If you measure a city by the health of its sports teams, Oakland was once the envy of the world. Over four years in the 1970s, the city’s three major franchises—the Athletics, the Raiders, and the Warriors—won a combined five national championships. Games at the Coliseum Complex in East Oakland, where they all played, sold out routinely. Sports contributed to the city’s sense of self—Oakland was home to Reggie Jackson, John Madden, the Black Hole, those Swingin’ A’s!—and bolstered its reputation. As John Branch wrote in The New York Times, Oakland was once the “the most successful sports city in the nation” and a place franchises “wanted to be.”
But that was a long time ago. Today, the A’s are the only ones left in town. Few attend their games, even when they’re good. The Coliseum has fallen into disrepair. And rumors swirl that soon, the A’s will leave, too, unless they’re able to build a new stadium closer to downtown, something they’ve been trying to do for a decade. The site they’re fighting for today is a small wedge of waterfront property owned by the city and operated by the Port of Oakland, just a pop-fly west of Jack London Square, known as Howard Terminal.
You may have heard about the A’s plan to build a ballpark at Howard Terminal. Maybe you’ve seen the mock-ups. The latest, by Copenhagen-based design firm Bjarke Ingels Group, depicts a futuristic, 34,000-seat stadium planted daringly on the edge of the Oakland Estuary, its upper deck ringed by public green space complete with oak trees, footpaths, and sculpture. Behind the stadium, a small posse of new skyscrapers refract the sun. In centerfield, the grandstands plunge boldly to ground-level, giving way to a communal, tree-lined concourse. Preserved cranes loom over it all like deer head over a mantle.
The complete plan—referred to in court documents as the Oakland Waterfront Ballpark District Project—calls for much more than just a stadium. Among other things, it orders the development of millions of square feet of office, retail, and hotel space; apartment buildings (luxury and affordable); a 50,000 square-foot indoor performance venue; some 18.3 acres of open space; and a gondola, to be installed somewhere around Washington and 10th Street, which will zip fans over the 880 freeway to a station in Jack London Square. All this, mind you, on or around what is today a working port. The draft Environmental Impact Report for the project, meant to help people assess the project’s potential pros and cons, weighs in at more than 6,000 pages long.
In sum, it’s one of the most audacious civic development proposals ever brought to Oakland’s City Council. If approved, it would do much more than keep the A’s in Oakland. It would change Oakland, forever.
A’s president Dave Kaval, with whom I spoke over the phone, believes emphatically that the changes would be positive. “Seven billion dollars in economic impact. 6,000 permanent and mostly union jobs. 3,000 construction jobs,” he said, citing numbers that match those published in a report by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, which the A’s commissioned, back in 2019. He spoke passionately, his voice crackling. “And we’ve committed to ensuring the stadium is greenhouse-gas neutral. Other hallmarks of the project are environmental sustainability and the health of West Oakland.”
The city, for its part, endorses this view, shares Kaval’s enthusiasm, and champions the project. In May of 2019, the commissioners of the Port of Oakland, who are nominated by the mayor and appointed by the City Council, unanimously approved an exclusive term-sheet agreement that gave the A’s a green light to obtain land-use permits, sponsor an environmental review, and complete other preparatory work needed to lease the 50-acre Howard Terminal. It was an important first step. Then, in October of that same year, Governor Newsom signed into law Assembly Bill No.1191, drafted by local Assemblyman Rob Bonta, which served to streamline the permitting process, along with Senate Bill No. 293, drafted by local State Senator Nancy Skinner, which allows Oakland to create a special taxing district to help fund infrastructure contributions. “The #HowardTerminal site is the right project, in the right neighborhood, and at the right price to our taxpayers,” Mayor Schaaf tweeted, the same day Kaval introduced the project back in 2018. “It’s a community space for all Oaklanders,” she said. The A’s have promised to pay for the stadium—if not the surrounding infrastructure—with private funds.
