Schnitzer Steel fire sends dark cloud over Oakland

Just before 4 PM today, a fire broke out at the Schnitzer Steel metal recycling plant immediately to the west of Howard Terminal. This followed a similar fire in March, and other fires that have hit the facility over the last several years. Thankfully, the blaze came under control shortly after six, after help came from Alameda and San Francisco fireboats.

Schnitzer and the A’s met before the season started as the A’s renewed interest in Howard Terminal. Schnitzer clearly warned the A’s that if the A’s were to build there, either the metal plant or the team would be impacted because the plant’s operations have already changed to overnight hours to help reduce the impact during regular business hours. While this fire occurred on a Saturday afternoon, it could happen at any time as long as there’s a pile of scrap metal ready to ignite at the plant.

That brings up a serious conundrum that may face the City of Oakland, the Port of Oakland, and the A’s if the three parties decided to go forward with the Howard Terminal site. Would they have to figure out a way to get rid of Schnitzer? The company likes their location, with access to freeways, rail, and the waterfront for shipping to other countries. That’s pretty hard to beat as long as the company can comply with environmental regulations. The plant is overseen by an alphabet soup of public agencies. California’s DTSC (Department of Toxic Substances watches what gets leaked into the ground or bay. The BAAQMD (Bay Area Air Quality Management District) tries to make sure that toxics aren’t released into the air as they were today. Moving the plant to another location – in Oakland or elsewhere – would require drawing up new toxics control agreements and invite protests from potential neighbors.

We have a couple of test cases to guide us through the process. AT&T Park was made possible by the closure and decommissioning of the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco after Loma Prieta, which allowed the city to remake the entire waterfront from Mission Bay to Broadway. In Minneapolis, Target Field was placed on a site next to a plant that not only recycles, it actually burns garbage and creates energy in the process. That’s not the same as a metal recycling plant whose main job is to recycle steel from old cars and appliances. At HERC the burning is controlled. At Schnitzer, fires can occur without warning.

To support their cause, Schnitzer enlisted from former State Senate President and East Bay politico Dom Perata. While Perata has seen his image disgraced and his power diminished, I don’t doubt for second that he still has some weight to throw around and that Schnitzer will use it to make any negotiations difficult. The question is, does Oakland and the A’s want to venture down this road? Schnitzer’s problems have been well known, but it provides a useful service for area. What is to be done about it? What if a fire broke out during a night game next door? How do you protect the fans, or evacuate them safely? These are among the many questions the A’s will be considering over the next six months.

Or, as Dave Kaval wrote in a letter to Mayor Libby Schaaf in March:

Of course, significant uncertainty remains on how the various challenges for Howard Terminal can be satisfied.

One thing’s abundantly clear: We can no longer wish away Howard Terminal’s challenges.

Update 6/4 7:23 PM – ABC-7’s Laura Anthony has further clarification on the incident.

 

Battle of the dueling ENAs

So here we are, almost Memorial Day, and the A’s have entered separate Exclusive Negotiating Agreements with two potential ballpark sites in Oakland: the Coliseum and Howard Terminal.

That was followed by A’s president Dave Kaval’s response on Twitter to an inquiry about Howard Terminal:

First, it’s good to hear that the A’s will have (with the Port’s help) a weather station installed at Howard Terminal.

But where will it be located? And is one enough?

To gain some insight, let’s check with our friends at Weather Underground. Unlike last year, when it appeared that a station was installed on a buoy in the Oakland Estuary, this time it appears that it’s situated on the southwest corner of the Howard Terminal pier. That’s not the likely location of home plate or the grandstand, but it should provide a sense of the prevailing winds in the neighborhood.

Here’s what that station is registering as of 6:20 PM tonight:

Now let’s look at the Coliseum area at 6:23 PM:

Now I’ve heard a lot about how Howard Terminal won’t be Candlestick, Part Deux. Let me point out that Howard Terminal is not Jack London Square, and while HT isn’t exactly Land’s End, it isn’t the most wind-protected area ever and it’s probably not going to be in the future. Even if a ballpark is built there, local and environmental groups will fight hard to keep the A’s from building a 100-foot-tall, 800-foot-long edifice on the waterfront. The A’s will probably unveil a design that orients the park more towards downtown and away from the water, to provide allow the ballpark grandstand to block the wind. Or, as the Giants found out:

The wind and temperature conditions aren’t necessarily going to be the gating factor that determines the viability of Howard Terminal. Economic factors and political process will.

