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Oakland City Council approves the A’s ballpark

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And in this case, the fine print is actually...a pleasant surprise?

Oakland Athletics v San Francisco Giants
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf was firmly optimistic after yesterday’s vote.
Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Yesterday, the Oakland City Council voted 6-1 to approve the A’s ballpark project. Well actually they voted for a ballpark project, for the A’s, but not the actual ballpark project by the A’s. Make sense?

Unfortunately, a day that should justifiably have been a day of celebration for A’s fans was instead a day of confusion that needs to be unpacked and translated. So, here we go.

The upshot is that the city approved a non-binding term sheet for the A’s Howard Terminal ballpark and ancillary development. That is, by far, the farthest any new ballpark action has ever gotten in Oakland.

The devil in the details is that it’s not the term sheet proposed by the A’s. However, upon review, it’s not really that far off from what the A’s were asking for. A last minute change by the Council was actually a massive step forward, and a revelation even to A’s marionette-in-chief Dave Kaval.

The A’s previously had been hammering home that they did not want to be on the hook to pay the estimated $350 million bill for offsite infrastructure (i.e. improvements to Broadway and Jack London Square, which are not on the ballpark site, but necessary to have functional and safe access to the park). And lo and behold, the City of Oakland actually came out and agreed to that! They’re smelling infrastructure money flowing from the feds and California, and you can’t get infrastructure money if you’re not building infrastructure. So voila, they’re confident enough to tell the A’s they got this. Ironically, yay covid?

The A’s originally proposed that the team would front the $350 million and collect it back from dedicated property taxes originating from that Broadway corridor. The city is not into that idea, because they don’t feel the A’s deserve tax dollars from the city that are only tangentially connected to the ballpark development.

While Kaval was complaining, astute observers were, well, observing, that this actually takes a $350 million expense off the A’s hands.

And on top of that, the physical ballpark and development site plan approved by the Council is pretty much exactly what the A’s proposed. The “shared vision of the waterfront” that Kaval kept parroting is, apparently, shockingly, actually shared.

It appears the only items in the city’s term sheet that are new and potentially up for negotiation are the affordable housing requirements (the city increased those) and community benefits funding (which is proposed to come from a different source). The city is proposing to fund the community benefits by other mechanisms besides property taxes, including permitting fees and a small tax on property transfers within the district.

That...seems...eminently reasonable.

The A’s just saved $350 million that they thought they were going to have to spend, and the city’s asking for a few things around the margins that really should come as no surprise. From the moment the term sheet was announced, community benefits and affordable housing were included. In fact, those were in the A’s term sheet. The only difference was there was a different financing mechanism (property taxes, instead of permit/transfer taxes).

Not only did the city move significantly towards the A’s, they also expressed a firm desire to get a binding, final deal by the end of the year. That timing is dictated in part by an approved environmental impact report (EIR), which is expected in the fall.

So, the city basically took the biggest hurdle out of the equation and is pushing for final approval of the project in 2021.

THAT IS HUGE.

Sadly initially after what should have been a happy moment for A’s fans, Kaval stuck with his “they voted on the wrong thing!” routine without bothering, to you know, note that the city gave him back $350 million. And therefore we were banned from even smiling momentarily at the farthest an A’s ballpark proposal had ever made it.

However, after he actually read the damn thing, his robotic tone slipped into a human range, and he said (gasp!) “We were encouraged there was a positive vote and we were encouraged there was some movement from the city.”

So, if you’re keeping up with the ongoing mouth spew from your favorite team’s president, apparently yesterday “yes means no” but today “yes kinda means yes.” Any objective reading of the term sheets says the two sides aren’t really far apart.

Let’s be practical about this. The city is ready to hand over 55 acres of prime urban waterfront in the Bay Area for the A’s to develop and cash in on. The A’s say it’s a $12 billion project. If that’s the size of the project, the profits are likely many multiples of that. There is absolutely no scenario, none, where the A’s can get that in Las Vegas or any other market for that matter. In addition, the A’s currently own half of the Oakland Coliseum site, which, per the terms of their purchase of that site, they would have to offer up for sale if the A’s don’t stAy in Oakland.

So the tightwad billionaire John Fisher’s decision is either rake in mega billions in East AND West Oakland, in his Bay Area backyard, or give all of that up for a subsidy measuring a tiny fraction of that size, in a much smaller market where he has no personal connection. Maybe I’m naïve, but I don’t see the A’s throwing all that away based on having to pony up 5% more affordable housing than they thought, or whatever pittances the city is asking for. Every alternative pales in comparison.

The A’s probably could make a boatload just by signing on to this term sheet the Council passed with no changes. If some items around the edges need to be worked out, the city is ready to work those out. Hopefully the A’s are ready to deal for real, because they got pretty much everything they asked for.

I am completely incapable of actual optimism on this subject, but at this time I’m at least not pessimistic, which might be the first time I’ve ever said that about the A’s never-ending ballpark quest.

So, pardon me for pouring myself a celebratory beverage. There’s been so little to celebrate in this entire rancid saga, and I’ll take my moments where I can get them.