But not all Oaklanders are so convinced. In fact, a battle is raging over the Waterfront Ballpark Project, one unlike any Oakland has seen for a long time. “Howard Terminal is part of a large industrial complex that includes the Port of Oakland, industrial land supporting operations at the Port of Oakland, and an important buffer zone that separates residential and commercial uses from industrial uses,” said Mike Jacob, General Counsel for the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association and a key figure of the project’s opposition. “A baseball stadium and the ancillary uses proposed by the Oakland A’s can be sited anywhere. There is no reason why it has to be located on the waterfront.”
Jacob represents the East Oakland Stadium Alliance, a collective of local businesses, community leaders, labor unions, and advocates who oppose building a baseball stadium at Howard Terminal—and who insist that there are in fact myriad reasons a stadium shouldn’t be built there. In a letter to Rebecca Kaplan, then-president of the Oakland City Council, in July 2019, the coalition synthesized their concerns, voicing fears of the project “permanently removing industrial lands, eliminating our current industrial-residential buffer zone, and threatening Oakland’s largest private employers and source of blue-collar, unionized, working-class jobs.” According to the Port of Oakland’s website, “through port operations and those of its tenants and users,” the port supports some 50,000 regional jobs.
The city’s draft Environmental Impact Report for the Waterfront Ballpark Project is now under community review. The city conducted an informational workshop on March 6, and the Oakland City Planning Commission held a public hearing on April 21 to provide information and solicit comments on the adequacy of the draft EIR. The extended 60-day comment period is scheduled to end on April 27. A final EIR will be sent to the City Council for a vote after public feedback has been considered, leading the way for a decision to be made about whether the A’s will be able to develop Oakland’s waterfront, or not, which in turn will likely also decide whether the A’s—along with professional sports writ large—remain in Oakland.
The looming vote promises to be a consequential moment. Kaval called it “the culmination of many years of hard work.” Susan Ransom, a manager at Stevedoring Services of America Terminals, Inc., or SSA, which just signed a new 30-year lease to operate the Oakland International Container Terminal, the Port of Oakland’s largest terminal, called it “a moment of truth” that could determine whether “thousands of longshoremen lose their jobs.”
At any rate, it’s an occasion to ask some big questions. Such as: Why is Oakland so adamant about building a baseball stadium at Howard Terminal to begin with? Especially when, as Jacob pointed out to me, there exist other potential locations, such as the current Coliseum site, into which the public “has already invested millions of dollars,” and on which redevelopment could begin comparatively quickly.
Also: Can it even be done? Logistical challenges related to construction abound. And if so, should it be done? The answers are far from obvious—each side holds firmly different opinions—and the stakes couldn’t be higher. The battle over the Waterfront Ballpark Project is a battle over nothing less than the future of Oakland.
“We’re building more than a ballpark here,” Kaval told me. “This is about more than just baseball.”
Baseball stadiums as drivers of urban renewal
Baseball stadiums have always been about more than just baseball. In the early 1900s, when more Americans lived in cities than not, baseball stadiums were of genuine civic importance, gathering places that were not just gathering places but “urban gardens” that reflected, embellished, and even nurtured a city’s unique civic identity. As author, critic, and Vanity Fair contributing editor Paul Goldberger writes in Ballpark: Baseball in the American City, ballparks of the period formed “a defining element of the public realm.”
After WW2, the profusion of isolated, spiritless, dual-sport stadiums built out in the suburbs became emblems of the impersonality of the suburban lifestyle. Then, in the 1990s, ballparks became vehicles of urban revival. As Goldberger writes, “We have tried in our own time to use our baseball parks to get our cities back.” Today, baseball stadiums are less about baseball than they’ve ever been.
Since 1992, 24 Major League Baseball stadiums have been built, mostly in city centers, often with taxpayer money. They’re all destinations unto themselves, parks-as-urban-palaces, designed not only to accentuate but to anchor a new urban core. Their express purpose is to lure not only baseball fans, but entrepreneurs, millennials, tourists, and luxury condos. As Dr. Mark Rosenstraub writes in his book Major League Winners: Using Sports and Cultural Centers as Tools for Economic Development, “The 1990s launched an unprecedented era of the building of taxpayer-financed sports facilities in downtown areas.”
