Oakland Design Review Committee 9/9 Hearing

As usual, I took notes of what I felt was important. Read the 19-tweet thread to start, then read the rest of this post.

Like the Planning Commission hearing from April, the Design Review Committee hearing was chaired by Clark Manus. Unlike April, Howard Terminal in its current form is further along than a mere “napkin sketch.” That doesn’t mean there aren’t a host of issues to work out. Manus and the other commissioners on hand, Jonathan Fearn and Tom Limon, expressed hope and positivity over the project. Manus in particular is close to considering the Maritime Reservation Scenario, in a which a chunk of Howard Terminal has to be lopped off for a wider turning basin for container ships, a nearly foregone conclusion. All three pointed to very high building heights along the bay as cause for concern. One or two of the residential towers in particular would be the highest on the Bayfront, higher than anything similarly along the SF waterfront (or anywhere else in the Bay for that matter). These concerns nearly tripped up the Brooklyn Basin project until that was also approved with with mostly mid-rise structures.

For now, the big takeaways are the concerns from the DRC that building such a large, tall project along Oakland’s waterfront would effectively create a second downtown, competing with the existing downtown instead of complementing it. The other is the the shipping industry continuing to press for details on the expanded turning basin, which apparently needs a sizable buffer to protect ship traffic. Will that buffer be 500 feet as requested by industry, or 300 or less as requested by the applicant? We may not find out until the Final EIR is released.

The last thing that got serious attention was the still unresolved grade separation issue. City Planner Peterson Vollmann confirmed that the project still only has a pedestrian bridge in the plan with a vehicular bridge as an alternative. The trucking and rail interests are adamant that the vehicular bridge has to be included, even demanding it get built before anything else. Take a look at the map below, which shows the percentage of fans who will arrive on gameday based on intersection and mode (car, foot, bike). That’s SIX intersections crossing the existing tracks, only one of which is a promised grade-separated pedestrian bridge.

3% of fans coming by ferry is optimistic

The project is being set up to have a bunch of details decided when the Final EIR is released and approved, which the City is projected towards the end of October. Since the A’s on the field are slipping out of the pennant race, some good news in October would be nice. Yet you should expect another series of fights. And hopefully next time there will be fewer arbitrary deadlines like the 7/20 City Council vote that was supposed to change everything.

Revised centerfield approach from Jack London Square is supposed to have a sliding door to provide views from inside/outside the ballpark and to supplement the batter’s eye during play
Harbor View provides scale for residential towers behind the ballpark, one of which could be 600 feet tall
Maritime Reservation Scenario allows expanded turning basin to take up some of the office/residential blocks and a lot of the open space; Safety Buffer line is 150-200 feet from the shoreline, shipping interests want 500 feet

Assuming the Maritime Reservation Scenario is built, the A’s will simply cram all of their planned development into the smaller footprint, about 37 acres. You know what that means: Taller buildings. Not under any significant discussion today was the ballpark itself, which is much lower than the ancillary development to the west.

San Diego: How To Deal With Trains In An Urban Ballpark Setting

Petco Park and SDMTS figured out how to make it work, can Oakland?

The A’s played a short set at Petco this week. I couldn’t make it, though I really should’ve planned better because I could’ve had the unique doubleheader of an A’s road game and celebrating the birth of a nephew as my brother and his family live in San Diego. I mean, how often does anyone get to experience that?

(Update: Nephew was due Tuesday, not delivered yet which makes him technically a squatter)

While I’m not nervously waiting in San Diego this week, I was able to visit over the recent holiday weekend. While there I made my first visit Petco Park in seven years. The Padres were out of town, so no game. I had already taken the tour previously, so no tour either this time. Instead I walked around the Gaslamp District and contemplated it.

Much has been written about the Gaslamp, the mostly commercial area between the docks and Downtown. Redevelopment there started in earnest in the 1970’s with preservation efforts. The district had its share of urban blight which allowed city leaders to decide which building merited keeping or a bulldozer. As that was decided, the Gaslamp got swept up into the urban renewal craze. That led to redevelopment misses like the Horton Plaza mall and hits like Petco Park.

I started my trip on a SDMTS bus from my hotel in North San Diego to Downtown. The trip ended at Broadway and 10th Avenue, a half-mile walk from Petco Park. As I crossed the street I was greeted with the familiar scent of urine. Ah, maybe the East Village isn’t fully gentrified yet, I thought. The walk was otherwise pleasant with a slight downslope all the way to the ballpark. I got a snack and beverage nearby and planted myself in the Park at the Park, which based on my previous experiences changed for the worse. The park remains publicly accessible yet feels far more restricted due to many of the spaces within it being claimed for different types of private uses. When it first opened the Park also had a number of transients in it whenever I went, so I imagine that renting it out was just as much to keep out that element as anything revenue-related. Should Howard Terminal come to fruition, the A’s will have to figure out how to manage that element in what will be a much larger and more complex space, from the roof deck to the waterfront spaces beyond the playing field.

Park at the Park in 2014

Petco Park arrived as the Gaslamp’s redevelopment went full blast. Some of that was boosted by a huge land giveaway to then-owner of the Padres, John Moores, and his development wing JMI Realty. Petco Park was completed in 2004 after securing $300 million in public funding. Moores also got a development rights to 24 blocks around Petco, which led to nearly 3,000 housing units, millions of square feet of retail and commercial space, and a separate 7.1-acre Ballpark Village to the east of the ballpark (note incorrect graphic in link). Getting to opening day was a bumpy road, as the project was rife with political scandal over illegal gift-giving and lawsuits.

