Demystifying the Howard Terminal Ballpark Proposal: Five Myths Debunked

Posted on October 13, 2019

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2019-10-13_18-48-45News coverage and public reactions over the  proposed A’s Howard Terminal Ballpark the past few months have concretized some pernicious myths.

Most of these have been circulated by local media, either lazily recycling A’s talking points for the benefit of the team, or for fan-service jingo. Perhaps it’s most charitable to say that local media have simply been incurious about the mechanics of the Howard deal. At least two informational Council meetings  were held this Summer, but neither was reported by corporate news companies. I attended them and did my own research on the hype surrounding Howard Terminal. I’ve singled out five myths which I think are enabling a blind rush to build what could be a disastrous costly project no one needs.

 

1. The Howard Terminal Ballpark is Self-Financed:

It might be true in the most lawyerly way, and folks who have not given the ballpark location much thought might think this is a true. Ostensibly and on paper, the A’s corporation seeks to buy the current Coliseum site and convert it to commercial and residential property—the income, they claim, will finance the ballpark project and its residential and commercial add-ons will be funded by developers. This premise is the root of several other myths [see the description of SB293 below], but we’ll leave that aside for now while we delve into this false promise of a fully-financed ballpark.

Though the A’s may pay for the ballpark and its associated development [emphasis on may], a ballpark at Howard can’t be considered self-financed for reasons that become obvious as soon as you imagine traveling to an A’s game there. Howard is blocked completely on one side by water, and is only partially accessible from the East due to the busy Capital Corridor Rail Line and adjacent Jack London Square. It seems more suited to building a well-fortified castle than a ballpark.

At a CED committee informational meeting on July 2, city agencies gave a startling assessment of what infrastructure the Howard Ballpark and developments would require based on studies Oakland city agencies have been conducting since January. Below is a list of just some of what the City called “challenges” to creating the ballpark, which would need infrastructure solutions from the City and perhaps other agencies.

–The Tracks: The current Eastern access route to the ballpark is a confusing warren of road, rail, lights and decommissioned streets. The Oakland run of the Capital Corridor Amtrak line has hit at least three pedestrians at Jack London Square, outside of the Howard Terminal area in the past five years– including two musicians from Tower of Power on their way to a gig at Yoshi’s. Drivers accessing the East- and Westbound areas adjacent to the tracks on Embarcadero can also become confused by the layout, which has caused numerous accidents in the past. Adding a regular crush of thousands of pedestrians, drivers and bikers for games would mean the tracks, streets, traffic flow, and light-metering would have to be changed in the Jack London area, according to DOT’s presentation at the July meeting. This may even require a pedestrian bridge or underground tunnel that runs from Jack London to the ballpark, costs that run outside of the scope of the ballpark.

–Union Pacific: Howard Terminal is fronted by a rail yard and a rail track that lines nearly every North-South access street approach. Union Pacific, which has a yard adjacent to Howard, often repositions trains up to 10,000 feet long, according to Oakland DOT’s July presentation. That repositioning often cuts off many of the intersections in front of Howard Terminal for periods of up to 30 minutes—specifically, Market, the street DOT envisions as its primary vehicular access point to the ballpark.

There is currently no way for the City or any other entity to alter or control UP’s use of the tracks. Obviously, circumventing that detail would be more than a minor episode in the infrastructural saga of Howard Ballpark. DOT’s Nicole Ferrara called Howard “a very tough site” specifically because of the UP rail; Ferrara added that an access way that circumvents the UP problem is “technically unfeasible with general standards.”

The City currently has no single solution proposed for access, but it would at least require infrastructural changes, non-city agency approvals, and alterations to surface street access. This also suggests that outside what could be massive investment in infrastructure, the blind push toward a ballpark in an inhospitable location could end up being an embarrassing boondoggle.

–No Parking: The neighborhoods around Howard are non-tolled, non-permitted parking benefiting mostly businesses and residences. The ballpark would necessitate converting the area’s current mostly free parking to metered parking options necessary for ballgames—but even so, it would mean being able to raise the cost of metered parking on game days and hours, and extend paid parking into the weekends and evening hours to prevent Oakland residents from using A’s designated parking. Residents would likely need parking permits to be able to ensure being able to park on their own streets—but someone would need to pay for those permits and it would likely not be the A’s. The resulting taxing of parking in these areas would create parking shortages in the rest of downtown Oakland. These infrastructure problems would all fall on the City and or residents.

