Jose, the latter helping the finance the former. What’s being attempted in Oakland is the same thing on steroids, except for one big difference. iStar, located in South San Jose near where IBM built the first disc drive, was largely undeveloped in its previous form. To date, Avaya Stadium is in its fourth year of operation near SJC Airport after breaking ground in 2012. Some commercial and residential development has been done at the iStar site, though we’re coming to the end of 2019 and not one single-family home has been completed. In San Jose, they built a stadium and a separate subdivision on separate parcels miles apart. In Oakland, they want to do something similar, except that they’ll move the sports-related jobs from the Coliseum to Howard Terminal in the process.

The sales pitch for the Avaya Stadium/iStar package didn’t arouse much debate in San Jose. The stadium was set to replace a former military vehicle manufacturing plant. San Jose’s historic sprawl had plenty of room for 25 acres of new housing, especially after the recession brought construction to a halt. Ten years later, the housing crunch is far more acute, reaching every part of the Bay Area. Collectively, local governments did a poor job of planning to add to the housing stock, including forecasting and accommodating affordable housing. If Oakland officials want to take nearly 200 acres in two high-profile locations and hand it to the A’s to finish the job, they and the A’s should prepare themselves for the lengthy debate to follow. Manfred, who played the nice guy until Wednesday, now gets to play the heavy.

P.S. – Please don’t tell me how no developers want any part of East Oakland. Besides the A’s interest, the JPA had two unsolicited bids for the land in 2018, Tesla and a group trying to build a soccer complex and stadium at the complex. What developers want is Bay Area land for relatively cheap. Interest from previous developers for Coliseum City, the 2018 bids, and the eventual exclusive negotiating agreements for the A’s shows how much people want to take advantage of the Coliseum. It doesn’t hurt that the land has freeways and a transit hub right next to it. East Oakland has no potential? Perhaps if you’re stuck with a 1968 mindset.

P.P.S. – Read J.K. Dineen’s piece in the Chronicle for an extensive description of one property owner’s CEQA-related shakedown and how it affected both San Francisco and Oakland. Then take a look at that Community Engagement document and try to understand what kinds of partnerships are being forged, and what remains to make a similar one with the City. Keeping any sports team in Oakland is/was going to cost something. The City is thankfully over direct subsidies, but the ambitious nature of these two projects has me thinking that the final price tag will approach eleven figures including cleanup, community commitments, and new infrastructure. That might be what it takes. No one is publicly talking about costs yet. That’s what truly concerns me.

P.P.P.S. – None of the oft-mentioned relocation candidates deserve more than a cursory look unless they approve or start building a major league-ready ballpark. These days that might mean 30,000 seats or less. It probably also means those 30,000 seats will be quite swanky with pricing and amenities to match. The new AAA parks in Las Vegas and Nashville are exactly as advertised – nice AAA parks. They’re not meant to handle MLB crowds temporarily given the greater requirements these days. If someone wants to ink a deal with Henderson, Nevada for a billion-dollar domed ballpark 10 miles from the Strip, good luck.

Oakland Coliseum Complex: The Admirable Failure

I have two copies of Paul Goldberger’s recent book Ballpark: Baseball in the American City in my possession. One is a hard copy, the other a Kindle version. The book goes through the history of ballparks, from before baseball was properly organized in the late 19th century through the pre- and post-war periods to the under construction Globe Life Field and the planned Howard Terminal ballpark.

In chapter 7 (“Leaving the City”), Goldberger makes the following observations about Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, built in boom year of 1950:

Memorial functioned reasonably well for baseball despite its football-like appearance. Reportedly football fans in Baltimore believed the stadium’s layout  favored baseball, which further underscores the paradox most devoted of the multi-purpose stadium: it is never ideal for any sport, and the most devoted fans of one sport, frustrated by the facility’s shortcomings, are likely to think that the design favors the needs of another sport over their own.

A couple weeks ago, the Coliseum underwent its final football-to-baseball conversion, marked by numerous comments about how baseball has it better there. This sentiment was echoed most vociferously by former Seahawk and Cal Bear running back Justin Forsett, who said:

The last Raiders game planned at the Coliseum on December 15, followed by the intense construction period that has marked the last two winters in which baseball or fan-related improvements are installed within the stadium bowl. There isn’t much need to change the field, though the rumor of moving the bullpens is still out there. A Monster Jam event will be held in mid-February, followed by the ritual of resodding of the grass at the Coli.