The delays allowed SDMTS to catch up in terms of building infrastructure. The Blue and Orange Trolley lines were already in place a block east of the ballpark, but another plan was coming into place. To get more fans from the I-8 corridor all the way out to SDSU and beyond, MTS planned to extend the Green Line from the Old Town station East of I-5 and into Downtown. Eventually the line would terminate at the 12th Street/Imperial station, the same transfer hub for the Blue and Orange lines. Until then, Green Line users would have to transfer at Old Town to Blue/Orange Trolleys. The finished system downtown effectively creates a loop around all of Downtown San Diego, including the Convention Center and tourist attractions along Harbor Drive. In addition, a new Silver line historic trolley now runs that loop.

View from pedestrian bridge spanning Harbor Drive and the BNSF/Trolley tracks with good buffer space

Infrastructure is a long game, though. While the Blue and Orange lines were already in place prior to the Padres’ 2004 Opening Day, the Green Line wouldn’t start operation until 2005. Its extension to downtown didn’t start service until fall 2012. The Green Line’s Gaslamp Quarter station is a mere Fernando Tatis, Jr. blast away from the third base gate, while the 12th/Imperial station is 800 feet away from the home plate gate. At least that’s better than nearly a mile, which is the distance to the Santa Fe Depot for Amtrak/Coaster trains (or Howard Terminal’s distance from BART for that matter).

The other aspect to the infrastructure long game was the BNSF’s active rail line west of the ballpark. Sandwiched between Petco and Harbor Drive, BNSF also had to make room for the Green Line expansion. To make it all work, vehicular access across Harbor Drive near the ballpark was limited to two intersections, 1st Ave and 5th Ave. Fencing was built all along Harbor to dissuade pedestrians from playing chicken with trains, though occasionally a train would stop in front of the ballpark, allowing for some interesting interactions. The idea is that mitigation measures should reduce those interactions as much as possible. A pedestrian bridge was built over Harbor, connecting the San Diego Convention Center and the Hilton Bayfront to Petco and the 12th/Imperial station. Besides the convention center and hotel access, the two facilities also housed more than 3,000 parking spaces. 

The Trolley tracks act as a buffer between the ballpark and the active BNSF rail line

The way Petco is situated, most fans won’t cross the tracks along Harbor Drive. They disembark at one of the Trolley stations nearby and walk safely to the ballpark. Or they take a bus or ride share to within the vicinity of Petco. Or they’ll park at one of the nearby lots in the East Village. There’s even a designated Tailgate lot, which seems inconceivable in a downtown area in 2021. Regardless of the method of travel, the average fan is unlikely to interact with a freight train due to how everything was planned. At Petco, the Trolley serves as a buffer surrounding the ballpark. Again, it’s well conceived and serves the City and County well. If you’re coming from SDSU, Santee, San Ysidro, or Mission Valley, you’re covered. The Trolley is in the midst of an expansion program, which will finally bring service all the way to La Jolla and UCSD. They’re also building express lanes on I-5 to benefit people who are less likely to take transit.

The EIR describes the mandatory grade separation for pedestrians, which is planned along Jefferson Street. The vehicular grade separation is practically a given at Market Street, especially if Union Pacific and the Federal Rail Administration demand it upfront as a condition of their project acceptance. Now that the City is taking responsibility for the off-site infrastructure, the grade separations are now the City’s problem. They will try to get money from the new federal infrastructure bill, of which a Senate version passed today with bipartisan support. Should Congresswoman Nancy Skinner succeed in competing for and securing the funds, the City will be part of the way there. To do it right they’ll also have to expand the fencing along Embarcadero. Remember how I pointed out that there are only two at-grade crossings near Petco? When you take away Jefferson and Market, Howard Terminal has *six* crossings to worry about. If this is to be done right, that fencing has to expand big time.

P.S. – The bus yard next to the Tailgate lot was once considered for a Chargers stadium.

2016 rendering of a Chargers retractable roof stadium and convention center venue

P.P.S. – For more info on the history of the SDMTS Trolley system, check out this fine video.

Oakland approves its own term sheet, tells world, “It’ll be fine, we’re good for it”

We’ve seen a wide range of reaction pieces in the wake of the Tuesday’s City Council meeting in which the Council voted on their own proposal, not the A’s own plans. The A’s and MLB responded in the negative, which was to be expected. Since then, Howard Terminal supporters took the A’s choice to let their legal team review the City’s proposal and not dismiss it outright as a hopeful sign. Which was, well, also to be expected. The supporters are ready, bent over, crying to the A’s, “Thank you sir, may I have another?”

You have to wonder if Oakland likes being bent over

News links:

Ray Ratto on Defector

Scott Ostler in the Chronicle

Mercury News

KQED

NY Times

If Oakland wants to feed that appetite, it should be allowed to do so. It shouldn’t involve Alameda County in any part of it. I liken it to a recent college graduate who didn’t get the dream job right after graduation. Six months into the search, he has an opportunity to get a decent job, one that could give him a good income, pay back his loans, and move out of his parents’ house. All that’s required is a lengthy commute. He has a 2011 Honda Accord as his steed, but trusty as it is, it has 100,000 miles on it. He has designs on a Tesla Model 3. He tried to buy one earlier but found that without an income and a good credit score he’ll need his parents to co-sign the loan. Clearly he doesn’t need the Model 3, but it would make him feel good!

Alameda County, as the parents in this labored metaphor, want to empty the nest, downsize, and travel during retirement. That’s why they sold their half of the Coliseum. The City is holding onto their half despite historically having greater difficulty servicing their share of the Mount Davis debt. Alameda County knew when to call it a night. Oakland can’t do it. After the Tuesday Howard Terminal session, Council entered negotiations sell their half to one of two Black-led developer groups, with an upfront promise of a WNBA team at the vacant Oakland Arena and the future promise of a NFL stadium (AASEG) or a MLB ballpark (Dave Stewart/Lonnie Murray). 

