Infrastructure: Death by a Thousand Curb Cuts

Two weeks ago, Roman Mars of the brilliant Oakland-based 99% Invisible podcast, told listeners that 99pi is being sold to podcast network Stitcher, itself a property of satellite radio giant Sirius XM. He followed the announcement with a rebroadcast from 2018, which I assure you is very good, for reasons that will become abundantly clear shortly. All corporate blowback aside, I’m certain Mars and company will be able to keep up the quality of the shows. 

The rebroadcast show’s topic was the humble curb cut, the sidewalk ramp you’ve seen proliferating in cities and suburban neighborhoods over the past few decades. The episode discusses the origin of the curb cut, which came partly because of the work of Ed Roberts, a disability rights pioneer who attended UC Berkeley in the 60’s and created the Center for Independent Living, whose purpose is to empower those with disabilities.

Curb cuts (or curb ramps in the EIR’s parlance) are the transitional ramps from sidewalk to street usually found at intersections. Initially meant for wheelchair use, they also help people with strollers, bicycles, even wagons, shopping and hand carts. In many commercial and residential areas throughout the country, ADA guidelines dictate the implementation of curb cuts. Those guidelines were revised over the years. Last year I saw a ramp near my house dug up and replaced with a different, more gradual ramp.

Map of project area with locations of needed sidewalk infrastructure improvement

Those of you who followed my story over the past few years are probably aware that as part of my post-stroke rehabilitation process in 2018, I was given a rental wheelchair. It was not powered, and I was fairly weak to push myself around in that thing. It was enough of a hassle that it motivated me to get walking sooner, and with my brother’s help, that’s exactly what happened. Those few wheelchair-bound months gave me fresh perspective on the struggles the disabled go through on a regular basis. I also started going to a gym in the Phoenix area called Ability 360, which is geared towards independent living for people of varying abilities. I got to see a few wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby (a.k.a. “Murderball”) games, which showed me just how tough these athletes are.

Eventually I returned the wheelchair and built up my walking regimen, which these days is 4+ miles (10,000 steps) per day. I may not walk particularly fast (23-25 minutes per mile), but I have no trouble negotiating distance. Yet I’m still concerned about Howard Terminal which, regardless of which BART or Amtrak station you travel from, is easily 3 times what would normally be considered a reasonable distance walk of a quarter-mile or 400 meters. 

Today’s (5/13) step count

The A’s are promising a range of solutions to help bridge the gap to mass transit and parking in Downtown Oakland. The gondola is one of them, though you rarely hear about it anymore. Instead there will be a transit hub with shuttles to the three nearest BART stations and possibly the Jack London Square Amtrak station, which is actually 0.8 miles from the Howard Terminal ballpark site. Ridesharing services (TNCs) should fill some of the gaps, though they don’t exactly remove cars from streets. The project also proposes a Transportation Management Program (TMP) to better route traffic away from the bubble envisioned around the ballpark. Side streets are planned to go on road diets to reduce cars and speeds. A bunch of shuttle buses seems like a highly inelegant if not ineffective solution, which project opponents have been quick to point out. But with a BART infill station in the area ruled out along with a Broadway-based streetcar, it’s obvious that there is no magic bullet to the transportation problem. The A’s aim has been to reach a specific goal of reducing the Vehicle Miles Traveled number by 20% compared to not having a TMP at all, in compliance with the CEQA streamlining bill. How do they do that without a real mass transit solution? Bike lanes and curb cuts.

MLK Way at Embarcadero West outside Howard Terminal: Left side has a curb cut, right side does not

Back to the other infrastructure being discussed. At this point you may be wondering: Why weren’t those curb cuts and bike lanes in the area in the first place? That’s more of a philosophical issue than anything else. In traditional downtowns and central business districts, it makes sense to put in curb cuts and bike lanes to encourage non-vehicular travel. ADA mandates it. For decidedly industrial areas like Howard Terminal, there is less momentum behind such changes because they encourage pedestrian and bike traffic, which most industry wants to avoid at all costs. Cities have to direct scarce resources throughout their jurisdiction, which includes deciding which types of infrastructure should go where. Around Howard Terminal, a large swath of which doesn’t have sidewalks or curbs, that infrastructure will have to built from scratch. That’s in addition to the pedestrian bridge that will bring some – but not most – fans to the transit hub where they will take a bus to BART.