–Transition of Howard Terminal’s Current Use: Currently, Howard is used as a staging area for trucks, trailers and truck chassis. The City and/or Port would have to find a way to re-route infrastructure for Port traffic and logistics. But as I will explain a little later on, the City, A’s, and Port haven’t even gotten around to considering the feasibility or planning for any of this. They have no idea how it would work.

–No Transit, No Bike Lanes, No Pedestrian Access: In keeping with the City’s development policies, Howard Terminal plans less parking for the Howard ballpark than it currently has for the Coliseum–about 4,000 fewer spaces. While it might seem like an admirable idea to compel people to use alternate forms of transportation, this strategy is actually myopic. The ballpark is a mile away from BART and no transit goes there. The truck and industrial traffic, as well as undeveloped sidewalks, and non-existent bike lanes and crossings are inhospitable to both bikers and pedestrians.

The changes necessary to make non-vehicle access safe would need to be made and financed by the City. The City assured in its presentation, as well, that there would be an increase of Uber and Lyft traffic; the A’s want to make room for a presence of 400 Uber or Lyft cars per hour during games. All of this would necessitate the creation of an alternate traffic flow model in the entire southern part of downtown.

In addition to absolutely necessary infrastructure changes such as these, the City and other agencies may simply incur debt with new infrastructure projects that benefit the A’s, but are not intended to benefit anyone else. For example, the City envisions adding new BART stations specifically to service the stadium. This was an “expensive” infrastructure addition mentioned in the July DOT presentation specifically to enhance the Howard Ballpark experience. These changes would primarily benefit Howard, not necessarily the residents of Oakland–a deviation of vision that would probably have long-term consequences.

Though the shell of the ballpark and its associated development may be self-financed, the A’s would rely on the City for a far larger scope of work to make the ballpark work.

 

2. The City of Oakland is Resistant to the Howard Terminal Ballpark:

People relying on local media for their news may have come to believe this, especially after the Oakland lawsuit against Alameda County. Recent comments from MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred have reinforced this view. But it’s just not true. Rather, the City of Oakland, and the City Council have done everything they can to make the Howard Terminal a reality. A Howard Ballpark as it’s currently conceived wouldn’t even be possible without the City’s diligent work.

Not surprisingly, that work started in the office of Libby Schaaf, but it has been continued with votes and action from City Council and the planning and development agencies of the City of Oakland. Schaaf sent the city’s lobbyist Townsend and Associates to accompany the A’s to lobby at the state level on two key pieces of legislation without which the ballpark could not happen. City Council then approved a resolution of support for the changes, signaling the City’s desire for the Howard ballpark. Reporting on these efforts has been non-existent, despite a wealth of public statements at City Council meetings describing them.

–The Deal Wouldn’t Have Been Legal Without the Passage of AB1191: Rob Bonta bunted in this rule change, specifically meant to allow a stadium at Howard. Howard would not normally be available for the kind of development envisioned by the A’s because it’s controlled by a seperate agency for coastal lands, but Bonta’s legislation changed that. AB1191 essentially allows the California State Lands Commission to put these state lands under the partial control of City and local supervision in a “trust exchange agreement.” Without this change, a Howard ballpark would not have been possible.

Townsend joined the A’s in presenting a unified lobbying front at the State level for this rule change. At a mid-afternoon special City Council meeting in June, the Council voted for resolutions of enthusiastic support, drafted by the Schaaf-administration—to the legislature. The City and Council, in uncharacteristic legislative unity, literally begged for these legislative changes to transform Howard from a pipe dream to a tenable reality.

–The Public Financing Would Not Have Been Politically Viable Without SB293: The vast level of infrastructure changes that Howard and associated development would need to function would not be possible with normal City spending. Instead, the City would seek to create an Infrastructure Financing District paid for by property taxes within the Howard area. An IFD is based on the idea that a development creates new property taxes, and that property values would rise in the area of new development–the resulting taxes can be skimmed to specifically pay for the City expenditures. This would be City income spent specifically on the area itself, for the benefit of Howard, and not on other costs the City would normally use property taxes for City-wide. There’s several potential downsides to this extremely complicated set-up, with a half-dozen permutations in application and results. And the reality is that the Howard IFD is murkily defined in SB293.

Normally, an IFD would be an extremely laborious proposition for the Council with dubious outcomes, because tax-paid debt must be passed through legislative ballot measures and requires a 2/3 general election vote to pass.