The City will give itself six months to evaluate either bid, then decide on one to enter one of those vaunted Exclusive Negotiating Agreements. The A’s surrendered their position when they shifted completely to Howard Terminal, but thanks to their agreement to buy the County’s half of the Coliseum, they will have their own say in the Coliseum’s future. Six months is fine as I wasn’t planning to cover that deal until the offseason begins.

With that pending distraction on the back burner, let’s take a look at what the City approved during the Howard Terminal session. Out of all the mostly nothingburger was one really important bit of news.

I don’t know what the City and the A’s spent much of the weekend negotiating, but for the City to say they’ll handle the responsibilities of the offsite IFD is a mind boggling bit of capitulation on their part. Let’s take a step back and consider what this really means for the project. First of all, the A’s are essentially not responsible for any of the needed transportation improvements outside Howard Terminal. They’ll handle the cleanup and grading of the 55-acres, sure. The grade separations and other rail safety measures? City’s problem. The transit hub? City. The ongoing cost of whatever shuttles have to be run between the BART stations and the development? Also the City. In a previous post I lamented how the Howard Terminal vision didn’t include the transportation infrastructure onsite. Now that chicken is coming home to roost. You can try to argue how much this tax or that assessment will help fund it, the fact is that it’s the City’s responsibility.

In that capitulation, Oakland still has the temerity to request Alameda County’s participation in the Howard Terminal IFD. Supporters are actually saying the County just has to turn on the faucet and let the tax increment come out. No big deal, right? But they’re forgetting that once the County opts in, they have to create their own Public Financing Authority to run the tax increment collection and governance of Howard Terminal. That’s on top of the existing jurisdiction of the Port. So City is asking County to help create its own Coliseum Jr. on the waterfront. Sounds like a great proposal for a party that wants to get out of the pro sports game, no?

Hello, Coliseum Jr!

Naturally, those infrastructure imperatives will compete with community benefits, which are still being negotiated at the moment, and because they are being tacked on are likely to be the last items in line to be funded if any funding is left over. Maybe in 20 years when the vision is developed and mature, and the collected tax increment catches up. The A’s proposal sets forth $450 million, which all parties will end up competing for like Oakland’s running its own civic funding reality show.

But there’s state and federal funding to be had, right? A Politico report points to $280 million made available by Governor Newsom that could be leveraged for the Port. The report focused on this phrase:

“improvements that facilitate enhanced freight and passenger access and to promote the efficient and safe movement of goods and people.”

What does that mean in the context of Howard Terminal? Expanded ferry service? Maybe, though that doesn’t help the existing fanbase much if at all as most of them aren’t on the water or have access to a ferry terminal. The proposal doesn’t include a new Amtrak station at Howard Terminal. Freight? By repurposing Howard Terminal for commercial and residential use, the A’s and City are taking freight out of the equation except for the possibility of providing funds for the grade separation. Which is great in theory, but doesn’t actually make the Port’s shipping operations more efficient or productive than the status quo.

As for federal funds? Republicans filibustered the first vote on the current infrastructure bill yesterday. It looks like the Democrats will take a shot next week, pairing the bill with a social safety net bill as they try to get it through the Senate. Will it provide the kind of funding this project needs? Tune in next week to see what comes out of the sausage grinder. Note that Congress has its own recess in a week, just like their counterparts in City/County/State government.

As Howard Terminal supporters look far afield for dropped coins to fund this boondoggle, I’m reminded of the lengths Oakland and Alameda County had to go to get the Coliseum complex funded initially. Some things don’t change. It also reminds me of former Mayor Jean Quan’s desperate attempts to get Coliseum City funded by the use of a controversial visa program and also by name checking the “Prince of Dubai.” It isn’t enough to do things on a manageable scale in Oakland. The thirst to become a big city never dies. It evolves into something more wretched, more complex. Who’s willing to co-sign this one?

How to Turn Win-Win-Win into No-Win in a Few Short Hours

Well, that was a disaster.

Friday morning started off with great anticipation, as fans and the media eagerly awaited the City of Oakland’s version of a term sheet. As I wrote last week, the City and the A’s are working at cross purposes in trying to come to terms, as the A’s don’t want to stray too far from what they proposed while the City wants change enough of it for the City Council to pass it.

The term sheet with attachments dropped Friday morning at 9:15 AM. Reporters from all major Bay Area print and broadcast outlets swooped in to study it. Now keep in mind that the City is now dealing with two term sheets, the one proposed by the A’s during the spring and the version put together by City staff. While the A’s and City keep working to come to agreements on major deal points, the only big achievement so far is a consensus on a 25-year non-relocation clause, up from 20 proposed originally by the A’s.

The City’s term sheet entirely omits the offsite IFD (infrastructure financing district), called JLS though it doesn’t include Jack London Square proper. Instead the focus is on a single IFD at the 55-acre Howard Terminal site. From a passage standpoint this is the best move by the City, since the offsite IFD didn’t have broad support and likely wouldn’t withstand a vote of property owners to tax themselves. However, the A’s lobbied for the offsite IFD from the beginning and continue to push for it, turning the issue into a potential showstopper.

Casey Pratt from ABC7 and Brodie Brazil from NBC Sports California both interviewed A’s President Dave Kaval later in the day. Kaval didn’t budge much on the IFD stance, though Pratt caught Kaval not being forthcoming about the state of a potential short-term extension at the Coliseum. I started to feel uneasy at points in both interviews as I got the feeling that Pratt and Brazil were practically negotiating, but for what? The City has its own negotiating team, as do the A’s. Were they representing fans, who until now have been criminally underrepresented? Perhaps, though there are always dangers in turning this already public negotiation even more public. I understand wanting to give fans some nuggets of hope, but this isn’t the way to do it. It’s already a confusing mess, since if the resolution passes on Tuesday it will likely be rejected out of hand by the A’s. If it’s voted down, which the A’s prefer, the City will have to go back to the drawing board while the A’s will have license to look beyond Vegas in terms of relocation. Hell, they’ll have the freedom regardless of what happens on Tuesday. That Kaval already has a Vegas trip planned immediately after the vote indicates that Kaval and Fisher are anticipating either outcome.