Much of the infrastructure proposal, the part outside 55-acre Howard Terminal that the City of Oakland will have to be funded via tax increment, includes the shuttles, curb cuts and bike lanes introduced by road dieting. The gondola could provide a 5-7% car trip reduction depending on when a game or event is held. We don’t yet know how much the gondola will cost to build or operate, but there is a lesson from the Oakland Airport Connector, which was built by gondola vendor Dopplmayr. The connector was criticized as an expensive boondoggle at the outset which started gaining ridership as airport users became more familiar with the driverless people mover. That usage eventually was negated by the advent of ridesharing, as users decided it made more sense to Uber/Lyft to the Coliseum BART station or elsewhere along the BART network or away from the network entirely. That lesson has to give the City and the A’s pause, as someone has to pony up to build and operate the gondola. As it stands, the gondola is going to be dependent on ballpark visitors, local residents, and tourists. I’m not sure how good a business case that is. If the gondola doesn’t materialize, what does that do to the overall project business case?

With all the debate going on about what defines infrastructure from a federal budget standpoint, it may be easy to ignore the impact of a curb cut. It isn’t sexy like a gondola or monorail. In the long run, the combined impact of numerous sidewalk improvements may prove more useful than a magic bullet solution. All the same, all that new concrete, painting, signaling, and signage won’t be cheap. It adds up.

The real issue is the timing. The A’s are facing backlash from the Howard Terminal project’s sticker shock. Yet they had two bills passed during the 2019 California legislative session to shepherd these improvements through. Wouldn’t it have been prudent to spend some time between then and now educating the public (citizens, fans) about the advantages of these changes? The A’s didn’t do that, probably because they didn’t want to admit how much it was going to cost. They didn’t hire a PR firm to massage the messaging. Now you have random supporters trying to pick up the slack on social media when they are clearly not trained or educated enough to do it. 

What are we left with? MLB’s playbook has always been to intervene when a team’s ownership proves itself incapable to hammer out a deal on their own. Admittedly, Rob Manfred gave the A’s a lot of rope in the past to figure things out, even though baseball chose not to help the A’s with San Jose. We’re at the point where Manfred and the rest of The Lodge are fed up. Maybe idle relocation threats will make the City of Oakland flinch. I doubt the City will take a premature vote on a project that hasn’t been fully studied just because a bunch of A’s fans desperately want it. As I wrote three weeks ago, I wouldn’t be surprised if the City Council let the voters decide on Howard Terminal, taking the decision out of the Council’s hands. Meanwhile, we’ll continue to hear leaked reports about meetings with different cities, all of whom will scramble to cobble together coherent ballpark plans. They might have something at some point. They don’t have anything yet.

P.S. – Check out former Marlins President David Samson’s podcast on In this episode, he practically gives up the whole stadium extortion game, which, well, here’s my reaction:

Timeline Slips For Me, Not For Thee

New timeline (8/1)
Howard Terminal Development Timeline from Summer 2020

A good percentage of the A’s fanbase loved the team’s #RootedInOakland campaign and saw it as a movement. In the most optimistic of terms, it would build a new ballpark which would act as a catalyst for a downtown renaissance, which happened across the Bay 20+ years ago when the Giants moved to SoMa. It would establish Oakland’s waterfront as a major tourist attraction, more than merely Jack London Square. Most importantly, it would keep the green and gold in Oakland. The term sheet submitted by the A’s even has a non-relocation agreement, the better to calm that nervous fanbase. (Many recent stadium deals have standard non-relocation clauses.)

