East or West?: How the community is responding to the Oakland A’s plan for a new stadium
on December 10, 2020
The Athletics, the last professional sports team in Oakland, has found itself playing more defense—and little to no offense—in its grand plan to build a new stadium.
When the team first announced plans to build a new baseball park and relocate from the Oakland Coliseum—the stadium it has called home since it moved to California in 1968—in the mid-2000s, the A’s owners have been on a whirlwind run around California, looking for the perfect spot for their grandest project yet.
The team finally settled on the Howard Terminal in Jack London Square, some 5.5 miles northwest of their current home, where they are planning to put up a ballpark at an estimated cost of between $600 and $700 million.
“Our Jack London Square Ballpark returns the baseball experience to the roots of the sport… a ballpark within a park,” the team says of the square on its website.Powered by iMapBuilder
But the A’s are not exactly getting a warm welcome in West Oakland.
“They should do it in East Oakland,” said Mike Jacob, vice president and general counsel of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association (PMSA) and member of the anti-ballpark coalition that has formed in recent years.
The coalition believes the City of Oakland would benefit more if the A’s build their new stadium at their current home.
The Howard Terminal project began as early as 2014, but it was not until 2017 that the A’s expressed interest in the site. The team made its official announcement of the project in November of 2018. Now, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the team’s fortunes on and off the baseball field.
On the field, the team had its best season yet in a long time this year, winning the American League West title for the first time since 2013 and finishing a unique season, in which it had to play in front of an empty stadium, with a record of 36-24. The team went on to lose in the American League Divisional Series to the Houston Astros.
Off the field, it is facing a multi-pronged attack from all sides of the Oakland community: residents, port workers and shippers, trucking and steel companies and environmental advocacy groups who have filed lawsuits and counter lawsuits seeking to stop it from building at Howard Terminal.
Now, even its own fans are divided in opinion on whether the team should pursue this project and relocate to West Oakland from East Oakland.
“The Coliseum is my field of dreams, my home. I feel very safe there, very comfortable. When it gets torn down, it’s going to be one of the saddest days of my life,” said Jorge Leon, longtime A’s fan.
But the Oakland A’s owners are hopeful that when all is said and done, the team will build its new home, the 34,000-capacity Oakland ballpark near Jack London Square. Team president Dave Kaval recently told The Athletic he was optimistic about the project’s completion by the 2023 season.
It’s not just the new stadium that’s worrying West Oakland residents. The increased traffic, threat to local businesses and skepticism about pushing through affordable housing are at the top of community member’s list of concerns.
In addition to a new stadium, the Howard Terminal project involves other development plans beyond baseball. According to the City of Oakland’s website, the 55-acre site will be used to build up to 1.77 million square feet of commercial development, 3,000 housing units and a hotel with up to 400 rooms. Project renderings show the new ballpark flanked by various lots that border the existing railroad line to the north and the Schnitzer Steel facility to the west.
The Howard Terminal site is separated from West Oakland and much of downtown by a railroad line and Highway 880. Getting those 34,000 fans to the stadium on game day would bring a lot of cars to the area. David Lewis, executive director of Save the Bay, lists this as a serious environmental concern.
“Not just [the] traffic, but moving people without public transportation,” said Lewis.
Fans and community members can take a bus, train or BART ride to get to the Oakland Coliseum. The site has its own stop on three separate BART lines and is close to the Oakland airport. For the Howard Terminal site, there is no similar public transportation infrastructure, potentially leading to more traffic and air pollution with an influx of vehicles.
The Oakland Athletics also list affordable housing on their website plans both at Howard Terminal and the Coliseum site’s redevelopment. But according to Lewis, this is all the process has right now.
“All we’re looking at right now is some pretty pictures [of] the artist’s conception from the A’s,” he said.
On paper, the plans look perfect. On the ground, things are different, and the A’s are finding out that building a stadium is not so simple. The team now finds itself fighting to be accepted in West Oakland as it pushes to be allowed to develop its new home.
How the A’s got here: Rooted in Oakland
Much like its search for a new home, the A’s 52-year stay at the Coliseum has had its share of controversies. Ten years after it relocated to the Bay, the A’s reached a deal to move to New Orleans, where it was to play at the Louisiana Superdome. But the team was unable to cancel its lease at the Coliseum, and had to stay. The Coliseum has been its home ever since.
The A’s had to share the ballpark, a mixed-use facility, with the Oakland Raiders football team until 2019, when the Raiders relocated to Las Vegas. The team also recently turned the site into a “voting super center” for the 2020 general election.
The Coliseum itself has undergone lots of changes in the time the A’s have called it home, with scores of improvements to increase capacity and “improve fan experience.”
With its value growing steadily over the years—the A’s are now valued at $1.1 billion, according to Forbes—the team wanted a new home, a grand complex befitting its new status.