What I find puzzling is that at some point in the past 3/6/12/18 months the City should have recognized the offsite IFD was a loser and proactively adjusted the plan accordingly, or at least pushed the applicant (the A’s) in that direction. Now City has a funding gap of $351.9 million and no clear path(s) to bridge it. Kaval mentioned in one of the previous public hearings that the A’s could get the ballpark built with only $22 million in infrastructure built prior to opening day. My guess is that $22 million would go only towards the fencing and other safety measures that would be required for minimal rail safety, though obviously that’s far short of the full grade separation wanted by Union Pacific and Amtrak.

Howard Terminal ballpark with lots of park and open space around it

The A’s chose to propose the ballpark with all of the virtually all of the needed infrastructure, especially the transit hub, located offsite. In doing so, they made the offsite part of the project much more expensive. The transit hub, which will cover a two-block stretch of 2nd Street, is likely to cost $50-100 million to implement. There are also the bridges to build for grade separation. If the A’s included the transit hub as part of the Howard Terminal IFD, they could’ve reduced the offsite cost while providing a reasons for the City to invest in the transit hub: efficiency and better packaging. The team probably didn’t go this route because they didn’t want a transit hub right next to their luxurious condo towers. The funny thing about that is that because they already conceded the western blocks of the site as a buffer against Schnitzer Steel, those blocks are set up well for office uses, parking, and a transit hub if they want it.

Site plan with the southwest corner cut out for the expanded turning basin

Even if the transit hub is relocated, the grade separations remain a priority, even moreso because of the refocused traffic. That $352 million cost doesn’t magically go away. As I leafed through the term sheet it struck me that the offsite infrastructure cost is about the same as the construction cost for PacBell/AT&T/Oracle Park (not adjusted for inflation). It never gets cheaper, and as the A’s keep dillydallying with sites and cities, the price will continue to rise especially if new requirements they didn’t anticipate 10 or 20 years ago are piled on.

Other cities will be talked about as the A’s and MLB grow more frustrated with Oakland. These days that’s par for the course. Just remember that there are a couple factors that will have sway that no candidate city can control. One is inflation, or the rising cost of construction. That’s partly explained by building more complex buildings than what used to be standard (see my visit to Globe Life Field as the most recent example). Places that need retractable roofs and comprehensive HVAC systems can add a cool $300-400 million off the top. That’s an equalizer for Oakland. The other factor is written into the MLB’s constitution.

As a team in one of the largest markets, the A’s agreed to be taken off revenue sharing indefinitely. When that occurred I complained that Oakland, while in the powerhouse Bay Area, is functionally more of a mid-market team like San Diego or team in the Midwest due to its inherent disadvantages in media and location. Regardless, the A’s have to play by big boy rules, so they get no quarter, no revenue sharing. That means that any move to a new market (Portland, Las Vegas, Vancouver) must be contemplated not only as a new market, but also a market that will require the A’s to go on revenue sharing due to yes, inherent disadvantages in media and location or market size. If MLB’s philosophy is to get franchises off revenue sharing as a necessity (call it small market welfare), moving the A’s to a much smaller market contradicts that notion. Ironically, crippling the A’s revenue picture a few years ago may be the one thing that saves the A’s for Oakland in the end. If only they can get a ballpark built.

P.S. – The Oakland Coliseum is about 16 acres in size. It’s huge. The Howard Terminal looks very close, maybe 14 acres. The packaging could be a lot better for 30,000 seats.

Union Pacific explains their Howard Terminal position

After the release of the Howard Terminal Draft EIR, I waited for the compiled comments to become available. Beneath the pleas from transit agencies and housing groups, there was a video provided by none other than Union Pacific (UPRR). The well-produced video comment is not much longer than a typical music video and comes with a highly professional voiceover.

Video illustrates hypothetical train parked in front of Howard Terminal

Union Pacific continues to raise concerns over the project, saying that it will impact its operations. The chief problem is that when a train stops at UPRR’s yard to the west of Howard Terminal, it will often be stuck there for 10-45 minutes as a long train is effectively split into three parts to fit it into the tracks at the yard. After that switching activity is completed the train can be loaded or unloaded. Presumably, the train has to be reassembled to some extent in order to begin its next journey.

Okay, we knew that going in, nothing new, right? Ah, but there’s a twist. UPRR acknowledges that despite its concerns, the City of Oakland could plow ahead with the project anyway. If that happens, UPRR is prepared to make demands. The big ask, which I heard from PMSA’s Mike Jacob in a discussion with Zennie Abraham yesterday, is that UPRR will request that all construction traffic be grade separated from the active rail line before construction on the rest of the project begins.

Block or charge? You make the call

It’s a reasonable request from a safety standpoint, one that I could see the Federal Rail Administration, Caltrans, and Amtrak supporting. If you’re going to reduce the risk of train-automobile or train-pedestrian/bike interactions, putting in a grade separation at Market Street (location not finalized) makes sense. The problem with that what we’re really talking about is putting in a big concrete bridge at Market, a piece of infrastructure that the A’s have been hesitant to commit to. As UPRR’s Robert Bylsma wrote in May:

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.”