MLB’s “good cop” routine is out the window now that it gave the A’s its blessing to explore markets outside of Oakland. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, Commissioner Rob Manfred set the price for new expansion teams at around $2.2 Billion. In doing so, he also set the price for relocating teams to new cities, which won’t have the luxury of having a newly relocated team play in an old multipurpose stadium or a souped up AAA park for a few years while they work out a MLB ballpark plan.

I’m not going to tell you not to worry about the A’s leaving. Some hypothetical mega-billionaire not named Fisher could swoop in, drop a couple of those billions on the A’s, spend even more on a ballpark plan and MLB will wave the team’s exodus through like a traffic cop. That person could also do the same for Oakland, though that’s like hoping that climate change doesn’t really exist. I am going to tell you that road to make that happen is long, steep, and not for the faint of heart. Sure, the A’s current lease at the Coliseum runs out in 2024. Can you think of a market that will have a brand-new, MLB-ready ballpark for 2025? I can’t. Maury Brown covers this in some detail at Forbes, which is worth reading because as he points out, the A’s are effectively limited to candidate cities in Western North America (Las Vegas, Portland, Vancouver, maybe Sacramento). The Eastern cities are effectively reserved for the Rays if they relocate (Charlotte, Nashville, Montreal). This prevents the two economically-challenged franchises from competing against each other for stadium deals. It also prevents most potentially awkward realignment scenarios.

A man (or team) is only as faithful as his options

Yesterday, Dave Kaval admitted that the ballpark plan’s timeline has extended to the point that an Opening Day couldn’t happen before 2027. Little explanation was given as to why. We can piece together the usual problems that we’ve identified from the beginning: cleanup, a lack of infrastructure to support it, and now, the eye-watering $12 Billion total price tag on the project. Simply put, it’s incredibly hard. There are still plenty of supporters who say it’s worth it. Maybe it is. Not surprisingly, I remain unconvinced. It was going to be hard 4 years ago, it was going to be hard 8 years ago. The A’s made some procedural progress, lacking major deal points. The Athletic’s Alex Coffey reported last night that MLB is stepping up as the muscle behind the A’s demands, which Manfred also offered to do in 2017 when the site focus was Laney/Peralta.

Despite another timeline setback, the A’s continue to push for a City Council vote on Howard Terminal before the August recess. Why would they do that, despite the proposal existing as a 6,000-page napkin sketch? The explanation is actually quite simple. Mayor Libby Schaaf made news earlier this week by unveiling her budget for 2021-23. It’s Schaaf’s last budget before she’s termed out. I won’t get into the particulars of the budget as that’s not my beat, but I will say that the A’s being urged to look elsewhere by MLB is an unwanted distraction to put it mildly. For her part, Schaaf continues to promote HT.

With the timeline extended, Howard Terminal suddenly becomes the one of the last major non-policy proposals of Schaaf’s tenure. Does she stick it out through the probably bitter end? And what of the 2022 mayoral race, whose candidates are only starting to announce their campaigns? Does Howard Terminal become a major campaign tentpole, which Schaaf hands off to her successor? What about the Coliseum as an alternative? Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan ran for mayor twice and is likely to be a candidate again. For years Kaplan has been the strongest proponent of building at the Coliseum, which the A’s ruled out in short order yesterday. There will surely be at least one candidate who will champion Howard Terminal as much as Schaaf. How much traction will that provide in what will surely be a contentious race? From a 50,000-foot view, it looks like the A’s are aware that there’s no champion waiting in the wings. Their rush to lock in the deal this summer reflects that uncertainty.

Howard Terminal or Bust

You’ve probably heard by now that the A’s received permission from MLB to explore markets outside of Oakland (reported by Jeff Passan). I’ll have plenty to say about this tomorrow. For now @AsFanByDesign has the proper sentiment:

Letter to A’s fans from President Dave Kaval:

P.S. – Nailed the headline.

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.


“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.

