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.

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.