Speaking of process, now that the ENAs for the Coliseum and Howard Terminal have been approved, the A’s now have given themselves a scant six months to figure out all of the details.

Say that Kaval makes an announcement in early December. Because of the normal City Hall schedule, a project won’t be brought up for City Council review, let alone planning commission review, until early next year. Then the CEQA process will begin. If you’re keeping track of how other recent projects have been affected, consider that the Warriors ownership group bought the site of the future Chase Center from Salesforce in April 2014. It’s scheduled to open in time for the 2019-20 NBA season, which starts in October 2019.

Then remember that the Coliseum, thanks to the aborted Coliseum City project, already is entitled for one or more stadiums and a slew of ancillary development. The Warriors ended up going with a backup plan. What will the A’s do?

Las Vegas AAA’s?

No, that’s not a typo.

BANG’s Jon Becker is reporting tonight that Las Vegas is opening up – but it’s not quite the threat you think.

Vegas, which briefly hosted the A’s at Cashman Field in the mid 90’s, will soon lose its AAA team, the 51’s, to Syracuse, where the Mets will better localize its minor league operations. The Mets purchased the Chiefs in 2017 and will officially change the affiliation starting next year.

Meanwhile, there is a new ballpark being built in the Vegas market. However, it’s not on the Strip or near downtown Vegas. It will be in suburban Summerlin, which feels much newer (and nicer) than the rest of Vegas. So nice, in fact, that the NHL’s Golden Knights built their practice facility, City National Arena, in Summerlin.

In the never-ending game of affiliate musical chairs, where does that leave a team in Vegas? Or Cashman Field, for that matter?

For starters, Cashman Field is being abandoned by baseball. A USL soccer team, Las Vegas Lights FC, started playing there earlier this year. Once a minor league team moves into the under-construction Summerlin ballpark, the soccer franchise should have Cashman all to themselves (unless they want to move to tonier Summerlin as well). There’s also talk that the XFL may choose Vegas as a city in its next iteration; chances are they’d choose the larger Sam Boyd Stadium instead.

After being ditched by Sacramento for the Giants, the A’s went to Nashville, which is far away but at least has a new ballpark. The A’s player development contract with Nashville ends this year, as do several others:

  • Fresno
  • Reno
  • Round Rock
  • Colorado Springs
  • Rochester
  • Scranton/Wilkes-Barre
  • Norfolk

Fresno may be a favorite because of its Central Valley location, but it has suffered for years for having a subpar airport, contributing to high travel costs for teams and players. Reno’s better in that regard, as is Vegas. The rest are likely to re-up with their existing MLB affiliates, with Colorado Springs always in flux because of its elevation.

Reno could happen because the MLS Earthquakes have a partnership with USL side Reno 1868 FC. It would be easier for ownership to make junkets to Reno to check out both the USL and PCL clubs.

We should find out towards the end of the season which way the AAA’s move.

P.S. – I took some pics of Cashman when I was in Vegas last year. Here’s one.

Blindsided Sacramento searches for billionaire savior for MLS bid

It all was going so well. The Sacramento Republic FC soccer club began life in 2012. They won a USL championship two years later. Raucous fans impressively filled the temporary stadium set on the Cal Expo grounds. Fan support combined with the grassroots community feel to present the club as a frontrunner for a future MLS expansion franchise. Everything was going as planned. This month was the champagne was meant to flow. They even had a private financing plan for the stadium, then broke ground over the summer.

Standing section at the future Sacramento Republic FC stadium

Then Wednesday, MLS announced that a late, money-heavy bid from Nashville won an expansion franchise, the 24th out of a planned 28 total teams in the coming years.

The next day, backers of the Republic FC bid announced that they’re looking for both a majority investor and multiple minority investors. HP Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman backed out. The York family (49ers) is involved, though they appear to be at best limited partners.

When asked why the bidding group was short on funds, CEO Kevin Nagle admitted that they were all pledged to cover the stadium financing. That’s fine, but the expansion fee rose in the last few years to $150 million. Meanwhile, the stadium cost has risen from $170 million to $250 million.

My back-of-the-napkin guess is that the club needs an infusion of $100+ million to be approved. The additional partner(s) would probably also need to have their checkbook(s) handy in case the franchise needed to cover cash calls for construction, initial payroll, and operating expenses. Keep in mind that we’re talking about $400 million to get started. By comparison, the LA Galaxy’s valuation this year was $315 million.