Manfred sets the bar for MLB expansion (and relocation)

During a Sportico forum held yesterday, MLB commissioner said that future expansion fees could reach $2.2 Billion. $2.2 Billion also happens to be the average of franchises in 2021, so the figure serves as a starting point for future discussions. For now, MLB is not opening the gates to bidders.

As the Bay Area currently has two MLB franchises and isn’t looking to add more, expansion doesn’t seem like a relevant topic. However, if you look at it in terms of setting a market price for moving a franchise (*cough*A’s*cough), it quickly gains relevance. By setting the price at $2.2 Billion, Manfred is effectively saying MLB franchises are premium properties that don’t merit shortcuts, whether we’re talking about ballparks or media deals.

Sportico ranked the A’s as 25th out of the 30 MLB teams at $1.3 Billion. Over at Forbes, the ranking was 26th while the valuation was $1.125 Billion. The A’s lost $40 million in revenue during MLB’s pandemic-truncated 2020 season. Some uncertainty awaits thanks to the upcoming CBA expiration and negotiations. The good thing for the A’s is that their unique phaseout of revenue sharing apparently hasn’t affected their valuation at all, so even if revenue sharing doesn’t come back the asset should remain strong, if not the team’s operating revenue. Either valuation is roughly 5X a normal revenue year, higher than it used to be but not out of line considering how many different types of assets appear overinflated these days.

If you’re in Portland, Charlotte, Las Vegas, or even Montreal, the bar is set. You have to put together an ownership group that has $2.2 Billion, plus access to more to run the team. You also have to have a ballpark deal in place. Gone are the days when you could try to entice a team to play at a multi-purpose stadium for a few years while you hammer out a bespoke ballpark palace. Oh no, that won’t do anymore. Manfred – and probably the entire Lodge – wants new teams to hit the ground running. Remember that the last relocated team, the Expos-Nats, were actually contracted by MLB, then expanded. The Nationals played in venerable RFK Stadium for several years while the District worked out a new ballpark deal at Navy Yard. A true team relocation hasn’t occurred since the second version of the Washington Senators became the Texas Rangers in 1972.

Expansion occurred in the 90’s with the new teams taking advantage of existing multi-purpose stadia in Miami and Denver. Purpose-built domed ballparks were built in St. Petersburg and Phoenix to varying degrees of success. The markets being considered for expansion won’t have to worry about extreme weather situations like in the Sun Belt, but they will have to come ready to impress customers. Sad to say that an expanded AAA ballpark, no matter how nice, won’t cut it. If you look at the AAA ballparks built in Vegas, Nashville, and Charlotte, they’re not designed to add 25,000 seats, and even if they did it wouldn’t be optimal.

Las Vegas Ballpark: A very nice AAA ballpark

You might be thinking that perhaps one of those cities could lure the A’s or Rays away for cheaper than a $2.2 Billion expansion fee. You might be right. However, the same rules apply. A prospective city/county/state will need a stadium deal in place, preferably to open when the franchise begins play. Plus MLB will set a price for relocation, which is completely unknown at this point. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if MLB set a relocation fee of $1 Billion, to keep other team valuations high and to prevent those pesky shortcuts. So if you want a baseball team and you aren’t in an established MLB city you have to follow three easy steps:

  • Have new stadium deal in place, up to $1 Billion in construction cost
  • Buy A’s or Rays with intention to move for going market rate ($1.2 Billion)
  • Pay $1 Billion relocation fee to MLB to buy their approval

Easy peasy, right? After all that, you’ll be lucky to have a franchise worth $3 Billion. You’ll have a ton of debt. On the bright side, you’ll be in an extremely elite club and you’ll have parked your money in a fairly safe place before interest rates rise. Good luck!

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.

Why not ask for the moon? You might get it.

Over the last two years, I had routinely criticized the A’s for not talking about the total cost of the Howard Terminal project. At some point they would have to let loose, but I didn’t expect it to be in a tweetstorm. Well, the cat’s out of the bag now. There’s no going back.