The Coliseum uses stadium technology that mostly dates back to the 60’s and it shows. Whether we’re talking about the low overhangs, the lack of functioning elevators or escalators, or the notches in the lower seating bowl, the Coliseum stands as a mid-century marvel, though it clear isn’t fetishized like an Eichler. The field remains below sea level, plagued by a poor drainage situation (a game during the last homestead was delayed at the start due to standing water). It’s not a field designed to wick away a foot of rain in an hour. It is, at its essence, playable in ideal conditions. And it has held up despite being replaced twice a year, trampled by 300-pound men and construction equipment, even families on fireworks nights or the occasional concert crowd.

Newer stadia with grass fields have done a better job of obscuring the dirt infield with temporary sod. Artificial turf looks more like real grass with each passing generation. Innovation will continue to leave the Coliseum in the dust, and whether the A’s move to Howard Terminal or a new stadium next door, there’s little reason to consider revamping the grass field when it’s doing fine with routine maintenance. It should do even better without the frequent football changeovers, harkening back to the pre-1995 Haas era of baseball prominence.

From behind the backstop earlier this season

In hindsight, it makes me wonder about the role of the multi-purpose stadium in American sports history. Goldberger devotes two chapters to the phenomenon, starting with Cleveland Stadium in the 30’s and taking the reader through the cookie cutter era and the last purpose-built multi-purpose stadium, SkyDome/Rogers Centre. Was it a necessary step to accommodate a growing pro sports industry and economy? How much did suburbanization and car culture impact stadium development? Most of these stadia got the wrecking ball and with it were relegated to the dustbin of history. Yet while the old cookie cutters were around, how truly bad were they? The most favorable thing often said about these venues was that they were serviceable. Cities tried to concentrate all of the major sports activity in one place or complex. Kansas City, South Philly, and the Coliseum remain examples. But Kansas City recognized the benefit of separate stadia long ago, after the A’s left for Oakland. Philly decided to ditch the old Vet and build separate football and baseball stadia in the same complex. Pittsburgh followed the same path with Three Rivers, as did Cincinnati with Riverfront.

Yes, there is an impressive list of ballparks built during the 20-year HOK era that are shining examples of bringing baseball back downtown: Camden Yards, Progressive Field, Coors Field, T-Mobile Park, Oracle Park, PNC Park, and Petco Park. Oakland remains thirsty for its own urban transformation, while Kansas City continues to flirt with moving the Royals downtown. Bringing a team downtown is no magic bullet, as the Pirates remain woefully small market and the Reds’ Great American Ball Park is ho-hum at best.

The recent trend of building more ballparks in urban areas was followed by a mini shift towards revisiting suburbanization, as practiced in Arlington and Miami. On that trend’s heels is the neighborhood-ization of the ballpark, which the A’s dabbled in a decade ago. This approach tries to create a great sense of place around a ballpark, while providing a large palette of different types of ancillary development to help pay for the venue itself. Globe Life Field (successor to Globe Life Park) will have an adjacent village. The Angels continue to negotiate development rights to the area surrounding their home in Anaheim. The days of a stadium surrounded by a sea of parking are waning, though this is more prevalent in baseball as opposed to football. Cubs ownership owns much of the real estate surrounding Wrigley Field, and the Giants are soon to start their commercial development on the parking lots to the south of Oracle Park.

While the Rangers will move to a similarly named ballpark next door in a few months, the “old” Globe Life Park will remain a functioning venue. An XFL franchise will start play there next spring. GLP will be reconfigured to house football as such:

XFL configuration at Globe Life Park

Remember that pro sports in Arlington started with an expanded Texas League park named Turnpike Stadium over 50 years ago. Once expanded, Arlington Stadium barely qualified as sufficient for the major leagues. When George W. Bush became Rangers owner in the early 90’s, he helped engineer the deal that resulted in GLP. The City of Arlington’s extremely sports- and business-friendly environment eventually attracted Jerry Jones, who abandoned Texas Stadium in Irving for JerryWorld, within spitting distance of the ballpark. Now that Globe Life Field will open in 2020, there will be three venues mere walking distance from each other, two with retractable roofs (one huge, one medium-sized), the third without a roof but okay for hosting events outside of the summer months. That isn’t so much a complex as series of purpose-built venues built near each other to take advantage of available parking.