Of course, a fully grade-separated entrance to the site that can handle trucks and heavy iron won’t be cheap. It’s not a showstopper, since if that’s the cost of doing business at Howard Terminal, that’s the cost of doing business. It does push a major project cost to the front of the line where it would compete with other line items. Plus there’s the visual issue of an eyesore bridge going up before the ballpark or anything else along the waterfront. During last week’s session, City staff still considered the vehicular grade separation an alternative, not a requirement.

With the separate vehicular and pedestrian bridges added to the project, the grade separation cost alone threatens to run into the $300 million range. There’s no surprise there. Good quality infrastructure costs money. When HT was considered 10 years ago for a ballpark, guess how much a new BART station at Market or Brush streets was estimated to cost? $250-300 million. I guess in hindsight I can see why A’s ownership is being so tightfisted about an item as fundamental in 2021 as affordable housing. Even if your budget is projected to hit $12 Billion, every $300 million counts.

Gone Baby Gondola

2018 gondola route map (with older ballpark design)

Two related bits of ballpark-related news came out of FanFest over the weekend. First, the Chronicle’s Phil Matier picked up on the transportation study that shows that people will continue driving even if the A’s come to Howard Terminal, which belies the notion of an “urban” ballpark. On a related note, Oakland’s Department of Transportation is now downplaying the prospects of a gondola bridging the nearest BART station (12th Street/City Center) and the ballpark. After all the hubbub coming out of last year’s FanFest, this news is what I feared. Dave Kaval remains optimistic. I have my doubts.

I discussed the prospects of the gondola at length exactly one year ago. It saddens me that the discussion may end there, not so much because the gondola dream is dying, but because all parties seem to be satisfied with the current lack of solutions to deal with the last mile problem. The prevailing attitude seems to be that technology will solve the gridlock problem. Of course, it’s much more complicated than that.

Transportation Network Companies, from Uber and Lyft to bike and scooter share startups, are supposed to bridge that gap along with walking. Profitability remains off in the distance. Strategies are largely confined to waiting for a competitor to go under and become a default monopoly player due to attrition, then jack up fares to become profitable once the competition is gone. Another possible scenario is a merger to eliminate competition, which makes some sense given that many drivers work for both Uber and Lyft. When that consolidation occurs, and more realistic pricing emerges, we’ll start to see how many people choose ridesharing as an option instead of walking or taking a bus shuttle. The upshot is that it’s a very difficult game to make transportation that merely breaks even, whether you’re talking public or private. (Note: Not touching the impact of AB 5.)

This is the point where I have to point out (again) that the Giants’ ballpark deal in China Basin was made with SF agreeing to a light rail extension from Market Street to the ballpark along the Embarcadero. That won’t happen in Oakland. Perhaps a BART extension could happen once everyone figures out how and where a second Transbay Tube will be built (and funded). That probably can’t happen until 2050.

Take it or leave it for now

For the majority of fans who will be driving to Howard Terminal, they could reserve parking spots at participating area garages depending on how much they’re willing to pay and walk. There’s enough parking inventory in downtown Oakland to handle the demand. How fans react to longer walks to their parking spots or BART is the coming source of friction. If fans encounter a fairly tranquil day as has been experienced for the Jack London Square version of FanFest, they’ll be encouraged to keep going to games. If they see difficulty in game night traffic, the parking experience, the walk/shuttle, or a train incident blocks the way in/out, that could mean one or more fans or families that choose to go on a weekend instead of a weekday, or simply less frequently than they used to. However the A’s and the City/Port are pitching this, convenience is not the main selling point. It will be convenient for some who live in Oakland near the park or a short AC Transit bus ride away. The problem is that it isn’t an improvement for practically everyone else who lives in the East Bay. There could be improvements with the bus schedules, helpful for those who choose to take the bus. I could see more Amtrak trains and ferry service. None of those options help the rest of the East Bay, where most of the fanbase originates.

Baseball, especially in Oakland, is dependent on casual fans who choose to go on a whim instead of being season ticket holders. The A’s even modernized their season ticket plan to effectively encourage going on a whim. But it’s not a good trend if the end result is lower friction to buy tickets and higher friction to actually attend a game. Bottom line: the only infrastructure being planned so far is the transit hub, a single pedestrian/bike bridge, and the addition of bus lanes. To be honest, I’m confounded at how this passed as a first draft of the transportation plan. A’s fans, whether you live in Oakland or Concord, whether you’re young or old or need assistance, deserve better.

P.S. – I chose not to go to FanFest this year. The lack of news about the ballpark, combined with the minimal turnover in the roster, made it easy for me to look ahead towards Cactus League play. Speaking of which, the A’s brought back their Spring Training Pass for those fortunate enough to be in the Valley of the Sun for the entirety of the spring. Maybe this time I’ll be able to go to more than a few games.

 

Howard Terminal: Notes on a work in progress

Assembled some observations on the City of Oakland staff report on Howard Terminal’s progress:

On the cost of infrastructure:

Q: What is the cost of public infrastructure (for the Howard Terminal project) and does SB 293 define that cost or provide a procedure for defining what that cost is before commitments are made to fund the infrastructure? Will an IFD commit all property tax revenue within the district boundary?

A: Costs of infrastructure for the Howard Terminal project are not yet fully known. In order to form an IFD for Howard Terminal or any other district, the City Council would be required to create and approve an Infrastructure Financing Plan before funding any infrastructure.

There’s a chicken-and-egg story here. Think about it this way: Do you know what happened to the gondola? Well, it gets one paragraph in this 123-page report.

Gondola
A gondola connecting Jack London Square to approximately Washington and 10th Streets is being studied as a variant in the EIR. The gondola would carry 6,000 passengers per hour. As the gondola is a variant, and not a part of the Project, staff efforts are focused on ensuring that the transportation plan operates with or without the gondola.