Motivation for this move may have been a need to garner public support as the EIR comment period was ending. Maybe it was as simple as the A’s wanting to capitalize on the wave the team on the field is riding at the moment. Regardless, we’re here now, so I wanted to take a moment to get some perspective. The Chronicle’s Roland Li helped me get that perspective when he tweeted this:

Inspired, I assembled a table comparing big stadium projects over the last several years plus Apple Park. I hope it gives you the same sense of perspective that it gave me.

Venues by construction cost

The easiest thing to do is to get gobsmacked by the numbers, the scale of the project. It took me an hour to gather myself. I had to take a walk. The thing is, I saw it coming. When the project was unveiled in 2018/2019 I started adding the ballpark to the housing towers, then the office component, the retail aspect, and the performing arts center. I figured we’d hit $6 Billion. I was halfway there, at least.

As I mentioned in the last post, the $12 BILLION project cost figure is at the bottom of the 29th page of a 30-page document. It’s not on the opening pitch slide. Talk about burying the lede!

When you look at this from a historical context, burying that extremely important info at the bottom of the last text page makes more sense. During the redevelopment era (60’s-00’s), it was easy to get a certain part of a given city’s citizenry to buy into urban renewal plans, no matter how grandiose. Rebuilding downtowns was the key to urbanism and reversing the epidemic of white flight, which wasn’t entirely white when you think about it. After the last non-premium malls emptied out and the recent sports venue construction boom waned, it became less fashionable to talk about big dollars being doled out to benefit sports team owners and big developers. Redevelopment in California died a decade ago, though it keeps trying to be reborn. Thanks to project-targeted legislation, there are plans for at least two infrastructure financing districts to pay for the roads, bike lanes, sidewalks, and bridge(s) near Howard Terminal.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s office knows public skepticism about these kinds of projects all too well. Tonight, her office released a statement in response to the A’s letter:

Tepid? Lukewarm? It’s not the ride-or-die spirit A’s ownership and many A’s fans are hoping for. For now the news cycle will be dominated by the sticker shock of the proposal. Soon it will be back to the EIR as written comments are published. Eventually they’ll converge into a full debate. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Schaaf and the City Council, worried about too heartily supporting or opposing the project, left it to a referendum. That’s the most Californian outcome I could conceive. It’s practically destiny.

A’s release Howard Terminal development term sheet, urge summer Council vote

A’s President Dave Kaval unleashed a tweetstorm earlier today, urging a vote on the Howard Terminal project before the City’s usual summer recess in August.

Accompanying Kaval’s plea letter is a 30-page term sheet providing additional details on the development.

When I saw the top line arguments for the project, I opined that that the A’s once again chose not to disclose full project costs. I was disabused of that notion, finding the information I wanted on page 29 of the term sheet.

Exhibit - Financial Plan on Page 29 of term sheet

Naturally, there are numerous ways to react to this development. If you’re a project supporter, you could rejoice in the A’s proposing to invest $12 BILLION in Oakland’s economy, including community benefits and infrastructure. If you’re an opponent, you’re likely to rail against billionaire developers and gentrification. I’m just glad we’re getting more information, even if it’s not at the desired pace.

Over the next three months, will there be enough answers/responses to questions from Wednesday’s Planning Commission hearing, plus other responses to written comments on the EIR, to act on the project proposal? Recommence the debate, and bring on the economists.

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.

Howard Terminal EIR: Significant and Unavoidable

Here’s a tip for reading the 2,000+ pages of the Howard Terminal Draft EIR: Do a search for the term significant and read every paragraph that contains that word. It should give you most of the answers you need and reduce the amount of background info you would have to weed through.

Should you make that search, you would find that significant comes up 44 times in the Transportation and Circulation chapter (4.15) alone. That’s just one chapter, though as I intimated previously, it’s perhaps the most important one.

