Getting to Yes

Before I begin, I’m going to direct you to two blog posts on other sites. The first, by Jeff August, is at his own site, Jeff August Ego Trip. Jeff is a good friend and remains in the credits in the sidebar, though he hasn’t contributed to this site for several years. His viewpoint on Howard Terminal evolved over time, and while I haven’t had a chance to talk to him about it and I disagree with his conclusion, I fully respect it because it comes from an honest place.

The other link is from Alex Espinoza’s blog, The Rickey Henderson of Blogs. Espinoza did the inhuman task of compiling observations from Tuesday’s extraordinarily long Alameda County Board of Supervisors meeting. The 6,000-word entry is truly impressive in its scope. I admitted to him while reading it that there’s no way I would try to take such notes as I would have to watch it twice to do so.

Espinoza also interviewed me before the baseball season started to discuss ballpark stuff and economics. If you haven’t checked out that podcast episode yet, you should.

After reading both posts, I immediately recalled comments made by Oakland City Administrator Betsy Lake regarding the planning aspects of the Howard Terminal Ballpark project. Lake considered the current A’s/City proposal fiscally irresponsible. Lake was asked by Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan about why the City is going through with the Howard Terminal if it’s not expressly for the purpose of building a ballpark. That brought on the following awkward exchange:

That brings me to the belated thesis of this post. It would be one thing if the A’s built a ballpark on a 14-acre city block downtown, one that conformed with the existing city and neighborhood plans. The A’s, to my complete befuddlement, are instead proposing a mega-development with its own taxing authority (HT IFD), with ancillary infrastructure funded by a separate taxing authority (JLS IFD), yet nothing is being done to amend the City’s Downtown Specific Plan or West Oakland Specific Plan to properly accommodate those changes. The Downtown Oakland Specific Plan and EIR are still in Draft form and don’t include Howard Terminal, an odd choice given that Howard Terminal is being promoted as at least downtown-adjacent. It’s entirely a cart-before-horse scenario.

At the Oakland Planning Commission hearing in April, there was a mention of the Google Downtown development in San Jose, which went through the full planning process including a certified EIR. Not only that, San Jose expanded its definition of Downtown San Jose to fold in the previously separate area, which includes Diridon Station and SAP Center west of CA-87. Construction begins in 2023. Ironically, the catalyst for that entire effort was the planned A’s ballpark south of the train station. At the time San Jose went through with the exercise with no guarantee of obtaining the baseball club. But they did something that seems utterly novel when compared to the chaos in Oakland: they made a contingency plan. 

That’s right, they had a Plan B. 

San Jose Downtown West, dominated by Google

San Jose knew that as Silicon Valley grew eventually there would be demand for residential and commercial real estate in the newly-minted Downtown West area, which besides the arena was mostly surface lots and low-slung light industrial buildings. It was ripe for redevelopment, and despite Jerry Brown killing RDAs years ago, was assembled for a completely new vision with existing Caltrain/VTA light rail and future BART and HSR anchoring a transit hub, preposterously named the “Grand Central of the West.” Location and accessibility would earn attractiveness for a high-profile employer, most of whom generally avoided Downtown San Jose until that point. Next, the ballpark proposal died with the Giants’ legally upheld territorial claims, San Jose started looking for suitors for Plan B, and Google entered the picture. The rest is history in progress, with San Jose residents asking (and getting) more from Google in the form of a Community Benefits Agreement. Oakland is watching San Jose and is wise enough to take notes. The funny thing is that Oakland started pursuing Howard Terminal as a ballpark site years before San Jose did theirs. If you count the original HOK study which featured Howard Terminal, the site has been in an on/off pursuit for better than 20 years. Oakland, caught between trying and failing to keep their sports franchises, attracting new non-sports employers, and catering to the needs of its entrenched business interests (Port) as well as its unique and diverse population, showed the kind of indecision that could doom its ballpark plans, even its future as a MLB town.