Rendering of a Ghost Town

When Coliseum City was unveiled in 2015, I opined that the vision was too ambitious in trying to accommodate the Raiders at the expense of the other tenants. Apparently that wasn’t Raider-friendly enough for Mark Davis, who was unwilling to give up parking acreage for a neighboring ballpark or ancillary development. The Dubs were already looking across the Bay, while the A’s had to regroup after being rejected on San Jose. Still, this concept of a mega-development with three venues and increased year-round activity was sold as the savior, the panacea for Oakland. The Coliseum complex, as shown in the rendering above from last year, has a mostly deconstructed stadium and an arena with a tenant for six weeks per year and limited opportunities to pay to keep the lights on.

Of course, Oakland is not like Arlington in many respects, so it would be foolish to attempt to take the North Texas sports economics model and transplant it into the East Bay. Now the new panacea, as it’s being pitched, is a model that utilizes an industrial site next to a commercial site (Howard Terminal and Jack London Square, respectively) and use the Coliseum to help fund the ballpark. Parts of the Coliseum would be filled in by a mix of uses, effectively throwing East Oakland a bone. Alameda County negotiated with the A’a a buyout of their share of the complex, while the City of Oakland remains a holdout.

There are few remaining sports complexes in use. The Coliseum is one though it only has one tenant left once the Raiders leave. The 50’s and 60’s were the time for the baby boom, suburban expansion, the Interstate highway system, the socioeconomic ills all of that would cause in later decades, and sports complexes. Some examples:

  • South Philadelphia Sports Complex (1926) – Anchored at first by Philadelphia Municipal (later JFK) Stadium, which briefly hosted the Eagles, AFL Quakers,  and WFL Bell, along with numerous festival concerts. The Eagles moved to Franklin Field on the UPenn campus, then back to the complex for Veterans Stadium (1971) and Lincoln Financial Field (2003). The Phillies moved to the Vet in 1971 after calling Shibe Park/Connie Mack Stadium home, then moved back to the complex for Citizens Bank Park (2004). The 76ers and Flyers were housemates at the Spectrum (1967) for its entire life, before moving to its replacement in 1996. Ancillary development included a now-demolished aquarium and a Comcast-developed retail-entertainment district. Future plans include an e-sports arena.
  • NRG Park (1965) – Anchored by the Astrodome and Astroarena (1971). The Dome hosted the Oilers and Astros until the Oilers left for Tennessee and the Astros went downtown. The Arena was considered too small for major indoor sports. A convention center continues to operate. The Dome still stands, unused, with an uncertain future.
  • Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum (1966) – Currently houses the A’s (through at least 2023) and Raiders (through 2019). Previously hosted the Warriors, Golden Skates, Rhinos, and Oaks.
  • Truman Sports Complex (1972) – Separate venues built for the Royals and Chiefs after the A’s left KC. Both charter tenants remain.

Later versions:

  • Meadowlands Sports Complex (1976) – Originally hosted the football Giants only. New venue MetLife Stadium hosts both the Giants and Jets. Purpose-built arena on premises abandoned by Nets and Devils, who moved to Brooklyn and Newark, respectively.
  • Jacksonville Sports Complex (1995) – Home of the Gator Bowl (1927), which was razed and rebuilt as the home of the expansion Jaguars. An arena and a minor league ballpark also exist nearby.
  • Dignity Health Sports Park (2003) – Soccer stadium for the LA Galaxy, part of a public-private partnership between Cal State-Dominguez Hills and venue operator AEG. The stadium temporarily hosts the Chargers while they wait for their new Inglewood stadium to be completed. There is also a velodrome and the park will host multiple events as part of the 2028 Summer Olympics.

