The Giants' Waterfront Ballpark Was A Miracle Of Cooperation. So Far, The A's Haven't Been So Lucky.
The Oakland Athletics' plans for a new 35,000-seat waterfront ballpark at Howard Terminal were never a sure thing. But in the time of the coronavirus and a weakening public appetite for public financing, they have now moved into the realm of mere possibility.
While plans for a new stadium just north of Jack London Square are still on, the timeline set by the A's, which included a 2023 opening, has been impacted by the pandemic, a spokesperson for the organization told Bisnow.
The A's have had their eyes on the city's waterfront Howard Terminal for a 35,000-seat ballpark since at least 2018, when the team announced its partnership with Danish architect Bjarke Ingels Group. The ballpark itself and adjacent plans, including 1.77M SF of commercial development and as many as 3,000 homes, mirror the Giants' current home ballpark situation, which includes the S.F. team's waterfront stadium and more upcoming ground-up development.
Now, apart from its new ballpark goals, the Oakland franchise's ongoing operations are in question. The A's missed rent on the Coliseum, their current ballpark, in April, citing the inability to use it because of the public health crisis and the need for it to be "kept available by the City of Oakland and Alameda County as a potential surge location," the team said in a statement this month.
"The A's have fully supported the health directives and community efforts by the City of Oakland, Alameda County and the State," it said in a statement. "The A’s sent notice to the [Coliseum Joint Powers Authority] in March stating the Club is in support of these public health efforts and would defer annual rent payment, given the building was not available for use, per provisions in the contract."
Rent issues aside, opponents of the ball club's Howard Terminal hopes point to the franchise's current Coliseum site as a much more suitable candidate for a new ballpark. The area already has the benefit of a Coliseum Specific Plan, adopted by the city in 2015, and the A's have been planning for the area for years, including an idea to lead the development of an unspecified number of housing units and some commercial space.
Complicating matters, Howard Terminal sits on much more hotly contested land than did the Giants stadium before it was built. The Oakland site is adjacent to a number of shipping and other transportation interests that claim a stadium and game-day traffic are incompatible with existing industrial uses.
A poll of 500 Oakland voters commissioned by the East Oakland Stadium Alliance, which opposes the Howard Terminal idea, found 62% favor the club's existing Coliseum site, which is linked into the region's mass transit system, over Howard Terminal for a new ballpark.
Now, legal hurdles have arisen. the A's had yet to release a critical but already delayed draft environmental impact report when shelter-in-place orders hit, and opponents of the proposal filed a lawsuit challenging the park the very day those orders were announced. A requirement under the California Environmental Quality Act, EIRs assess the possible impacts of project on things like traffic or the environment, and the litigation that often follows a release of one can slow down some projects by years.
The Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, Harbor Trucking Association, California Trucking Association and Schnitzer Steel Industries claim that a deadline passed for the A's to use AB 734, a state law spearheaded by the team that requires CEQA litigation to be resolved within 270 days of a project's approval.
AB 734 lays out that projects must follow guidelines specified in a previous bill, AB 900, which sunset on Dec. 31, 2019. The plaintiffs argue that the A's missed their window for streamlining. The lawsuit could threaten to slow down the project timeline as much as the pandemic.
The proposed Howard Terminal location has met immediate pushback over its industrial presence, lack of infrastructure and forceful opposition. To build a waterfront park, the Giants had to overcome four failed attempts at public financing before securing private financing in a better economic environment and less industrial opposition than what the A's face now.
Parties named in the lawsuit, which include the A's and the city of Oakland, agreed to a reply date currently set for July, according to Pacific Merchant Shipping Association Vice President and General Counsel Mike Jacob.
Beyond that, economic challenges brought on by the pandemic have made an already challenging proposition even more so.
"I think the Howard Terminal location was always going to be complex and expensive and have a lot of moving parts, and they never announced clear financing for it," Jacob said. "If you were looking before for the city of Oakland to make up, through tax-increment financing, approximately $200M of your infrastructure, which is part of what the discussion was for how to make Howard Terminal work, that's going to be tough to do."
Oakland, like other cities around the Bay Area and worldwide, now faces a daunting budget shortfall, as the effects of long-term economic shutdowns and skyrocketing unemployment continue to ricochet.
Voters, many of whom still remember the city's ill-fated financing of the recently decamped Raiders' facility, may prefer private financing for other components of the ballpark mixed-use plan, like offices and a hotel. The A's have said their Howard Terminal project will be privately financed.
The A's haven't outlined development costs, but the Giants' ballpark cost $357M to build in 2000, which when adjusted for inflation (but not for the region's exorbitant construction costs), comes out to about $530M now. The Giants were open by April 2000 after breaking ground in December 1997.
Since the multiple times the Giants tried and failed to drum up support for public financing of their new ballpark in the 1990s, a public preference for franchises to avoid using taxpayer dollars has only been strengthened. The Raiders' return to Oakland and then departure to Las Vegas represents a taxpayer-funded push for a team to stay as one ultimately gone awry, much to the detriment of the city of Oakland's budget.
The potential for private financing of a new ballpark may also have become more complex because of financial hit taken by billionaire A's owner John Fisher, the son of Gap founder Donald Fisher, Sports Illustrated points out. Fisher and A's President Dave Kaval have been the weightiest champions of the Howard Terminal goal since it was hatched in 2018.
The area around their current ballpark likely presents an easier path toward a new stadium, with less stakeholder opposition, an existing specific plan, environmental clearance and negotiations with the city for the land already underway, Jacob said. The site also already has well-studied environment plans in place.
For their part, the A's are still doing what they can during the pandemic to make a new Howard Terminal ballpark an eventual reality, including holding meetings to hash out a community benefits agreement.
For now, the club and the new ballpark's proponents remain optimistic about its chances.
Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has voiced his support of the city enabling the A's to proceed with their plans, while Mayor Libby Schaaf has been in general support of the team's Howard Terminal pursuit as well, the San Francisco Chronicle has reported.
"Though the release of the DEIR is on hold, the A's and the City are continuing to meet with local residents and organizations participating in the CBA (Community Benefits Agreement) process," the A's said in a statement. "More than 100 individuals are convening regularly to build an agreement with a goal of meeting the needs of the community surrounding the project and at-large."
That CBA would be part of the project approvals package, which would include a final EIR and eventually be considered by the City Council, the A's said.