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City of Oakland releases EIR, A's hire architect

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In the past week, the City of Oakland released a draft Environmental Impact Report for Coliseum City, and the A's announced they've hired 360 Architecture to work on preliminary Oakland ballpark designs.

A rendering of the Coliseum City project.
A rendering of the Coliseum City project.
City of Oakland

The A's and the City of Oakland have each taken an important step forward in the process of redeveloping the current Oakland Coliseum site. The A's announced last week that they've hired 360 Architecture to work on preliminary designs for a ballpark near or on the current Coliseum footprint. Meanwhile, the City of Oakland released a draft Environmental Impact Report for the oft-discussed Coliseum City development, which lays the groundwork for several different build options.

First, the architect: 360 was the obvious choice for the Wolff/Fisher group, as they designed the nearly completed Earthquakes Stadium in San Jose (Wolff and Fisher own the Earthquakes and often point to that project as the main reason they can be trusted with building Coliseum City). Aside from the fact that they've already worked with the A's ownership, however, 360's architects have an impressive and fast-growing resume that includes a recently unveiled project for the Detroit Red Wings that's actually quite similar to Coliseum City, Kansas City's Sprint Center, and the new Falcons stadium in Atlanta.

So the A's have selected an architect, which — though some might argue is the most important part of the process — was never going to pose major obstacles. There will always be architecture firms capable of designing state-of-the-art, unique ballparks. Getting the funding and approval to build those ballparks is always the issue, as is the case here.

Now, the EIR: Like the selection of an architect, this step represents a milestone that doesn't do much to improve the project's odds of actually being implemented. Planning bodies are always capable of churning out EIRs, once funded, and EIRs are cheap, especially as compared to the project's massive scale and cost.

However, the EIR does help us paint a more realistic picture of how Coliseum City could come to fruition, and what it would look like if it does. The document presents many project alternatives, ranging from the legally required "no build" option in which the status quo is maintained to a comprehensive sports, retail, hotel, and residential complex with three brand-new sports venues.

A few of the alternatives, though, aren't worth considering. Take that full-build, three-venue alternative, or any alternative that includes a new indoor venue. The Warriors are moving to San Francisco, and spending a half-billion dollars for a new indoor arena with no tenant is a non-starter. The EIR was mostly written prior to the Warriors' announcement that they'd shift their San Francisco focus toward Mission Bay and away from the Embarcadero, making that arena's construction far more likely, so it wasn't a waste of time to include the option — all the same, it just isn't happening.

There are two big questions surrounding the type and quantity of venues. The more important one is whether one or two new venues will be constructed, namely: Will the complex feature only a new NFL stadium, only a new MLB stadium, or both? The second isn't critical to the project's success, but is still intriguing: Is there a way to keep Oracle Arena standing, operate it at a profit, and still have room for the other venues, or would it have to be demolished? Those alternatives are outlined in the EIR as 2A - Two New Venues, 2C - One New Venue, and 2E - No New Venues.

The Coliseum City project would require the approval of a variety of public agencies, some expected, others less so. BART and Caltrans, for instance, seem pretty straightforward, but I'm honestly not sure what business the Native American Heritage Commission and Fish & Game Region #3 have giving input here.

An interesting aspect of the EIR is that many of the "environmental" impacts are measured in terms of Level of Service, a decades-old metric in California that measures transportation convenience by assigning a letter grade to, basically, how easy it is to get from point A to point B via car. But the State of California is phasing out Level of Service in favor of metrics that measure transportation convenience more holistically, in ways that would give the project major points for its incredible transit accessibility. It'll be interesting to see how long that process takes and whether it substantially impacts future EIR drafts.

The most likely scenario for something actually getting done on the Coliseum City front remains a form of alternative 2C, where the one new venue is a ballpark for the A's, and Oracle Arena is left as is so it can host concerts and other events, like NCAA Tournament Basketball or the odd convention.

The dilemma, however, remains the same: There's little or no public money available for the project, and the venues' construction only pencils out financially when paid for by the surrounding development. But it might not pencil out if it gets split two ways between Mark Davis and Lew Wolff. In all likelihood, the NFL will force the Raiders to play in Santa Clara or they'll end up in another market entirely within the next few years. If it happens quickly enough, the path for Oakland to turn the Coliseum City project over to Wolff's capable hands will be paved. The vision is a bit more clear, but a lot of dominos still have to fall perfectly into place.