After teams left the Astrodome, Kingdome, Metrodome, and the cookie cutters for purpose-built facilities, the few multi-purpose stadia left were iconic of an era that time passed by. Some of the goals were ambitious: large capacities and even larger adjacent parking lots, downtown locations in many cases, and updated technology such as electronic scoreboards and luxury suites. Time marches on, though. Even as 50,000-plus fill the Coliseum on Wednesday evening, there will be constant reminders of how past its prime the venue is. Is there room for a multi-purpose stadium in the future? Well, sort of. There is a coming glut of ultradomes, NFL stadia designed to host a rotating college football playoff or bowl game, the Super Bowl, a college basketball tournament regional or final, and perhaps a premier soccer exhibition or boxing/wrestling every so often. What was once a 50/50 football/baseball split is now closer to 90/10. Bowl game? Sure. No housemates that play baseball, though. Or basketball or hockey. Fans want venues right-sized for their sports teams. Or at least the team owners want those venues, no sharing.

All in all, the Coliseum complex saw over 50 years of use and 10 world championships during that time. While it’s not yet time to send in the demolition crews, it’s not a bad moment to assess the complex’s impact on Oakland, the East Bay, and the Bay Area as a whole. More than anything, the Coliseum served its purpose. It did so a little brash with some bash. It put Oakland on the map. It’s still mostly efficient to visit, convenient, and centrally located. It is not by any means sexy. The Coliseum attracted, but did not keep, several pro sports franchises. Better to have loved and lost, I suppose.

Patience, Grasshoppers

Two bills supporting the Howard Terminal ballpark project are now on Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk, thanks to their safe passage through the state legislature. You haven’t heard much static during this part of the process, which is unique to California. CEQA regulations make it tough for big projects like stadia to get to the groundbreaking stage, which has created a new environment where CEQA exemptions are allowed to shorten that process. Despite those efforts, the process remains largely the same.

We’re where those four arrows point on the right, 1/3 of the way up (I added the green arrow)

A lot of the process happens in parallel, especially the items on the left side of the cart. There is a draft version of the EIR that’s scheduled to be released sometime in October. A’s President Dave Kaval gave select media members a tour of the Howard Terminal site earlier in the week where he walked them through much of the rest of the process. The Athletic’s Marcus Thompson documented some of those next steps well, so you should take a look at it. If you can’t see that, I’ll sum it up.

  • October: Draft EIR published
  • March 2020: City Council vote
  • December 2020: Groundbreaking?

Of course, there are numerous important steps between fall of this year and spring of next year, or spring and winter of next year. As you all know from reading this blog, the devil’s in the details. I didn’t hear much about lobbying efforts from the shipping industry, though they kept up their occasional media assault on the project. I imagine the shippers are lining up their arrows for the draft EIR, which should create its own sort of postseason fireworks. The legislation stuff is the easy part.

About that legislation, Governor Newsom has until October 13 to sign it. That shouldn’t be a big deal, with the only real complication being the presence of other more important bills for Newsom to sign. You see, the biggest achievement was already earned when area legislators chose to write these bills to create exemptions for Howard Terminal. It’s hard to find vocal opposition these days, especially now that the bulk of stadium projects in California are privately financed, which means there are no direct subsidies or tax measures involved in the venues’ construction. If you’re a legislator, are you going to say no to a private business looking to invest and you don’t have to put up anything yourself? Or be the c*ckblocker for some other city?

Well, about that. There will undoubtedly be debate about the infrastructure part of the plan, which is still mostly unsettled and requires fleshing out. For instance, Mayor Libbby Schaaf indicated that she’d be willing to put up to $200 million of the City’s money towards this infrastructure. Some of that will go towards new sidewalks in a part of town that doesn’t have many of those, or new pedestrian or vehicular bridges to go over the train tracks that run next to the site. How much will go towards dealing with the demands of the shipping and trucking companies in West Oakland? And how much of the beautification aspects of the project will be confined to Howard Terminal itself, as opposed to the nearby areas?

Take the picture below. It depicts the ground level of Margaret T. Hance Park, an urban park in Phoenix.