San Jose Downtown West’s current state is humble and nondescript, not for long

Look, I am fully aware that San Jose and Oakland are worlds apart economically. Not as far apart as Oakland and San Francisco, but close. San Jose did the right thing by expanding their scope, by not limiting themselves to the pursuit of a sports franchise. If the A’s moved to San Jose, great. Maybe Google would look elsewhere for a secondary campus because the A’s partners would’ve gobbled up most of the nearby land. The A’s didn’t move south, which allowed San Jose to have the Adult Conversation about its vision with residents and businesses. That conversation is something I clamored for Oakland to have since nearly the start of this blog. It happens in fits and starts, never getting above a din peppered with occasional protests. Recently, Oakland asked Alameda County to participate in the Howard Terminal IFD by pledging its share for the on-site infrastructure. County Supervisors were taken aback, though if they were honest, they should’ve seen it coming and prepared for it. I didn’t expect Oakland to pull this off on its own. No one should have given how dysfunctional Oakland is. That said, Alameda County sold its half of the Coliseum in an effort to get out of sports. The Supervisors’ outrage at being put in this situation by Oakland is consistent with previous actions.

Unfortunately, the confusion over Oakland’s plans (or lack thereof) is also consistent with its previous actions. Friends, that is not a good sign. The Supervisors and their Oakland City Council counterparts put a positive spin on how things are progressing. HT supporters slurp it up without bothering to inspect the problems beneath the surface. The bottom line is that the Council is divided. The Board of Supervisors is also divided. Everyone wants to get to Yes, as Supervisor David Haubert suggests. The problem is that no one knows what Yes means except in the most vague, general terms. As Jeff pointed out in his post, 33 regional/state/federal agencies have to approve this project. Howard Terminal should be part of the Downtown Specific Plan, but that would have first required removing its maritime designation, cleaning up and disposing of the land through a public process, and numerous other steps which can’t start because of related complications. According to the A’s, time’s running out for Oakland. I don’t believe that because I believe in practical, real solutions. The A’s and MLB’s greatest tactical weapon is to ratchet up the tension on Oakland to get their desired outcome, whatever that is, however long that takes. They’ll do it again and again until they see results. It’s easy to confuse tactics with strategy, which so far the A’s and baseball have not shown an ability to execute either in Oakland or Tampa Bay. Yes, in absolute terms the A’s could move, but MLB has made it intentionally difficult to do so. I wouldn’t worry about that in the near term. Right now there’s a drought and a heat wave in the Bay Area. It’s not even summer yet! Frankly, it feels poetic.

Be safe out there.

P.S. – Google is not moving its headquarters away from Mountain View.

P.P.S. – The City of Oakland will release a revised term sheet after its study session on July 7. The release will occur no later than 7/16, which will give them 4+ days to review the terms prior to the 7/20 vote. My reaction to that news:

6/15 Alameda County Board of Supervisors Meeting on Howard Terminal

I spent over six hours livetweeting this thing for you.

You can see the full thread at the link below:

https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1404907134270152705.html

There’s also a 9-page PDF digest version.

What you need to know is this:

I’ll drop in more of the select tweets as I go through the night. Enjoy the process.

My favorite moment of the long night:

Followed closely by this:

Looking ahead:

Ghost of Blue Ribbon Panel Speaks Out in Favor of… The Coliseum

Former Giants VP Corey Busch, who was part of Bud Selig’s Blue Ribbon Panel to study the A’s future in Oakland (and San Jose) a decade ago, was interviewed by the Merc’s Shayna Rubin yesterday. And boy, did Busch had some thoughts.

The big reveal was Busch’s belief that former Giants owner Bob Lurie was never going to ship the team to Florida. Selling the team was, as Busch recounted, merely a ruse to motivate a local buyer for the franchise, which eventually happened when Peter Magowan stepped up. That’s not to discount the tremendous amount of drama at the end of Lurie’s ownership tenure, which involved St. Petersburg and dalliances with San Jose and Santa Clara. Exploration of the South Bay included A’s owner Walter Haas agreeing to cede Santa Clara County to the Giants, which was previously an unassigned territory for MLB’s purposes. The South Bay is now and forever San Francisco Giants territory, even though they will probably never play a game there.

