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A’s finally make tangible progress on a new ballpark

The Port of Oakland approved a long term lease to the A’s of the Howard Terminal property. It’s not shovels in the ground (sigh) but it is the farthest an A’s ballpark plan has ever gone.

Rendering of Howard Terminal Development
Oakland Athletics

In the latest of a series of new ballpark victories, the Port of Oakland approved a long-term lease and an exclusive negotiating agreement on a purchase of a portion of the Howard Terminal property (the zone by Jack London Square that the A’s have identified as their new ballpark site).

According to A’s President Dave Kaval, part of the Howard Terminal ballpark property must be leased because of California law regarding waterfront land, however a large portion of the property can be purchased and the team plans to do that. The A’s will pay $3.8 million/year for the first 20 years of the lease. In the meantime they will also be making annual payments to preserve their exclusive right to negotiate a purchase. The arrangement benefits both sides, as environmental reports may affect the purchase price significantly. With that big wild card still out there, the A’s (quite literally) buying time from the Port makes the most sense.

The lease was expected to be approved but with the dozens of disappointments surrounding the multi-decade ballpark quest, nothing is taken for granted. On Monday to support the vote, the A’s held a rally at Jack London Square outside the Port meeting. A band played, free food and drinks were provided, and Dallas Braden showed up (of course he did). The ubiquitous Kaval was on hand to celebrate with the fans. The rally reportedly drew about 1,000 supporters, with a particularly strong show of support from the Teamsters Union. A couple of other unions held a smaller counter-rally (more like a press conference) opposing it out of concern for preservation of the Port’s thriving shipping business. In the end the Port unanimously approved leasing the land to the A’s.

It may not sound like a whole lot, but the A’s actually have a lease on a ballpark property. They’ve never gone past the “idea” stage, really, so I’ll count this as a victory. They’ve now committed to paying the Port almost $80 million, which is definitely more legit than ever.

This tangible victory comes after a series of political wins that are laying the groundwork for the new stadium. This process seems night-and-day different from the embarrassing Laney College debacle, in which Kaval’s presentation was high on confidence but revealed to be almost completely lacking in actual preparation, politicking, and the behind-the-scenes grunt work needed to move along a project of this size in California. (Who knew you needed the people that control the land to agree to build a park there?)

With Howard Terminal, there were many more votes necessary given both the waterfront development and the use of Port lands, however every vote was expected, and most passed unanimously. To wit:

  • July 30, 2018: The California legislature overwhelmingly approved a limited challenge period for environmental review of the Howard Terminal ballpark. The environmental review must still be thoroughly completed, but once completed, there is a limited period of time for lawsuits to be resolved. Without the legislative exception, ballpark opponents would have potentially years to delay the project through lawsuits. Instead, any issues will be forced to the fore at the outset.
  • April 23, 2019: Alameda County votes unanimously to sell its share of the Oakland Coliseum land to the A’s. Although the A’s plan to build the park at Howard Terminal, they aim to use revenue from developing the Coliseum property to subsidize what promises to be an insanely expensive ballpark (and gondola, public parkland, etc.).
  • April 24, 2019: Four bills are voted unanimously out of committee at the state level; combined, the bills will help pave the way for local control of the ballpark process and streamline the financing process for necessary infrastructure improvements at Howard Terminal (one of them has already passed 36-0 in the state senate and is moving to the state assembly).
  • May 9, 2019: Labor Unions representing 135,000 workers announce their support of the Howard Terminal ballpark.
  • May 13, 2019: The Port of Oakland votes 7-0 to lease Howard Terminal to the A’s.

The A’s are still pretty far from shovels in the ground, however. The required Environmental Impact Report (EIR) is not yet completed, and when it is, it will be subject to heavy scrutiny and potential legal challenges. At the Coliseum site, the A’s still have to negotiate with the City of Oakland who owns the other share of that land, and if that deal falls through it’s unclear how the A’s can finance the potential toxic cleanup needed at the Port (let alone the gondola!). There are still votes remaining at the state level. And I’m sure the city, neighboring Schnitzer Steel, the Port, dockworkers unions, and countless others will want to weigh in at every step of the process.

The sheer number of votes and committees and stakeholders illustrates the challenge in taking on a massive development on California waterfront property. Literally every team has had it easier. For example, the next new park to open up is the new Globe Life Field in Arlington. I’m going to assume that the Texas Rangers didn’t have to clear 80,000 hurdles in deciding to build a brand new ballpark. My guess is the only question was whether there was oil under the stadium site. (“No? Good to go!”). From the looks of it, it will be pretty much devoid of charm, built in a parking lot next to the old stadium, which itself is situated on a nondescript parcel of land (but hey, it will have that all-important roof). And taxpayers are subsidizing it to the tune of $600 million.

However, taking a silver lining look at the quarter-century-long ballpark saga, I think the challenges, restrictions, and geography will force the A’s into a creative, unique park, one that has the potential to wake up the Oakland waterfront and tie Jack London Square to downtown. In that sense, if the winding ballpark path leads us improbably to a wholly unique jewel of a ballpark in one of the most picturesque settings imaginable, it’ll be a win. But, as of now, it’s still a dream. A dream that became slightly more realistic this week.

Nighttime rendering of Howard Terminal ballpark
Oakland Athletics