A “variant” isn’t much of a selling point for a big project. Instead most of the focus is on shuttle buses, ride sharing (TNC), and walking. But it’s not all bad.

In addition to transit-only lanes, staff is currently working with the Oakland A’s to locate and scope a transit hub to serve the Project and the greater Jack London Square community. The hub is envisioned as an attractive experience where game day crowds and daily commuters may easily and comfortably wait for buses, access bike share, valet bike parking, scooters, and other types of mobility.

One of the potential locations being considered for this transit hub is a two-block stretch under the Nimitz. Which would be a good way to utilize that area instead of simply turning it into regular parking lot.

Pricing: In order to effectively shift Project patrons from driving and TNCs (primarily Uber and Lyft) to transit, it may be necessary to make transit more economical. Both AC Transit and BART have expressed interest in working with the City and the Oakland A’s to establish a game day transit fare, similar to the arrangement currently being piloted by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency at Chase Center.

If you recall, I ran some numbers on the gondola (capital + operations) and figured it would cost $12 per rider round trip if it were unsubsidized. The gondola would cost $123 million to build. For reference, the project to lengthen the Mission Bay Muni platform is more than $51 million. And that’s peanuts compared to new Transbay Terminal.

Rail Safety
In the rail industry, grade separation is considered the “gold standard” for safety. Used in combination with other strategies to accommodate rail crossings as safely as possible, new grade-separated crossings would aid in mitigating the following existing conditions in the Project vicinity:

    • The Jack London Square segment experiences some of the highest collision rates in Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor network
    • Proximity to the Port results in occasional very long train dwell times (15-20 minutes) as freight trains maneuver on tracks

The Project sponsor has also studied vehicular grade-separated crossings (overpass and underpass) at Market Street and deemed these grade separations infeasible. City staff are still reviewing this study and have reached no conclusions with regard to feasibility and potential design exceptions. Generally speaking, an underpass would be preferred as an urban form. In the absence of a grade-separated vehicular crossing, emergency vehicle access and site flushing in the event of an emergency are of particular concern, and options for emergency ingress and egress are being evaluated in conjunction with the development of an emergency management plan for the ballpark.

I find this downright inexcusable. The A’s, at the project sponsor, don’t have the final say on what’s feasible at Howard Terminal. An alphabet soup of regional, state, and federal agencies will. Look, I’ve talked about this enough in the past. In the future, I’ll just refer to this snippet of the report if anyone has questions about how serious the rail safety problem is. Jeez.

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6) Financial Issues:
The Oakland A’s have indicated that they wish to enter into a Development Agreement with the City governing development of the proposed Project. Development Agreement negotiations and supporting financial analysis have not yet begun. The City and Port are working through
jurisdictional City Charter issues and the City and Port are aligned in applying the zoning code to the project site and delegating that authority to the City; however, the legal mechanism for accomplishing such an approach is pending. While Development Agreement negotiations have not begun, the Oakland A’s have committed to the City and in a variety of forums that the ballpark itself will be privately financed. In addition, the Oakland A’s have also indicated that they are looking for a public private partnership on infrastructure. Staff understands and shares the City Council’s concern that the City consider the full project – costs and benefits – before making any financial commitments of any nature to this Project.

In other words: We’re working out the details. They’ll have until the end of September to wrap up many of those details in a pretty little bow.

Running the numbers on the gondola

I wasn’t sure how long I’d last at FanFest, so I made sure to pack a lot of activity in the morning just in case I petered out in the afternoon. That turned out to be good planning.

    • Arrived at the Amtrak Jack London Square station at 9:20
    • Walked to Howard Terminal while passing through Jack London Square via Water Street. 0.7-mile walk took longer than expected because of the amassed crowds and booths. Arrived at the east gate by the old oil storage tank at 9:38.
    • Went back towards the action at JLS, sat on a bench outside 10 Clay Street for a breather. Listened to coach and player intros, 9:55.
    • Looked around, found the Regatta 1 space where the A’s were holding the ballpark Q&A sessions. Grabbed a good seat at 10:15.
    • First Q&A session started at 10:30, lasted a half-hour.
    • Headed towards food truck corral to meet Jeff, who couldn’t get in the first session. We decided to get non-food truck grub, so we decided to walk the gondola route down Washington at 11:30. (Sadly, Jeff’s brother Kevin couldn’t make it as his munchkins were having a little too much fun with some balloons, so they had to leave early.)
    • The walk up Washington to the convention center took 17 minutes (also 0.7 miles) with light pedestrian and vehicular traffic. After we arrived at the convention center, we went into the Marriott. Jeff retraced his journey with Casey Pratt to the Warriors’ practice facility. We didn’t have access to the fifth floor entrance, so we left to get lunch at 12:15.

Gondola Route down Washington, ballpark placed at Howard Terminal

  • After lunch I was starting to crash and Jeff had to visit his sick grandma, so we hiked over to the 12th Street BART station. He was going to Pleasanton, me to Oakland Airport at 1:15.

As is often the case, the escalator at the BART entrance was out of service. I took the stairs and groused about it a little. During our journey I showed Jeff the video the A’s and BIG posted of the gondola simulation. It looked cool, though it missed the transfer from BART to the gondola station (900-foot walk). The station itself is planned to sit above the intersection of 10th Street and Washington Street.

To make the station work, a two-block stretch of 10th Street would be converted into a pedestrian mall. Washington would remain open to vehicles, though the streetscape could be changed to accommodate more trees and perhaps wider sidewalks and less parking. I think it would be a good idea to put in a reversible bus lane for use during games. Jeff thought Washington should be closed to vehicles like 10th. I agreed, pointing out the political difficulty in doing so.

After we boarded a southbound BART train, I downloaded the gondola economic impact report. While the numbers from the report looked impressive, a closer look showed one particular set of numbers was missing: The cost to riders.