Just as with the Kings, Republic FC is reaching out to the millionaires and billionaires in the Bay Area. The difference between those efforts are fundamental: former NBA commissioner David Stern brought the tech money to the table, while stalling the Maloof brothers from selling the team to Seattle interests. In this case, MLS can provide some time, but Don Garber is no David Stern, and it would be inappropriate to have MLS involved any further while competing bids in Cincinnati and Detroit await their own appraisals.

While I considered the Sacramento MLS bid to be practically a done deal, I’ll have to watch it more closely now. By the way the team and city reacted to recent news, I’m nearly as floored as I was by the A’s-Peralta news. That’s not very hopeful, in case you were wondering.

Official: Peralta/Laney Ballpark is Dead

Wash: “It’s incredibly hard.”
Beane: “Hey, anything worth doing is.”

About six months ago I wrote the tweet below, not knowing yet which ballpark site the A’s were choosing:

Reality is here, and it is a bitch.

Feeling pressure from faculty and students alike, the board for the Peralta Colleges abruptly ended ongoing discussions with the A’s about building a ballpark at the current district headquarters next to Laney College. There was to be a Board vote next week to decide whether or not the district would enter formal negotiations with the A’s. Not anymore. With tepid support from Oakland City Hall, the A’s were facing an uphill battle for approval even at this lowest level. They didn’t even get to the first switchback on the trail.

The decision was followed by a series of reactions from relevant parties, including the A’s using 280 characters instead of a screenshot:

This doesn’t require much analysis, and with the whole process being cut short after three months it doesn’t merit recriminations. The A’s underestimated the potential opponents, and the City was hands-off with no support. That’s often a quick recipe for failure, even as I hoped the parties to get through at least to next week. So much for that.

So what happens next?

Well, we’re in the holidays, so for now, nothing. Early in 2018 we should hear more, especially as the A’s will have to regroup leading up to FanFest, whenever that is. And unlike 2017 FanFest, when many fans interpreted the site as the A’s leaning towards Howard Terminal, maybe next year’s choice will reveal more about the A’s plans with Peralta fading away. The A’s led by Dave Kaval have shown that they’re willing to accelerate their process if they see an opportunity. Despite the missed opportunity at Peralta, I’ll be encouraged if the team shows the same urgency in 2018.

As for sites, they don’t suddenly change in value or potential now that Peralta has dropped off. Let’s look at them, December 2017 edition.

Howard Terminal

People are asking about this, naturally. I remain skeptical of the site because of the cost of infrastructure (transportation and parking), the cleanup costs that the site would incur, and the need for enhanced rail safety for cars and pedestrians. Oakland and HT proponents could salve the A’s wounds by offering a package of improvements that address the A’s concerns. Not so sure about any way to mitigate winds and temperatures at HT, which for the A’s were a few degrees cooler than at Peralta. (I informally saw this from looking at wunderground.com maps while watching late season games.)

Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum

There are several approaches that can be taken at the Coli. The most popular has the A’s playing there until a new ballpark is built nearby within the Complex. That’s clearly the least disruptive path. It doesn’t resolve who pays for the stadium’s or arena’s outstanding debt. Development of the remaining 100+ acres is already entitled thanks to the failed Coliseum City plan, but those entitlement can start to have developers attached to them with a revised plan and cleared land.

Kauffman Stadium

BANG’s Dieter Kurtenbach, who lives close to the Peralta site, suggests that the A’s renovate the Coliseum. While that could be the cheapest option, it would also appear to be the cheapest option, which MLB doesn’t want. Then again, Kauffman Stadium was brilliantly renovated, though it was originally built as a ballpark, not as a multi-purpose cookie cutter with a gazillion unfortunate compromises.

I can see the A’s reign in their approach at the Coliseum, given the comparably limited economic potential there. Instead I suspect they’ll focus on the old Malibu/HomeBase lots along Hegenberger, which are somewhat separate from the original Coliseum complex in terms of access and ownership. The A’s may proclaim that there’s no “Plan B” – a classic Lew Wolff tactic – but they’ve always had the Coliseum plans in the desk drawer ready to quickly revise and present at a moment’s notice. Why? They’ve talked with the JPA about the Malibu/HomeBase site on-and-off since 2003, before the City even bought the land.