In the mid-2000’s, it announced plans for a new stadium, but it was not until November 2018 that managers announced that they would be building the team’s new home in the Jack London Area in Oakland, after considering Fremont and San Jose.
“We plan to build a next generation urban ballpark at Howard Terminal adjacent to Jack London Square. However, this project is bigger than baseball,” it says on its website, where it is promoting the new development under the banner “Rooted in Oakland.”
True to this, the ballpark has attracted more attention on what it means for the local environment, economy and infrastructure and less about baseball.
The environment question
The A’s have been trying to project themselves as environmentally friendly.
“We want our ballpark project to be a catalyst for environmental justice in West Oakland. We’ll fight this fight regardless of what happens with the ballpark. This is bigger than baseball,” Dave Kaval, president of the Oakland A’s, tweeted in August.
On that morning of Aug. 5, the A’s filed a suit against the California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (CDTSC) over what it termed a “failure to impose and enforce environmental law in West Oakland” against Schnitzer Steel, the largest metal shredding facility in the state.”
In his tweets, Kaval said Schnitzer Steel was producing materials which exceed the toxicity thresholds for hazardous waste and accused CDTSC of exempting the firm from complying with the law.
Schnitzer hit back against the A’s, telling ABC7 News that the suit was an attempt by the baseball franchise to distract attention from the growing opposition to its ballpark plans.
“The Oakland A’s’ attack on the Department of Toxic Substances Control and Schnitzer Steel is nothing more than an acceleration of the A’s efforts to dismantle the Port of Oakland to make room for their waterfront stadium,” it said in a statement.
The state attorney general later filed a motion to dismiss the A’s lawsuit on Sep. 25, ruling that it was without merit.
The environment is an issue that resonates with communities in Oakland. West Oakland is exposed to high levels of air pollution from surrounding highways, the adjacent Port of Oakland and the numerous industrial facilities located in close proximity to residents.
“The ballpark cannot be built as long as the Schnitzer Steel is still right up next to that land,” said Margaret Gordon, the founder of and co-director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WOEIP) and longtime resident of West Oakland.
But Gordon says the ballpark may in the end improve the quality of air in the region.
“We do want to get rid of the parking of these trucks and facility,” she says of the trucks that serve the Port of Oakland and which have been blamed for the bad air quality in the area.
Lewis, executive director of Save the Bay, adds that, aside from the toxins that must be cleaned up before tens of thousands of fans are allowed to the area, the A’s must also address concerns on the rising sea levels on the waterfront properties.
According to Lewis, these concerns will be addressed through an Environmental Impact Review (EIR), which he says the A’s are trying to change the rules on to eliminate public participation.
“It’s in all our interests for them to follow the rules not gut them. It’s important for them to do the EIR the right way to address all these and other impacts,” he says.
The A’s did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story.
The fans’ view
For longtime A’s fan Jorge Leon, the Oakland Athletics have been a part of his weekly routine since 1992. For the past few seasons, he’s been attending every weekly night games at the stadium, Monday through Friday. A superfan, he attended 65 of the 81 home games at the Coliseum in 2018.
His loyalty to the A’s goes beyond wearing the yellow and green jersey. Leon is a member of the right field bleacher fan section and the Oakland 68’s, an independent supporter group for the team.
But, like most fans, he is conflicted on whether to support the A’s plan to relocate to West Oakland. For him, the city of Oakland comes before the A’s.
“I think the first and foremost thing is that they stay in Oakland, that they don’t leave the city,” he says.
The A’s are the last remaining team of the major professional leagues, with the recent Raiders and Warriors departures. Leon believes that building in East Oakland can be a catalyst for tourism and economic growth.
But even though his team might leave his field of dreams, Leon recognizes the need for a move.
“We do need and we do want a new stadium, I mean who doesn’t that has a stadium like the Coliseum?” he said.
Only four stadiums were built before the Coliseum in the 1960s, making it one of the oldest parks in Major League Baseball.
For the past twenty years, A’s ownership has toyed with the idea of moving the team. Fans and Oakland community members like Leon believe this is making it more difficult to build in the team’s existing home.
“We have such a great franchise, a historical franchise that has been ruined by cheap ownership,” said Leon. “If you’re the A’s it’s so hard to build because you’ve been trying to leave the city.”
Fans also continue to be split on whether the team should develop the old stadium, build on the existing ground or find a new site like Howard Terminal.
Many doubt the A’s will leave Oakland, especially after they bought a 50% stake of the Coliseum, making them an equal partner with the City of Oakland.
Leon is one of the skeptics.
He says there are “too many hands in one pot” at that site, and he doubts things will move forward, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed lots of development.
“We don’t believe it until we see a shovel hit the ground,” said Leon.
Why building a stadium is not a simple walk in the park
When it comes to the politics of building a stadium, the A’s could learn from Oakland’s estranged NBA franchise.