To be fair, this is how such reports are often written. The reason often given is that the agencies or private parties involved are working on different ways to charge for the service, and a final determination hasn’t been made. However, I took some of the aforementioned numbers and tried to figure it out.

  • $123 million to build gondola over 0.7 miles, including a station at each end (Washington & Water, Washington & 10th).
  • $4.6 million annual operating cost
  • 1 million riders each taking round trips

If you write a $123 million loan for the gondola, you end up with an $8 million annual debt payment spread over 30 years at 5%. Add the operating costs (labor, maintenance) and it comes to $12.6 million per year just to break even. That’s important, because the A’s aren’t going to depend on local or regional mass transit funding to make this happen. It means that every one of those million riders, not all of whom will be A’s fans, have to provide the equivalent of $12.60 in revenue for every round trip.

Powell-Mason cable car line (via Google Earth)

Should the A’s get this thing built, they’ll come up with innovative ways to help pay for the gondola. They could pass the cost on to subscribers of their All Access plans. Or levy a transportation fee with every ticket. Still, $12.60 to cover the literal last mile to the ballpark is a bitter pill to swallow. No wonder their pitch includes tourists! The gondola path includes a descent over I-880 down to the waterfront, reminiscent of the Powell/Mason and Powell/Hyde cable car lines. Speaking of which, have you looked at how much it costs to ride a cable car these days? $7 each way! Makes a $12.60 round trip look like a bargain! Sort of.

This is how the Oakland Airport Connector worked out. I rode the elevated cable-car line from the Coliseum BART station to Oakland International Airport. It cost me one-way $6.65 (less 50 cents if using Clipper). The tram ran smoothly and had only few other people in it.

Saturday afternoon on the Oakland Airport Connector

I enjoyed the OAC the two times I’ve taken it, but I can’t get past the idea that it’s an incredible waste of money. There is some history behind this money pit via Matier & Ross:

When it was proposed, the cost of the 3.2-mile elevated tram line was put at about $134 million. By the time work began in 2010, the cost had risen to about $500 million — requiring BART to issue $110 million in bonds to pay for it.

Despite the growing costs, the project was propelled forward because it was seen as a boon for the airport and a job creator in the midst of the post-2008 economic crash.

Now, however, it’s a headache for BART — and another red line in the system’s looming $477 million budget deficit over the next decade.

If BART is smart, they won’t touch the gondola with a ten-foot pole. Make that 900 feet for good measure. At least aerial trams don’t run into cost overrun problems.

Now consider that the cost of the gondola for a family of five, not including their regular BART fares or parking or anything else, could be $63. I’m about to get the Spring Training Pass. 12 games for $50 plus a $5 handling fee. Good to know bargains like that still exist.

Kaval Call Part III – Gondolas not BART

The late, long-lamented Key System once provided an efficient, well-planned streetcar network that operated in Oakland, Emeryville and Berkeley. In the wake of the Great American Streetcar Scandal, streetcar lines were replaced by buses. That led to the eventual development of the BART system, which in 1972 was a then-futuristic regional network that decidedly was not a streetcar replacement.

It helped somewhat that Oakland started as the heart of the BART network, with eight stations within city limits and the first main trunk line (Fremont-Richmond) running through Downtown Oakland. What remained was a hub-and-spoke system in which AC Transit buses fed newly established transit hubs at the BART stations. While buses had more route flexibility than streetcars, they lacked the permanence and service quality of streetcars or light rail.

60 years after the streetcar-to-bus debacle, the modern era of light rail passed by Oakland. Meanwhile, light rail proliferated in San Francisco in the 80’s and San Jose in the 90’s. The 21st century introduced BRT – light rail in terms of station infrastructure, but buses by motor and wheels.

Construction continues apace on the San Pablo Ave and International Blvd lines. However, both terminate in or near Downtown Oakland, short of Jack London Square and Howard Terminal. Practically, that makes them no better than BART in terms of getting to the ballpark. If Howard Terminal becomes its own non-BART transit hub, it will be necessary for those BRT routes to extend to the waterfront. To accommodate BRT properly, at least one of the north-south streets running downtown (Broadway, Jefferson, Washington) will need to be modified to add BRT stations, eliminating parking or traffic lanes.

The free Broadway Shuttle provides a decent transfer option, though to properly handle the crush of pre-game and post-game riders transferring from BART, Broadway will still need to be modified. What could be the solution besides walking or street-clogging buses? A gondola, of course.

Wait. A gondola?

Saffron Blaze, via http://www.mackenzie.co

We’re not talking about the Venetian kind of gondola, as Oakland lacks the kind of canal system that could support a fleet of gondolas. Instead, the type of gondola discussed hangs in the air. Using similar technology as the Oakland Airport Connector, the gondola system the A’s are proposing would run above Washington Street between Jack London Square/Howard Terminal and 11th Street in Downtown Oakland.

Portland Aerial Tramway (via Tim Adams, flickr)

A scaled down gondola system was installed at the Oakland Zoo last year as part of the zoo’s California Trail expansion. Implementation was predicated on the notion that visitors should be able take the 1,780-foot span and 309-foot elevation change from the entrance to the new Landing Cafe at the California Trail; all while minimizing impact the wildlife beneath the gondolas. Gondolas tend to be reliable – zoo operational hiccup being an exception – and don’t use a lot of energy. Austrian vendor Doppelmayr, which also built the Airport Connector, claims that the system can carry 6,000 riders per hour. Neither of the American systems come anywhere close to approaching that capacity. Single lines in Bolivia and Colombia can carry 3-4,000 per hour. Those examples are among the busiest in the world.