Busch also went out of his way to defend the Coliseum, decrying A’s ownership’s desire for a downtown ballpark – and only a downtown ballpark – at Howard Terminal.

Busch determined the Coliseum site was viable in 2014 on Selig’s blue-ribbon committee to explore ballpark options. He still attests the A’s can build the ballpark village of their dreams around the site. MLB and the A’s declared this month that the Coliseum site “not viable” as a location for a new park.

“The notion that the Coliseum, if properly developed in its totality, is not acceptable is kind of silly. It’s nonsense,” Busch said. “I know for a fact there are people in the commissioner’s office who know the Coliseum site is a good site.”

All Bay Collective’s 2018 Estuary Commons concept (Coliseum/Airport area)

Right now the Coliseum is not in the conversation due to the stubbornness of ownership. At some point it will re-enter the picture, unless everything from this point forward falls in line for Howard Terminal. For all their posturing, the A’s still continue to attempt to buy the City’s half of the Coliseum. And even though Dave Kaval announced the A’s were on “parallel tracks” with Oakland and Las Vegas (I thought there was no “Plan B”?), it’s not hard to see a third path, one that brings them back home.

Brodie Brazil captured how I’ve felt this month

Just watch Brodie Brazil from NBC Sports California, dissecting the A’s relocation drama point by point, including some historical references. It’s excellent.

I’ll have more to say later today or tomorrow.

Rail companies comment on Howard Terminal

Overhead closeup of recent Howard Terminal ballpark rendering
I love this rendering the most because it gets rid of the train entirely

The other day I was looking at the comments Union Pacific sent in regarding Howard Terminal. UPRR’s comments are bundled with comments from RailPros, a rail services consultancy that would probably engineer any modifications to the Embarcadero corridor that is used by UPRR and Amtrak. As you might expect, both sets of comments deem the HT transportation study and the mitigations identified as insufficient. UPRR calls for full grade separation if the ballpark is built, a consistent stance from the beginning. Given what’s at stake from a safety standpoint, I agree. Unfortunately, the A’s continue not to address this issue to the fullest. Robert Bylsma, UPRR’s Senior Environmental Counsel, ends his comments by quoting the Draft EIR and providing a response.

DEIR:

“Provision of a grade-separated crossing prior to commencement of Project construction was deemed infeasible given the length of time it would take to design, get approval for, and construct a new grade-separated crossing and the stated Project objective to complete construction of the new ballpark, together with any infrastructure required within a desirable timeframe and to maintain the Oakland Athletics’ competitive position within MLB.”

UPRR (Bylsma):

So, apparently it was the Oakland A’s who made the decision to reject grade separation — the only safe and effective means of protecting Oakland A’s fans, as well as families residing in the Project area and other Oakland citizens, using Project facilities — as infeasible because of the “length of time it would take” to design and build, and would affect negatively “the Oakland Athletics’ competitive position within MLB.” However, the DEIR’s evaluation of this alternative is deficient because it does not indicate how long it would take to permit and build the needed grade separation, and whether the A’s decision to “maintain [its] competitive position within MLB” in exchange for the lives and well-being of those who will use Project amenities, truly makes grade separation “infeasible” as a matter of law.

Perhaps rail safety isn’t deemed a showstopper for the A’s. What can’t be argued is that this is a bad look. It reeks of potential negligence from the A’s in search of a quick buck. If the A’s truly want this to work, they’re gonna need to step up. Not stepping up because it will jeopardize the ability to “maintain the Oakland Athletics’ competitive position within MLB” is a pretty lame excuse. If you’re going to build something as transformative as a $12 Billion neighborhood-cum-ballpark, you need buy-in from all your neighbors. This ain’t it.