These facilities tended to be expensive—Yankee Stadium, which opened in New York in 2009, reportedly cost $2.3 billion—but were thought to be worth it. “It was hoped the billions of dollars invested,” Rosenstraub writes, would “make central cities more attractive places… that the years of decline would soon be replaced by crowds eager to work, live, and play.” In other words, specifically those of James Earl Jones, from Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.”
Sometimes, that’s exactly what happens. Exhibit A might well be what is now Oracle Park in San Francisco. Oracle Park—originally called Pacific Bell Park—is a petite and damn-near perfect baseball stadium, bookended by McCovey Cove to the south and the Bay Bridge to the north, sheltered thoughtfully from westward winds by homey brick-and-steel grandstands. It also sits on the brim of China Basin, an area that, 25 years ago, did not feel entirely safe to walk through. Orbiting the stadium today are bars, coffee shops, parks, upscale restaurants, formerly abandoned warehouses since converted into lofts, a bowling alley that bills itself a “gastro pub fun house,” and flocks of tourists who on game days outnumber the gulls.
The park was also paid for entirely by the Giants, further indicating that Oracle Park was always intended to be much more than just a stadium—rather, it was privately financed plastic surgery, transforming the way that entire swath of the city looks, feels, and is perceived.
Depending on who you ask, this is what Oakland wants and needs now. “Major League Baseball has an excellent track record for creating beautiful new ballparks that reinvigorate city centers and spawn new neighborhoods, from San Francisco to Baltimore,” Mayor Schaaf wrote in an op-ed for the East Bay Times—which her office pointed me to when I reached out for comment—paying homage not only to Oracle Park but to Baltimore’s Camden Yards, one of the first modern urban ballparks. “We want no less for Oakland.”
This is also why proponents say the stadium has to be on the waterfront; it’s not the same destination otherwise, wouldn’t catalyze the same economic benefits. As Schaaf writes, “A development at Howard Terminal would finally connect Oakland’s downtown to our waterfront and anchor the Jack London district. A new waterfront ballpark with beautiful public parks and gorgeous communal spaces for people to live and work will bring people past the freeway and create a world-class development.”
But that’s where things get trickier. Oakland’s Howard Terminal is much less conducive to large-scale construction than San Francisco’s China Basin. The latter was mostly home to warehouses in 1997, the year the Giants broke ground. The former is a site of well-established industry. Opponents of the Waterfront Ballpark Plan fear it could not only threaten existing jobs, but the port’s ability to function at all.
“All this is connected”
The seaport of the Port of Oakland is composed of a series of berths, which the port has partitioned into terminals. The city leases these terminals, along with its famous container cranes, to private companies—such as, for example, SSA, the marine terminal and rail yard operations company that just signed a new 30-year lease to operate the Oakland International Container Terminal.
These terminals run along the waterfront from the Estuary to the Bay Bridge, and operate symbiotically: When ships patronize the Port of Oakland, they often unload cargo at each terminal, one after the other. That cargo is then loaded onto trucks that navigate the same roadways and utilize the same rail lines to get to retailers and distributors. Together, the terminals comprise a kind of chain, and their collaboration constitutes a kind of ecosystem. Howard Terminal sits at the beginning of the chain—the entry point to the ecosystem.
“The trucks never stop, the trains never stop, the ships never stop,” said Ransom, of SSA, who gave me a tour of the port earlier this month. We were standing on the western-most edge of the Oakland International Container Terminal, the smell of diesel fumes singeing our noses. Behind us, a container ship glowered like a thunderhead. Ransom gestured to the rows of container stacks stretching for literal miles behind her, with trucks roving up and down around them. She had to yell over the din of all the machinery. “All this is connected. Building a ballpark at the front of the chain puts the whole system at risk.”
