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Does the Oakland government want to lose the A’s?

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The Oakland city attorney filing a surprise lawsuit against Alameda County (but in effect against the A’s) on the day of the biggest game of the year is yet another dumfounding development by the hapless Oakland government in the A’s stadium saga.

Toronto Blue Jays v Oakland Athletics
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf displays her empty moral support

In a slap in the face to Oakland residents, A’s fans and the A’s organization, on the eve of the biggest game of the year the city of Oakland slammed Alameda County with a lawsuit intended to block the A’s pursuit of a new, privately financed ballpark in Oakland.

Last fall, polls showed about 3 in 4 Oakland residents were supportive of the A’s building a new ballpark. In announcing their plans for a new ballpark by Jack London Square, the A’s in parallel announced plans for the current Coliseum site. The A’s planned to purchase the land and develop it under an agreement with the city. Plans for the site aren’t fleshed out yet, but the initial concepts include vast parks and open space, potentially retaining the arena, retaining some vestige of the Coliseum, and of course significant commercial and residential development, including affordable housing. The A’s had already reached a tentative deal to purchase a 50% stake in the land from Alameda County, who co-owns the current Coliseum site with the City. The negotiations with the County commenced after an open letter in March 2018 to the city and county, which letter included a $135 million offer.

The city of Oakland therefore has had one and a half years to respond to the letter and make a counter offer, or even just say they are unwilling to sell. It’s pretty clear from the waves of legislative processes and untold number of meetings that the A’s are very open to sitting down, discussing and negotiating every aspect of this. Yet, somehow, it seems a rogue contingent in the Oakland city council, headed by Rebecca Kaplan and city attorney Barbara Parker, decided the lawsuit was the way to go.

What the heck is this lawsuit all about?

The basis of the lawsuit is that the County owed the City a 90 day negotiation window to allow the site to be used for affordable housing before being sold to a third party, pursuant to the state’s Surplus Land Law. Aside from wondering how years of conversations between the City and County don’t qualify, it’s quite shocking how inept the government is, and how bungled this entire lawsuit looks. To run down the ineptitude:

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf was stunned and displeased to hear of the council’s move. “Our city and county governments should work with each other, not against each other,” Schaaf said in a statement to the Chron. “I hope the council suspends this suit so we can all collaborate together on a beneficial future for the Coliseum.”

  • A’s President Dave Kaval spent 90 minutes THAT DAY with the City’s lead negotiator working “on these very issues”! The possibility of a lawsuit was not mentioned.
  • For more than a year, the city has been talking with Alameda County about buying the county’s share of the land, but after reportedly over 30 meetings the city won’t make an offer.
  • City Councilman Larry Reid, whose district includes the Coliseum site, said, “At this point I have no idea what is going on. All I know is that my colleagues directed the city attorney to file suit,” Reid said. “It is what it is.”
  • The Alameda County supervisor Scott Haggerty called the city “dysfunctional” and mentioned, “We had a meeting set up with them, and they canceled it. We continue to try to set up meetings and the next thing we get from them is a lawsuit,” Haggerty said.

The basis of the suit is that the County was supposed to allow the city to make an offer on the land (which, they have, many times, but the city isn’t approaching the $85 million offer) before dealing with the A’s. The A’s and the County have not signed off on anything yet, but it was thought to be close before the lawsuit. Now everything is on hold until November 14, when there will be a hearing determining the next steps. That is, unless the city drops the suit based on some sort of a compromise that could be reached before then.

Why does the Coliseum Site Matter?

Although the new ballpark will be at Howard Terminal, at the Port of Oakland and adjacent to Jack London Square, the A’s have made it clear that it’s impossible to make privately financing a ballpark there a positive financial scenario. Between the infrastructure issues, cleaning up the toxic waste from decades of port use, and other nine-figure expenses that the A’s would be taking on, selling tickets alone cannot make the ballpark independently financially feasible, at least under current scenarios. And no governmental body actually wants to deal with cleaning up the area so it would be up to the A’s to take that on.