Malibu (triangle) and HomeBase (rectangle) lots at south end of Coliseum

Lest you forget, there were other sites under consideration!

Somehow part of the Oakland Army Base near the Bay Bridge was rumored. If Howard Terminal was too windy, OAB has to be disqualified just for the wind alone. There were no other serious contenders.

And whatever happened to San Jose? In normal Silicon Valley fashion, Google is about to swallow much of Downtown SJ whole, as it is planning with San Jose a sprawling, 240-acre campus by the Shark Tank that could bring in 20,000 additional employees to Downtown everyday. Google and its real estate partner have already bought a bunch of the land previous set aside for the ballpark, including the old AT&T facility on Montgomery. Amazing what happens when you just wave a bunch of cash in an landowner’s face.

Even Scott Ostler put a new (old) site in the hat, Victory Court! He even wondered how it didn’t work, I “chronicled” it for you Scott. Or in one two words: Redevelopment Died.

It’s been a long journey, and it’s far from over.

Ballpark Sites Aplenty: A Map

Some fans have been trying to chronicle the sordid history of A’s ballpark proposals. That’s why this blog exists! I wrote a post summarizing the journey just before Thanksgiving 2010 during a bout of post-recession malaise. Note the amount of outdated information despite the fact that the post less than seven years old. The amount of upheaval the Bay Area underwent since the recession was and remains simply remarkable.

Here’s the map of all explored ballpark sites. Refer back to the original post for explanations. Note: The A’s choice Peralta site is not on this map. It would be located below the blue “D” in Oakland.

Here’s your drone’s eye view from Peralta

About a month ago ABC7 producer extraordinaire Casey Pratt asked for a few estimates of heights for a potential ballpark at the Peralta site. I told him he should aim for three different heights: 40-50 feet above grade for the rim of the second deck, 70-80′ for the upper deck, and 100′ for the top of the stadium. He had his drone videographer check out the site. Some clips of the drone footage ended up in sports anchor Larry Beil’s comment about the Coliseum and the Raiders. No matter. We got a vista, and it’s the right vista.

Peralta site view north towards downtown and Lake Merritt. (Click to view larger)

Not only is this the right view, it’s angled almost exactly north and situated approximately where I envisioned home plate in my mockup. The banner at top left blocks some of the skyline, but you already know what that looks like. You can see Lake Merritt in the center and Laney’s ballfield in the foreground. That brings to mind this observation – has there ever been a non-spring training MLB park that has another baseball field in the background? I can’t think of one. Now imagine all the buildings in the foreground replaced by some grandstands and as Barbara Manning once coined Seals Stadium, one perfect green blanket.

To confirm my projections, A’s COO Chris Giles answered some questions as part of an all-day Q&A on Twitter, including this one about the park’s orientation:

Folks, if this thing is built you’ll be using that Panorama mode on your camera a ton.

As part of the A’s rollout of Peralta, they released a video, narrated by team President David Kaval, with numerous clips of the city and soundbites from locals, including pols such as Mayor Libby Schaaf and Cprominent developer and unofficial “Mayor of Oakland Chinatown” Carl Chan.

Chan wants to build housing to revitalize Chinatown. The neighborhood is quite fragile, though, and has vocal activists working constantly against the threat of gentrification, which has visibly touch several Oakland neighborhoods in the last several years.  Finding a balance there is going to be difficult, and it seems strange that the A’s ballpark could be in the middle of any plans. Considering the rather large scope of the A’s initial plans, the A’s may be biting off more than they can chew, even though the ultimate goal is merely a ballpark on 13 acres. That deserves a much lengthier post, so for now let’s look at the broad timeline Kaval released today.

Assuming that everything goes well, a 2023 opening is reasonable. If the A’s can’t get local stakeholders on the same page, the one year will elapse and the team will likely fall back to the Coliseum. The two years of permitting and environmental review is right, as long as the team gets legislation enacted to limit legal challenges to the EIR, the same kind the Warriors and 49ers received. That would put clearing the site in late 2020 and groundbreaking in the spring of 2021. If Peralta doesn’t get support, the A’s could shift to the Coliseum and move forward without requiring an EIR since the complex is already entitled for a stadium. In full Lew Wolff tradition, the team is not talking about a backup plan. For now it’s Peralta or bust.

-=-=-

P.S. – Thanks Casey for getting the drone footage!