Now That’s A Statement

From Carroll Fife, Oakland District 3 (West Oakland including Howard Terminal) Council Member:

On the eve of the EIR comment period deadline, that’s a doozy. The thread is worth following to get a taste of the constituencies at work.

In addition at Oaklandside, Dan Moore mostly succeeds at summing up the coming battle for the future of Oakland through the lens of the Howard Terminal project. It’s a worthwhile read.

Carry on.

The Adult Conversation: Oakland Planning Commission 4/21 Edition

I have thoughts.

So did Ron Leuty of the SF Business Times.

After the A’s played a doubleheader on Tuesday, some of us had our own doubleheader on Wednesday with the getaway day game leading into Oakland’s Planning Commission hearing, in which Howard Terminal was the key agenda item.

The comment period was initially supposed to last 45 days after the release on the Draft EIR in February, but community groups lobbied for deadline to be extended twice. The deadline is now Tuesday, April 27, at 4 PM. Get your comments in now while you can.

Howard Terminal Draft EIR Comment Deadline: 4/27/2021 at 4 PM

I watched the hearing on Zoom as the ballgame extended into extra innings.

Mostly, I wanted to get the temperature of the public as commenters chimed in. Naturally, hearings like this tend to have a certain bias towards people with grievances, that’s the nature of the game. However, I was surprised at how few supporters for the project were present. To be fair, supporters are at a distinct disadvantage in forums like this. They aren’t armed with all of the plans the developers and city are working on. Because of that, a lot of what they can offer is hope and platitudes. As an A’s fan you know how well hope works as a strategy. Then again, sometimes it does.

I tweeted out some observations from the open comment period. I did not get all of the commenters’ names. Otherwise, enjoy.

(I may have transcribed that wrong, “bike shop” may have been “bus stop”)

On the last point, I’m not clear on whether the Draft EIR can be recirculated. Perhaps it’s possible if the City feels enough pressure. Apparently the comment deadline won’t be extended further. Will there be yet another legal challenge?

The grade separation problem won’t be solved by placing a single pedestrian bridge at Clay Street and fences along The Embarcadero. The whole area is geared towards dispersing fans from numerous exits onto different streets heading north and east. Vehicular traffic remains an unresolved issue.

All told, there were five comments in support of the project, dozens more against. After a while I stopped logging them until I heard something unique in the arguments. The comments ran the gamut, touching on transportation worries, affordable housing concerns, even general planning. If the A’s want to garner better public support in forums like this, they have to do better than to merely trot out the usual suspects with the regular #BiggerThanBaseball talking points. The opponents have their talking points as well. For the supporters it’s akin to taking a knife to a gunfight.

I’ll do a quick ranking of topics based on what I heard in terms of perceived importance:

  1. Rail safety, specifically grade separation
  2. Affordable housing
  3. Need to recirculate EIR or extend comment period
  4. Support of the project as long as the issues can be worked out
  5. Distrust of the DTSC and property owners/developers
  6. Port businesses pulling out of Oakland entirely if a ballpark is built at HT

After the open comment period ended, the individual commissioners spoke. Clark Manus, who is Vice-Chair and an architect, ended the proceeding with a telling note:

As I mentioned in March, Transportation is the most important chapter. If they can’t crack that nut, there’s no deal. It’s that simple. As there’s an active rail line right outside Howard Terminal, it’s not realistic to expect major changes to the rails itself, whether you’re talking about running them in a cut (submerged) or on a viaduct (elevated). If the trains run in the street, the area becomes ripe for dangerous pedestrian/train interactions.

Howard Terminal supporters, if you want this thing to happen you’re gonna have to do more than be dismissive of the critics or attack them for being plants or astroturfers. They’re coming strong with their arguments. You need to have a response. The project is in search of real practical solutions. That’s the hard truth.

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.

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).

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.