Therefore, trying to kill any deal at the Coliseum site is direct opposition to the A’s building a new ballpark. It’s one thing to say you don’t want to sell; that would at least indicate to the A’s to come up with a better, more financially feasible plan. It’s quite another to string along the team for a couple of years and then sue them without any discussion or notice.

The A’s want to build in Oakland, and the City should want to keep them

Although we know the history here, it’s worth touching on some of it (if you really want the whole shebang, feel free to read every post on newballpark.org because Rhamesis Muncada has covered this in a level of detail that nobody else ever could). The A’s are at least unambiguously championing a new ballpark in Oakland and doing the legislative legwork to match. It wasn’t always that way.

Steve Schott and Ken Hoffman, owners of the team during the “Moneyball” era (i.e. ~20 years ago, when the stadium was already outdated and outmoded), couldn’t afford a new stadium. The notorious cheapskates wanted to sell the team, and had an offer from a group comprised of Bob Piccinini (owner of Save Mart grocery stores) and Reggie Jackson and others. That group wanted to keep the team in Oakland. MLB also had an offer from Lew Wolff and John Fischer.

Lew Wolff, Bud Selig’s old fraternity brother at University of Wisconsin, won the team.

Lew Wolff quickly explored building a new stadium that would be developed north of the Coliseum by buying relatively underutilized industrial lands and creating a large real estate development around a new stadium (called the “Coliseum North” plan). That plan was never feasible and would have required either significant use of eminent domain by the government or landowners all to volunteer to sell their properties at prices that would satisfy the miserly Wolff.

Then, after giving Oakland a flimsy chance, he set his sites southward to San Jose. Because the Giants control some “territorial rights” to Santa Clara county he would have needed the Giants’ consent to build a ballpark there. Which they vehemently opposed, even though the city was open to the idea. So instead he had a plan to build it in the southernmost part of Alameda County, in Fremont. That, like all the other proposals, would have included a significant real estate development, i.e. the “Ballpark Village.” That plan was suddenly and definitively scuttled, much to the public chagrin and surprise of both the mayor of Fremont and Wolff. To this day it’s still relatively unclear exactly how that plan failed, but it seems to have been a combination of local residential and business opposition, as well as the foreclosure crisis making housing developments a difficult proposition at the time.

After a hail mary antitrust lawsuit (that could have potentially opened the door to a San Jose move) was snuffed out, it seemed that the majority, silent owner, John Fisher had enough. Wolff was almost completely bought out, shown the door, and the team did an about face. After a decade-plus of trying to get out of Oakland, the A’s hired Dave Kaval as Team President and pushed a “Rooted In Oakland” campaign.

Since that change, the A’s have earnestly, but perhaps sometimes ham-handedly, pushed staying in Oakland. There have been tons of recent legislative victories and vast support at the state level, the Port is behind it and the A’s have reached a lease deal with the Port of Oakland for the Howard Terminal land, and the County is supportive of offloading their debt and not being sports landlords.

Yet consistently, the City of Oakland has offered tepid moral support, but not much else. And then, an out-of-the-blue lawsuit was filed, to the surprise of literally everyone, on the eve of the AL Wild Card Game that Oakland was hosting? Was there any consideration for the fans going to and watching the game that day, the team hosting it’s biggest game since 2013, or for the vast majority of Oakland residents that support a ballpark?

The City is certainly entitled to take the reasonable approach that they do not want to sell the land to the A’s; then at least the A’s can de-link this project from Howard Terminal and look into alternative financing. Rather than doing that, they deemed it in all of our best interests to file a lawsuit with no warning, designed to get national publicity on a day that should be reserved for the team on the field, on a day when they literally met with the A’s for 90 minutes about the ballpark. A’s fans shouldn’t have had to see this as the top news on the morning of the Wild Card Game.

And now, after the A’s season abruptly ended, A’s fans are reeling once again with the prospect of losing their team. For anyone who naively hoped that the two decade ringer of losing playoff games and potentially losing the team entirely might be coming to an end with this new era of Oakland A's management, think again. Seems like business as usual in the bungling City of Oakland government. Hopefully this groundhog day doesn’t give us six more weeks of winter.