The trip from the 12th Street/City Center BART station to Howard Terminal will run over flat land, though not without a transition. A rider disembarking from a Fremont or San Francisco-bound train will do so on the lowest level, the third subway deck beneath Broadway. From there fans have to take a two-story escalator, elevator, or stairs to the concourse level, walk towards the 11th Street exit, then take another escalator/elevator to street level. Once on the street, the fan would have to cross 11th Street to the Marriott City Center, then find a way to move past the hotel and up 5 floors to what is now the Warriors’ practice facility atop the Oakland Convention Center. From there there should be a gondola station that will whisk fans to Howard Terminal.

It’s not an elegant solution. It beats walking, right? While I’m sure Marriott would enjoy the uptick of baseball fans staying at the City Center hotel location, the company may not be so enthused at the idea of thousands of people not paying anything to trample the facility’s elevators. There will be many fans who decide it’s better to walk especially on a sunny day or take the Broadway Shuttle to the water. Others will have to herd like cattle up or down EIGHT flights to transfer From the subway to the gondola. A better solution may be for the City of Oakland to extend the station’s concourse level and build a separate exit from the BART station to the Convention Center that could include banks of escalators and elevators to navigate the other 5-6 levels.

(BTW the $1 million Warriors practice facility was thrown into the Coliseum Arena renovation deal. The City’s half of whatever settlement comes from the Warriors for breaking their lease could be put to good use once the remaining debt is paid off.)

Curiously, in 2007 the City of Hercules in Contra Costa County researched a gondola to help alleviate traffic on CA-4. It seemed somewhat outdated given recent advances in ropeway technology, but the basic tenets of the pro/con debate appear sound.

Advantages:
1. Capital costs are low. Aerial cable transit typically has the lowest capital cost (on a per mile basis) compared to other fixed-guideway technologies.
2. Operating and maintenance costs are low.
3. Environmental impacts are minimal. Cable systems leave only a small footprint, require little space for a guideway and towers, and can be easily retrofitted into existing streets.
4. Construction impacts are minimal. Except for a limited number of foundations for towers or terminals, much less site preparation is necessary than for other types of fixed guideway.

Disadvantages:
1. Expandability is impossible or difficult at best. Since current technology makes it difficult to have systems consisting of more than two stations, future expansion to other areas of the city may not be feasible.
2. Alignment tends to be limited to a straight line. Angle stations both increase costs and consume relatively large amounts of land, the latter being undesirable in urban areas. Concrete or steel guideways carrying self-propelled vehicles are preferable if a curved alignment is needed.
3. Availability, while high, is not as great as for other technologies.
4. High winds and electrical storms force shut downs which would not occur with other technologies.
5. Evacuation techniques are dramatic and unnerving. Cautious public officials are unlikely to feel comfortable with them. Although the techniques are proven safe
and effective, media may emphasize their dramatic aspect.
6. Insurance premiums are high. This tends to cancel advantages to low operating and maintenance costs.

Compared to other modes of transportation, there aren’t a lot of studies on gondolas in urban settings in the USA. There are successful examples of the technology in Portland (Portland Aerial Tram) and New York (Roosevelt Island Tramway). Yet the tech has had difficulty escaping the notion that it’s meant primarily for ski resorts. The Roosevelt Island Tramway may be the most apt comparison for a Howard Terminal Gondola, as it runs on a BART-like schedule and has cabins that can hold up to 125 people each. Newer cabins used in Vietnam can carry 200. That’s a lot more than cabins at the Oakland Zoo (8) or even Portland (78). My concern about the gondola is that with its limited availability it will be looked upon as an exclusive toy for the well-heeled. At least compared to the OAC it shouldn’t cost half a billion to build it.

And now there are rumblings that Howard Terminal could be just the thing to close down underutilized I-980, re-use the old Interstate right of way for both BART and high speed rail or Caltrain tracks, while offering a station at Howard Terminal AND offering the long-sought-after Southern Crossing via another Transbay Tube to reach San Francisco. This is a clear example of wishing for things with no regard to how much they cost. If the combined Howard Terminal ballpark and transit center and trains on 980 and expanded ferry service and water taxis and redesigned Oakland streets end up costing eleven figures, what’s a few billion extra among friends?

I asked Dave Kaval how the gondola would be operated. Would it have a separate fare, or something rolled into the ticket price? Kaval response was

That’s not really determined yet. There’s an operating agreement with the operator (Doppelmayr or Garaventa), then we work out the details from there including fares.

Presumably that would include integration with the Clipper Card system, though BART saw fit to create its own app to handle payments for the Airport Connector as well.

My friends, Jeffrey and Kevin August, walked from the 12th Street City Center BART station to the open house at the A’s Jack London Square headquarters. They’re planning to do at least one more trip including Lake Merritt, then I plan to join them for the walk when FanFest happens, weather permitting.

Look, we all know how much of a cluster the Bay Area’s transit situation is. Could we all get on the same page and set some priorities? A fanciful double-tunnel based on a non-existent train extension incumbent upon a mega-development based on a small ballpark that is far from being approved? Pardon me for thinking it’s a bit of a stretch. Oakland is blessed to be the heart of the BART system. Why spend so much effort dreaming of ways to avoid BART? Or why does a second Transbay Tube have to connect through Oakland when there are so many other communities that don’t have BART at all? Answers to many of these questions will be revealed in the forthcoming EIR.

Tram-a-lam-a

For those who haven’t yet dismissed out-of-hand the idea of an aerial tram linking Downtown Oakland (12tb Street BART) to Jack London Square/Howard Terminal, I’ve put together the following chart comparing the proposed transit option with other existing trams and other non-bus, non-subway modes.

Chew on that over the weekend.

And if you want further related info, check out a study done for the City of Hercules for its own circulator, which could have included its own aerial tram. It’s worth a read.

With that, have a good weekend everyone.