Margaret T. Hance Park (Phoenix) looking west

What you don’t see is that underneath it is Interstate 10, which runs right through central Phoenix from east to west. The park itself was built atop a series of bridges and decks to connect downtown Phoenix to midtown and points north over the freeway, which in this area was once called the Deck Park Tunnel. Hard to tell from the photo, right? The park is 32.5 acres in size and is flanked by new apartments and condos, an arts district, and a library. Some of you are probably thinking that this is the approach that should be taken with the tracks along the Embarcadero, or I-980 if/when it’s decommissioned as a freeway. If that happens, it’s many, many steps down the road and will cost billions, so I wouldn’t get too excited about the prospects of either. Still, it’s nice to consider the possibilities.

Specific and Incomplete

While most A’s fans were spending most of the weekend wondering how exactly the A’s could survive the rest of the regular season and postseason despite a patchwork bullpen, I started digging into new documents released by the City of Oakland. We’re talking about the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan, EIR, and EIR appendices, light reading totaling over 1,600 pages. For those who have some experienced reading such docs, that size shouldn’t be a surprise.

1,600 pages allows for over 100 mentions of Howard Terminal. However, for the purposes of the Specific Plan, Howard Terminal is not considered part of Downtown. It remains part of West Oakland.

Howard Terminal as “Future Potential Development Site” (see legend)

Howard Terminal is literally next to what’s defined as downtown and will have major effects on Downtown. A comment by Vivian Kahn of Oakland planning firm Dyett & Bhatia lays out the issue accordingly:

The proposed Howard Terminal project will obviously have a significant impact on the Specific Plan area and, in particular, the Jack London District. While the previous drafts of planning docs for the Specific Plan went on at length about the potential benefits the stadium and associated development would bring to the Jack London District, this version states that Howard Terminal is “outside the plan boundary.”

So “Downtown” per the Specific Plan looks like this:

Something’s missing here

You’d think that, given the amount of time the City and the Port have used the mull the idea of a ballpark at Howard Terminal, they would at least include the parcel in their study. Rather, the documents are evidence of the City trying to have its cake and it eat it too. The idea is that if a ballpark is approved, it would create spillover development in nearby blocks. The implication is that with a ballpark Howard Terminal would be annexed into Downtown at a later point. If a ballpark isn’t built, Howard Terminal remains part of West Oakland as if no speculation nor ancillary activity will happen. To me, that sounds foolhardy at best. Are the only alternatives at HT the ballpark or the lower-impact maritime use the Port utilizes currently? Some creativity is in order. The quotes below acknowledge how impactful the ballpark project will be.

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Howard Terminal is undergoing its own CEQA process and the City will put out a draft EIR shortly. Changes approved by the Port, City, and BCDC should influence downstream changes in Downtown Oakland Specific Plan, the West Oakland Specific Plan (last updated 2014), and the Estuary Policy Plan (1999). 20 years is an eternity in Bay Area planning, so all of these documents merit serious updates.

Activity areas loosely defined

It doesn’t take much work to see Market Street gentrifying in much the same way Broadway has, with Howard Terminal as its southern anchor. I’ve heard two types of responses to this. Some fans welcome the expansion of Downtown to Howard Terminal and the bonanza it would bring. Others are decidedly more wary of gentrification. One fan even tried to educate me on where Howard Terminal was.

Of course, I had to correct that missed assessment. Look, I get that the ballpark could be huge for Oakland. It’s why John Fisher has the whole A’s staff in line behind Howard Terminal. But let’s be honest about what we’re dealing with here. Howard Terminal, combined with the Coliseum redevelopment, looks like a massive land grab. The A’s have tried to disassociate the two projects. The problem with trying to say they’re not connected is that only the Coliseum is approved for development now. The staging of Howard Terminal has the ballpark coming in first, followed by development surrounding the ballpark that could stretch out perhaps decades and has many steps before plans are approved. The Coliseum is the financial bridge to get there. That’s fine if that’s the intent, just be honest with everyone about it, and not use A’s fans to communicate it out through the community.

