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A’s Howard Terminal ballpark hits unexpected pothole, threatens to wreck the project

Bad news from Seaport Planning Advisory Committee

Port of Oakland’s Howard Terminal
From port or ballpark?
Photo by Jane Tyska/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

In news that capped off a “tough couple days,” in the words of Dave Kaval, the A’s were dealt an unexpected blow Wednesday in their quest for a new ballpark at the Howard Terminal site. This sucker punch came from the Seaport Planning Advisory Committee (SPAC) when they recommended — by a narrow 5-4-1 vote — that the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) reject removing Howard Terminal as a Port Priority Use Area. If the BCDC were to follow this recommendation when they vote on this issue on June 2nd, then the new ballpark at Howard Terminal would effectively die, as signoff from the BCDC for repurposing this land is an absolute requirement of the project moving forward (scroll to the bottom for a brief explanation of the BCDC and SPAC).

While most A’s fans, myself included, were busy trying to digest the Matt Chapman trade without losing our breakfasts, the BCDC was holding a public meeting in which the SPAC was deliberating over an update to the San Francisco Bay Plan and Seaport Plan to remove Howard Terminal as a Port Priority Use Area at the request of the Oakland Athletics. If you’re hurting for something to do while we wait for baseball games to start, you can listen to the four hour and 19 minute recording of the meeting or you can let me do that for you and skim some of the meeting materials as reference.

Background

Currently, the Howard Terminal site is what some might call underutilized and only functions for ‘ancillary’ port activities, such as single-stacked cargo container or truck storage and training services. At first blush, this seems like an inefficient use of highly valuable land near Jack London Square, but the SPAC isn’t reviewing the Howard Terminal Ballpark Project as a whole. Instead, it is reviewing the need for Howard Terminal to remain as a Port Priority Use Area (PPUA) in order for the Bay Area port system to continue to meet cargo demands without the need for future Bay fill in. The SPAC’s recommendation will help advise a final vote by the 27 member BCDC panel on June 2nd, where the proposal to remove the PPUA designation will need a two-thirds majority to pass.

Arguments

With this perspective in mind the BCDC staff presented a number of concerns over losing Howard Terminal over the following issues:

  • Moderate and aggressive future projections expect large increases in shipping demand in which expanding Howard Terminal’s port activities would become necessary.
  • Howard Terminal is one of the only sites capable of expanding to support all three classifications of cargo: Container, Ro-Ro, Dry Bulk.
  • Current ancillary usage is still needed activity to meet demand and no alternatives were presented.

The Port of Oakland attempted to alleviate these concerns and make their case for releasing the land for the Athletics with the following points:

  • Under the moderate projections, most cargo types will meet the demand — by the skin of their teeth — without Howard Terminal, but only if assuming expansions in other sites.
  • Moderate growth expectations are unreasonable and have not been historically accurate.
  • Ancillary usage can be relocated ‘appropriately’, including moving training to the Outer Harbor of the Port of Oakland. Specific alternatives for storage of both containers and trucks were not identified.

Board Discussion

It isn’t hard to see how these rebuttals came off as insufficient when viewed through the lens of the SPAC’s mandate to preserve Bay Area port functions without expanding further into the Bay itself. Though multiple committee members did acknowledge that port usage projections are often grossly overinflated — historical data shows an average of just ~1% annual growth while moderate projections were for ~2% annual growth — they also criticized the Port of Oakland, and by extension the A’s, for not sufficiently proving losing Howard Terminal wouldn’t impact the future needs of the Bay Area ports.

However, all the discussion regarding Howard Terminal was not negative. The more positive viewpoints generally came from the non-Port directors, such as Kara Vuicich, of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Association for Bay Area Governments, who at least twice mentioned that the agency she represents designated the Howard Terminal Area as a high priority development area, as opposed to the rest of the port that is designated a high priority production area.

Brian Brandes, maritime director of the Port of Oakland, was also strongly in favor of handing over the land for the ballpark project. He suggested repeatedly that the primary bottleneck points for the Port of Oakland are not the Port itself, but rather the surrounding infrastructure needed for moving containers and good offsite. He also mentioned that renovations and improvements to the Outer Harbor areas of the Port of Oakland would be of much higher utility than Howard Terminal.

The Vote

As discussion concluded, the SPAC first chose to vote on a motion to positively recommend the reclassification of the Howard Terminal area, but this vote failed by a larger margin (3-6-1, for-against-abstain) than the eventual negative recommendation passed by (5-4-1). The vote that flipped was Diane Oshima of the San Francisco Port. Diane largely agreed with the Port of Oakland’s assessment that even the moderate growth projection was too aggressive, but ultimately did not believe the Port of Oakland adequately made their case that losing Howard Terminal would not negatively impact the Bay Area port system.

This negative recommendation will now be sitting on the desks of the BCDC members as they hold a binding vote to release the Howard Terminal land from its classification as a Port Priority Use Area on June 2nd. That is clearly bad news for A’s fans.

Analysis

If there is one glimmer of hope, it is that the BCDC members are largely not made up of Port experts and directors, and the non-Port affiliated SPAC members tended to vote in favor of the ballpark. It is possible BCDC commission members will see the big-picture benefits of such a project, be less hyper-focused on cargo projections and will vote in favor of the project. On the other hand, they may see a clear argument from BCDC staff about the risks of relinquishing this land, and a negative recommendation from Port experts, and rule against it — killing the project and sending the A’s to Las Vegas in doing so.

The Oakland Athletics and the Port of Oakland had a chance to make a convincing case that the Port of Oakland did not need Howard Terminal, but they flubbed it. Seemingly simple questions with factual answers were left unanswered. Where would the container storage go? Somewhere else. How much will it cost to improve Howard Terminal for full activity rather than ancillary usage only? Lots. No, I’m not really joking, that was basically the extent of it.

The documents submitted to the SPAC outlining the Port of Oakland and the Oakland Athletics case included an 11-slide presentation, a four-page letter from the Port of Oakland, a few more pages from a law firm that doesn’t offer any new information, and an email attached at the bottom. The BCDC staff had put together a 32-slide presentation and 60-page document not including the Appendix and other attached materials. I hate to be so reductionist, but those numbers highlight the disconnect in the level of rigor that was expected and what was delivered.

If the A’s new ballpark at Howard Terminal dies on June 2nd, the cause of death will be ‘not doing their homework.’

*****

The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission is a state agency with a legislative mandate to protect the San Francisco Bay and its coastal areas. Specifically, this agency is concerned with maintaining public access to coastal areas and protecting The Bay coastlines from unjustified ‘fill in’ projects – projects that would fill areas of The Bay with land, such as expansion of ports into currently water way areas. Projects that impact the surrounding Bay coastline need to be approved and permitted by the BCDC commissioning members. The Commission members are a group of appointees from other Bay Area agencies.

The Seaport Planning Advisory Committee is, as the name describes, an advisory committee to the BCDC that specializes in port areas of The Bay shoreline. Its members are comprised of Bay Area port directors and BCDC or other local agency representatives. This committee is tasked with reviewing permit proposals that impact all Bay Area port functions and make preliminary recommendations to the larger BCDC Commission for a final vote.