In September 2019, the Golden State Warriors moved to their new 18,064 seat arena, the Chase Center, in San Francisco. The location of the Chase Center, on a waterfront, was not the Warrior’s first choice. Like the A’s, the Warriors found themselves feeling unwelcome the moment they announced plans to build at the intersection of the third and 16th streets. There was a barrage of complaints by residents that a new stadium will make the area family unfriendly.
Eventually, the Warriors moved to the Mission Bay neighbourhood, where it again faced resistance but worked to address the issues raised.
With the Warriors gone, the A’s are now the last team in Oakland and attempting to make a similar move, but this time only a few miles north and within the same city as their current ballpark.
But to do so, the A’s still have to navigate a lengthy process and address concerns from several groups.
One aspect of the process is the Community Benefits Agreement, which brings together community voices from Jack London, Chinatown, West Oakland and downtown districts as the project moves forward. Gordon and the environmental group (WOEIP) are working to make sure that community voices are being heard throughout the process. So far she feels like they are.
But she warns what the community says needs to translate into action. “At the end of the day how is this going to be implemented,” Gordon said.
The economic impact
On their website, the A’s projects that a new ballpark at the Howard Terminal will generate $7.6 billion in revenue to the local economy in 10 years. It also projects that the project will create 6,119 permanent jobs and $902 million in yearly economic impact.
Building at the proposed site, however, brings with it some complications.
For one, the waterfront location—a site eyed by many stadium-building teams—would take over existing acreage of the working Oakland Port. And stadiums don’t necessarily require waterfront space.
“You could build it anywhere else,” said PMSA Vice President Mike Jacob.
The Howard Terminal site, according to Jacob, should be preserved for “water-dependent uses” as much as possible. This includes port activities like shipping, warehouse storing and truck delivery services. The Port of Oakland is the fifth busiest port in the United States, according to the California Association of Port Authorities.
“Is this a good place for a ballpark given the industrial character of the working waterfront of the Port of Oakland?” he asks.
Jacob suggests that the A’s should develop the Coliseum site in East Oakland with the existing infrastructure and not add more development to the port.
Other organizations on the ground at Howard Terminal feel the same way.
“The Coliseum is the best place for the Oakland A’s to pursue their extension of a ballpark, or rebuild a ballpark renewal,” said Melvin Mackay, former president of the International Longshoreman and Warehouse Union Local 10. “The ballpark [at Howard Terminal] does not fit for the longshore division, period.”
Mackay is worried about the land use at Howard Terminal, expressing concerns for his union that includes foreman (Local 91), checkers clerk (Local 34) and watchmen (Local 75) who work on site.
“The most pervasive impacts to our business are not from the stadium itself. It’s from the residential development and commercial developments that are being proposed along with the stadium,” Jacob said.
One of those impacts is the potential loss of several thousand existing jobs on the terminal. Despite the A’s projections for what the new project will bring, Mackay and Jacob are concerned about what the ballpark will do to existing jobs.
“The overall economic impact of all of that is in the hundreds of billions of dollars,” said Jacob.
“I’m fighting for union jobs and keeping us working,” Mackay said. “If you keep gobbling up the land for houses and shit, we’re not gonna have any jobs.”
Economic scholars say new stadiums almost never contribute to the local economy.
Roger Noll, a retired economic professor at Stanford, says stadiums do not generate significant local economic growth and taxes they pay to the local governments is not sufficient to cover the financial contribution by the host city.
“By comparison, other billion dollar facilities—like a major shopping center or large manufacturing plant— will employ many more people and generate substantially more revenue and taxes,” Noll said in a Stanford News article. The City of Oakland, he said, is still making substantial annual payments on the debts that remain when the Coliseum was built to lure the Oakland Raiders in the 1990s.
On the ground at Howard Terminal, Mackay and his union members are concerned not only with economic predictions but also their day-day-work.
“If they were to build, it will be nothing but a disruption,” Mackay said.
Where are we now?
As of December 2020, the City of Oakland is yet to pronounce itself on the matter. The fate of the project hangs on the long awaited EIR, which the city needs to certify before plans move forward.
“When is that going to happen? We have no idea. That’s the main document that has to happen to assure that this project goes forward,” Gordon said.
After the draft is certified, a 45-day public comment period will follow. Then, according to the Athletic’s own website, the team will aim for a city council vote and then a port of Oakland vote in Summer 2021.
There is no date listed for the start of construction, and although A’s president Dave Kaval is optimistic for the 2023 season, there is no estimated opening day date listed on the site.
For Lewis, any further conversation should take place only after the EIR draft is certified.
“I don’t want to say it’s meaningless, the conversation right now, but it’s not grounded. Some of it is speculative, some of it is fear, some of it is BS promises and magic fairy dust.”
This post was updated to reflect the status of the lawsuit the A’s filed against the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC).
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