When Danny Glover spoke at Acts Full Gospel Church in East Oakland on Saturday, he mentioned gentrification a lot. He said that West Oakland could be transformed into San Francisco East. That sounds a lot like what happened to Brooklyn or what’s in progress in Long Island City in Queens. Gentrification has a creeping effect. In some cases there’s an argument that it’s needed to clean up neighborhoods or make them more livable. There is a flip side to that coin, in that those very same neighborhoods can become less livable for some because they’re less affordable. Glover was recently in two films that covered the current era of technology and gentrification: Boots Riley’s 2018 film Sorry to Bother You (set in Oakland) and Joe Talbot’s/Jimmie Fails’ 2019 film The Last Black Man in San Francisco (set in SF’s Fillmore and Hunters Point).

Here’s another tidbit from the DOSP:

Bottom line: If you think gentrification is not a factor in all of this, you are in willful, total denial. Be prepared for the backlash.

P.S. – San Jose took steps to annex the Diridon site as part of its Greater Downtown initiative in 2011. Nearly a decade later, Google is set to swallow all of the newly annexed area (save for the arena) whole. That’s gentrification for you.

Oakland Coliseum, Population: 1

This morning I went into the wayback machine to find out how many times I had written about Scott McKibben. The answer: 4, all in 2014 and 2015. McKibben previously was the head of the Rose Bowl and would, presumably, provide some professionalism to the Coliseum JPA, which had no one in the executive director role for six years. He was hired in early 2015. He abruptly resigned last week after reports indicated that he negotiated an additional $50,000 finder’s fee from the three-year, $3 million naming rights deal with RingCentral.

We’ll see if the other shoe drops and the City and County decide to get litigious. For now, let’s consider what’s happened on Scott McKibben’s watch.

  • Warriors announced move to SF’s Mission Bay site in 2014, after initially announcing a move to Piers 30-32 in 2012
  • Raiders announced move to Vegas in early 2017
  • A’s announce intent to move to Howard Terminal in 2018

Throughout all of this, McKibben was being paid upwards of $250,000 per year. What was he getting paid for again? Prior to the McKibben hire, AEG was brought in to replace SMG as the complex operator. AEG has been to the key to more bookings on the calendar for both the arena and the stadium. McKibben doesn’t deserve blame for the Warriors and Raiders moves, as those decisions were way over his head. Yet there is precious little to replace 8+ NFL games and 41+ NBA games. Plus, as Chase Center establishes itself as the Bay Area’s premier arena for concerts (13 during the opening month of September, 30 through the rest of the year), the JPA and AEG are scrambling to fill dates at the renamed Oakland Arena. Speaking of the name, that also unceremoniously traveled across the bay to the ballpark at China Basin. Thankfully, an arbitrator ruled that the Warriors have to pay the remaining $40 million of debt on the Oakland Arena, though the Raiders settled a much more favorable outcome on their behalf. I would feel bad for McKibben, but he’s the same guy who in 2017 tried to jump ship to the 49ers and Levi’s Stadium, only for the JPA to give him a raise to lure him back. The raise was $50,000. That’s a totally “professional” move if I ever heard one. Regardless, he’ll land on his feet.

Since the Warriors and Raiders announced their exodus, no teams have been brought in to fill their enormous gaps they will leave behind. The closest the JPA got is some talk at the beginning of this year about an Indoor Football League franchise. The new Oakland franchise would be owned by Roy Choi (not that one), who also owns IFL franchises in San Diego and Cedar Rapids. San Diego’s team didn’t do great on the field or at the gate this year, pulling in only 300 fans for its season finale a couple months ago. The sordid history of of indoor football deserves a proper book treatment, maybe even a TV show or film. I’ve heard many colorful stories. I’d still like to know the full story of why the Fry brothers chose not to move forward with the San Jose Sabercats even after they won their fourth championship. Other than Oakland’s arena football dalliance, there has been no talk about fielding other team sports. No WNBA team despite Rebecca Kaplan’s cheerleading for it.. No G-League team as the Dubs chose Santa Cruz instead. No other fringe team sports like roller hockey, indoor lacrosse, or team tennis. At the Coliseum last year there was a bid by an East Bay group to convert the entire shooting match into a soccer complex flanked by the existing arena and a new ballpark. That went nowhere fast.