Normally when a big project like this is a released, there’s also a big splashy presentation of a potential solution to help mitigate whatever negative impacts are found. For Howard Terminal, that reveal was a gondola similar to what you might find in a ski resort. Though a gondola actually exists at the Oakland Zoo, its purpose compared to what’s being considered for the A’s is markedly different. At the Zoo, the gondola is way to move visitors quickly around the zoo grounds without disturbing the habitat beneath them. For Howard Terminal the gondola would fly over the decidedly urban jungle of city streets and a busy freeway, a habitat that openly invites visitor participation. Over at The Athletic, Steve Berman and Alex Coffey briefly examine the gondola with UC Berkeley’s Ethan Elkind. In the EIR, the gondola is on the CEQA procedural back burner (Chapter 5: Project Variants) because it would require its own land acquisitions and thus make it worthy of its own separate project analysis. That’s a bit of a cop out for something that was pitched as a sort of magic bullet. The reality is that it’s not, and the measures the A’s are proposing amount to chipping away at the last mile problem at HT.

Without a magic bullet, what’s a key solution? Quad gates. QUAD GATES??? For now, yes. Absent a vehicular bridge that would take Market Street car traffic – including emergency vehicles – over the heavily used UPRR line, the A’s propose to install automated quad gates, a beefed up version of what you typically see at a railroad crossing. The chief advantage of quad gates is that it should minimize opportunities for cars to try to get around the gates, which should in turn minimize chances for cars to get stuck on the tracks. Also in the proposal is fencing along the Embarcadero, much like the fencing available outside the existing Jack London Square Amtrak station.

Quad gates at railroad crossings are one of the mitigation steps (image from CAHSR)

In studying these mitigation steps, the EIR looks at traffic counts and interactions along the Embarcadero. While a handful of accidents are documented, it’s remains surprising how the A’s chose to focus their mitigation measures. You see, mitigation usually involves building infrastructure (very expensive) to avoid those interactions or creating barriers (not as expensive or effective) to prevent them, often both in tandem as needed. The A’s are choosing to go heavily with the latter by effectively creating a 1/2-mile bubble around Howard Terminal to exclude vehicular (and some pedestrian/bicycle) traffic. Cars in the area during events would be mostly limited to players and team officials, residents, and office workers of the new development. Gameday event traffic would be prevented from entering this bubble, especially A’s fans hunting for nearby parking or TNCs like Uber and Lyft. This is all done in an effort to appease Union Pacific and satisfy Federal Railroad Administration requirements.

Dotted oval represents car-exclusionary* bubble

A similar strategy was employed by the City of San Jose when the Diridon ballpark EIR was written with one major difference, the presence of an expanded transit hub that would include Caltrain, VTA light rail, and eventually, BART. Of course, that’s now water under the bridge and Google, not the A’s, is taking the arrows for the current project there.

Will the strategy withstand scrutiny? It might, but it will have to get more concrete if it’s going to pass muster. The 45-day comment period, which started when the Draft EIR was released, opened the window to what will assuredly be a lengthy negotiation between stakeholders. Speaking of some of those stakeholders:

So far the private interests at the Port and the A’s are negotiating by lawsuits against the state acting as proxy battles instead of trying to hammer out working agreements. Perhaps if UPRR, Schnitzer Steel, and the trucking companies see their lawsuits going nowhere fast they will more quickly come to the table, which is an outcome that the A’s would love. However, I suspect that the piecemeal mitigation measures are not going to be satisfactory for the Port interests, and that will come out in the comments and lawsuits to follow.

What will they be fighting over? Some of the conclusions in the report declare that impacts are significant and unavoidable. They mostly center around the rail crossing on the Embarcadero. There is a plan for a pedestrian/bicycle bridge at Jefferson or MLK that would connect the ballpark and development to the transportation hub. Beyond that, all crossings in the immediate area will be done at grade. As we’ve discussed previously, that invites danger.

Are these issues showstoppers? As usual, it depends on who you ask.

In the next installment, we’ll cover the transportation hub, its projected efficacy, and the methodology of this EIR.