This process of first Committee and Council meetings, and then a 67% up-vote would be hard enough, but the existing law includes a vigorous process by which landowners within the district need to be notified and allowed to protest. All of this would have proven to be a real plebiscite on the Howard Terminal ballpark–with the costs out front, and an extremely high rate of public support required. It’s very difficult to imagine such an IFD would pass with 2/3 of the vote, especially with the complicated construction and possible downsides. Even if it did pass, the previous iteration of the law would have required the City to notify all property owners in the area, and if they opposed it in sufficient numbers, the IFD could not be established.

But the passage of Nancy Skinner’s AB293 has changed all that. AB293 created a special IFD process for Howard Terminal that removes almost all of the public control and oversight for passing and managing the IFD. That power now rests with the Council which can vote for an IFD with a simple majority. The law passed with the City’s lobbying help, and Council’s support via Schaaf-drafted resolution, and without it there would be no chance of a Howard ballpark.

–The A’s Project Expense Payment Agreements to Oakland for Feasibility Studies: The City Administrator has allowed the A’s to fund the City’s planning and infrastructure studies for the ballpark to the tune of at least 567k by mid-year. With the City’s enthusiastic participation, the A’s are running the City’s infrastructure and development process around the ballpark.

 

3. The City Council Won’t Let the A’s Buy the Coliseum and is Suing the A’s:

The A’s plan on buying and developing the current Coliseum and surrounding land, but the fly in that ointment is that Oakland owns half of the land, and Alameda County the other. Alameda County would love to sell their share of the land to the A’s—and the A’s would love to buy it from them because it would give the A’s near-total control over the purchase. At the very least, it would make the A’s one of the governing bodies over the property.

Rather than cooperate with Oakland’s efforts, ALCO has done its best to sell directly to the A’s without direction from Oakland. The current suit is about ALCO’s right to sell that land to another entity besides the City, and the A’s are not a party to the suit. Though the City could agree to only lease its half of the Coliseum site to the A’s, given how much support the city and Council have already given to the ballpark, it’s likely the City Council would agree to sell the Coliseum to the A’s. That the Council wants to control that transaction is hardly surprising.

 

4. The A’s Must Leave the Coliseum:

There is no reason the A’s need to leave the Coliseum. The City of Oakland drafted an entire revitalization plan for the current Coliseum area years ago, which in one iteration or another, includes either rehabilitation of the current stadium, or the creation of a separate ballpark for the A’s. It’s the A’s alone–and their supporters in corporate-owned media and sports commentary–that have enabled this fiction. The A’s want a new ballpark, and part of that desire involves the owner’s ambition of creating a market-rate mini-city adjacent to it. But there is no need at all for the A’s to move.

5. Howard Terminal Ballpark Enjoys the Support of Organized Labor:

True to some extent. Unite Here and SEIU support the creation of Howard because they organize [and hope to organize] low-wage service industry and maintenance jobs at the Coliseum. These unions see Howard as providing new positions both at the ballpark and planned adjacent businesses–such as the planned hotel. IATSE supports the new ballpark because it would mean expanded positions, and perhaps higher pay for their stagehands. Building Trades support the project because they support all development that includes a union contract, no matter its impact on the City of Oakland: it creates more work for their membership, many of whom do not live in Oakland.

But the most important unions from a certain perspective—those that work at the Port and on the Bay–don’t support a ballpark at Howard. These include the ILWU, which organizes workers at the Port; the Inland Boatman’s Union; Marine Engineers Beneficial Association; and Masters, Mates and Pilots Union. All are vehemently opposed to a Howard ballpark.

The ILWU fear that the proposed ballpark and the influx of affluent residents will begin to chill the function of the Port over time, driving business to alternate ports along the Pacific seaboard. Their fears are exacerbated by the fact that up to this moment, the City and Port Commission have not conducted seaport compatibility studies. No one knows how the existence of a Howard ballpark, and its proposed residential and commercial development, will affect the functioning of the Port. One of the most obvious impacts would be the intermingling of industrial Port traffic with ballpark traffic, bikes, pedestrians and scooters–a potentially horrifying mix which so far hasn’t been addressed by the City.

As both long-time ILWU activist Clarence Thomas and ILWU business agent Aaron Wright highlighted at meetings this June and July where the Council voted to support the state-level legal changes, the erosion of a Port industry focus could eventually lead to the loss of high-paying jobs in the Port and on the water. Expanding the influence of affluent residential and business communities at the Port could lead to increased demands from these politically empowered groups. Thomas called this incremental loss of control over the Port a “domino effect” and compared it to the loss of the working waterfront at San Francisco’s Embarcadero, which began in a similar way.

 

 

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