AEG may not be blameless for this situation. The company makes its money by filling dates and selling concessions, and for a venue operator fringe sports don’t make a lot of money to piggyback from. There is a line where it might make more sense to leave dates empty instead of actively trying to fill the arena to only 5,000 or so. For an outdoor stadium that requirement scales much larger due to the minimum staffing needs for given events.

What do you have when all the kids are leaving you with an empty nest? The only thing that’s worth anything these days is land. There’s plenty of it off Hegenberger, 110-155 acres depending on who you ask, 800 total when you include the land stretching across the Nimitz toward the airport.. There are also sweet, sweet entitlements to cash in if anyone’s interested. That’s why the A’s are sticking around at the Coliseum through 2023. As long as they are a tenant, they could exercise the right to build 3,000+ homes and 4 million square feet of commercial and office space. If that sounds like Coliseum City, that’s because it is. The A’s heard the questions about the confusion over the need to develop both Howard Terminal and the Coliseum. At a social media influencers forum last week, they said that the Coliseum isn’t needed, that the two projects are separate. There’s a timing problem with that position, since the only entitlements available right now are at the Coliseum. The only thing that can generate the cash the A’s are seeking to fund the ballpark is at the Coliseum. Ancillary development at HT is undergoing the approval process. It’s part of the long tail. Scratch that, l-o-o-o-o-o-n-g tail.

From the Coliseum Final Specific Plan, 2015

Now the awkwardness begins. The A’s plan to leave the Coliseum just like the other teams are doing, only they get to cash in on those sweet, sweet entitlements. Personally, I agree that they don’t need them. They have 40-55 acres at HT they can leverage if everything goes to plan. A redevelopment plan at the Coliseum is already approved. It’ll take time to bring in reopen the bidding process and bring the right uses in. That’s exactly what should happen. No shortcuts.

If everything doesn’t go to plan, the Coliseum remains a good backup plan. As we’ve used this joke ad nauseam, we’re talking about the A’s. There is no Plan B. It’s the best dad joke I’ve ever heard.

You Are The Experiment

As some of you may have heard, I took a trip from the scorching desert to the relatively cool Bay Area, partly to catch the last two games of the Rangers series. After Thursday’s and Friday’s episodes showcased lackluster performances, it was wonderful to watch the A’s kick it into gear and finish with a split. On the way, I met with old and new friends, which only enhanced the experience.

I attended Saturday’s game on whim after I visited a friend I hadn’t seen in person in 20 years. The biggest impact for me, now that I’ve been away from the Bay regularly for a few years, is how vast and difficult this area is to navigate. Unless I prefer being in transit for half a day, it’s best to pick an neighborhood where I’m likely to hang out and visit friends, then stick to that area. Of course, since I have friends I’d like to visit in all four official “parts” of the Bay plus Santa Cruz, I usually have to pick and choose my battles. Otherwise I’m doomed to be stuck in transit. My friend works at Stanford, so we spent time walking around the campus.

Back to Saturday’s game. It was a fireworks night with a Pixar theme, so I was prepared for a big crowd. The announced attendance was 36,468, and from the packed concourses and the patterns of seats filled I observed in the park, the number looked accurate. I had a field reserved seat in 127, which I gave up late in the game to watch the finish from the upper deck. (I stopped sitting in the bleachers years ago, especially when the upper deck reopened in limited form and then completely.) Overall, it was a fairly typical Coliseum experience.

Sunday’s game was different. Before the game I took the early Capitol Corridor train from Santa Clara to Jack London Square. It took 13 minutes to walk from the Amtrak platform to the approximate east plaza of Howard Terminal at Clay and Water Streets. Google Maps estimates the walk to take only 9 minutes, but I intentionally took the pedestrian bridge over the tracks, as fans would be encouraged to do on game idea. The bridge, which takes riders some three stories over the tracks to meet Federal Rail Administration height requirements, was responsible for the extra 4 minutes. And in case people start thinking they can chance a crossing of an active rail line, I bring to your attention A’s COO Chris Giles’ recent video of his attempting to leave the A’s corporate offices at JLS, only the be delayed by not one, but TWO, trains.

Fencing, which already exists at the station to prevent pedestrian crossings, will be required at Howard Terminal, though trying to get 25,000 fans to do the right thing and take the more time-consuming bridge will be a task. 4 minutes shouldn’t matter, but you can’t discount someone being in a hurry, drunk, or both.

My buddy, educator and theater writer David Chavez, was kind enough to offer me one of his club seats with the A’s Access benefits that provides. It was also Root Beer Float Day, which for me meant I could enter the park early like other fans. As usual, the East Side Club (split into the branded Treehouse and Stomping Ground areas) was packed, reminiscent of FanFest. I’m not an autograph hound, so I went to the various media tables to get float refills (pro-tip) after I paid $5 for a commemorative mug. Shortly before first pitch I surveyed the crowd. Later I found out the announced attendance was 18,906. It seemed like that entire crowd was crammed into the East Side Club before the game. Situations like that make me wonder how expansive similar facilities will be at the next ballpark. Would everything be housed in a club, or a regular concourse, or even the outfield plaza the A’s are planning? The ESC is 40,000 square feet, which sounds large at first glance. It’s roughly the size of half a football field.

Belly full of diet root beer and vanilla ice cream, I didn’t think much of using the $10 concessions/merchandise credit on my ticket, despite David’s cajoling. Late in the game I felt somewhat hungry, so I went into the club. The fancy brick oven pizza stand was closed. It was already the bottom of the 7th, so beer was pretty much ruled out (I don’t drink much these days). I ended up getting a nachos helmet, of which I only finished half. The $10 credit wasn’t going to be enough for the food except David swooped in to claim the 50% All Access Pass discount. Along with a bottled water I paid nothing. While I appreciated the discounts, the program felt a bit over complicated as I wasn’t clear if my ticket or Dave’s pass had to be scanned first. I didn’t think it was a big deal to save a few bucks. It would’ve meant more to me if I were attending 20+ times a season.

Monday, the A’s announced that they are tweaking the Access plan to make it easier to exchange tickets and bring in guests. So far it looks like this (click graphic to expand):

10 game plan

24 game plan

Full Season plan

The big immediate take away is that the Plaza Club sections (212-214) have been folded into the Plaza Infield area. The transformation of the old Plaza Outfield sections into the Treehouse (LF) and the Stomping Ground (RF) and additional amenities have created the kinds of affordable adult and family hangout areas the Coliseum has been missing since Mount Davis was built. The changes also reduced much of the Coliseum’s reserved seat inventory, which is important as the team attempts to create an inventory similar to their new ballpark plan. Keep in mind that in the above diagrams there are effectively no reserved outfield seats. That may seem a bit schizophrenic as the A’s were trying to sell only 35,000 reserved seats during the Wolff era and only last year ballooned up to 48,000. During this current Kaval/Giles pricing experiment, the upper deck is for sale mostly as a stand-in for the roof deck planned for the new ballpark. The Giants series will see the tarps on the Mount Davis upper deck removed and seats sold as overflow. Instead of the harsh cuts taken in the past, A’s management is being more sensitive to fan needs and preferences.

I’m not an Access member, so I can’t speak to the fan experience other than the aforementioned anecdote. What the A’s are doing is every bit as disruptive (Silicon Valley term) as Moneyball was for player evaluation. So far it’s worked out well, resulting in an increase from 4,800 to 9,535 Access plans. It shows that fans are adjusting to the new subscription model, which Giles has at times called “Baseball as a Service” (Silicon Valley-esque term). The model provides less friction for fans to attend, and it seems to have created plenty of word-of-mouth sales opportunities. There is a downside, though, in that while there’s less friction to attend, there’s also intrinsically less to get people to show up, or “stickiness.” A 2016 USA Today article reported that two-thirds of those with gym memberships go unused. In the past the A’s were aiming for 75-80% of season ticket holders to show up for every game. Baseball, and the world around it, are changing. There will undoubtedly be more tweaks to come in the next couple of years until the new ballpark deal is sealed. Until then, you guys are all beta customers. File those bug reports and expect more.

P.S. – Remember when the A’s announced they were removing the General Admission designation on the bleachers and turning them into reserved seats? I did, and I recall proposing a split of the Plaza Outfield sections into something quite similar to the Treehouse/Stomping Ground remake. Someone once said that good artists copy, great artists steal. No charge for this one, guys.

P.P.S