There’s a lot to lose. According to Ransom, the International Container Terminal alone conducts 1,500 “gate moves”—wherein a truck comes in, unloads or accepts cargo, and goes back out—every night. All this movement accounts for much in the way of economic activity. According to its website, the Port of Oakland “loads and discharges more than 99% of the containerized goods moving through Northern California.” The Port has three primary revenue streams: aviation, maritime, and commercial real estate, and in 2017, the seaport alone generated upwards of $151.4 million in revenue.
That’s par for the course. The port has been one of Oakland’s most reliable producers of jobs and economic activity for a long time. In a way, it’s been the city’s only longstanding reliable producer of jobs and economic activity. Wharves were constructed along the waterfront the same year Oakland was incorporated as a town in 1852. The Estuary, previously marshland, was dredged 22 years later, to make Oakland a deepwater port, though Oakland didn’t technically own the port until 1897, when Mayor Frank Mott wrangled ownership of it away from the Southern Pacific Railroad. In the 1960s, when most other industries and large-scale employers were leaving Oakland, the port was growing, making innovative investments in containerization that helped it become the “premier container port on the Pacific Rim,” as Richard Walker, former chair of the geography department at UC Berkeley, writes in his history of Oakland, The Manufactured Metropolis.
Today the port is an anchor not just for the region, but the West Coast. But—and this was reiterated on my tour—it’s fragile. Trucks rely on three key roadways to exit and enter. One is Adeline Street, which curves right past Howard Terminal. The port’s tenants fear that large-scale construction along that key access point will choke traffic coming in and out of the port, compromising their reliability.
“The shipping companies who use the port have options,” said Sanson, of SSA. “They can go down to Long Beach. They’ll choose other partners.” Jacob, general counsel for the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, put a finer point on it. “We are afraid that if the city’s downtown plans are implemented as currently imagined, Oakland will lose intermodal cargo market share, will become a niche port specializing in limited export cargoes, and we will lose a large percentage of business in one of the largest sources of good-paying, unionized, and blue-collar jobs in the region.”
The day I toured the port, I waited on Middle Harbor Road—the thoroughfare Adeline turns into—for twenty minutes, stuck behind a veritable circus train of big-rig trucks. It’s hard to see how gameday traffic, which could push 34,000 fans and multiple thousands of vehicles onto access points for that same street, wouldn’t impede on port operations in some fashion.
The maritime community has other concerns, too. Some refer to the land the terminal sits on and that surrounds it. Technically, Howard Terminal is used by the port’s tenants today as a kind of parking lot, a place where truck drivers idle until it’s their turn to enter the port. Some worry that pushing these drivers out into the streets of West Oakland will further hamper port operations—not to mention increase congestion all around West Oakland, where trucks could clot the streets.
But the community also just likes having Howard Terminal on-hand; according to a Bay Area Seaport Forecast, prepared for the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, the Howard Terminal site might one day be needed to increase seaport capacity. “Under a moderate-growth scenario with sufficient productivity increases,” the Forecast states, “the Bay Area could have sufficient container cargo capacity through 2050 without Howard Terminal, but would be at or near capacity (estimated at 99.8%) with little or no room for future growth.”
The report also speculates that the site could be used for more “roll-on, roll-off cargo, especially for exports of cars made by Tesla or another manufacturer, or even for bulk cargo.” Howard Terminal might also need to be reduced in size, so as to expand what’s known as the Inner Harbor turning basin, the point in the Estuary where container ships—some the size of several football fields—turn around after entering the waterway. Expanding the basin could be more difficult with a baseball stadium at Howard Terminal.
“A toxic mess”: Is developing Howard Terminal safe?
Then there’s the ground beneath Howard Terminal. Formerly wetland that’s been topped with landfill, it’s subject to liquefaction, a process in which saturated soil, in response to stressors (such as an earthquake), loses strength and behaves like a liquid.
It’s also toxic. Having served for nearly 200 years as the entrypoint to the waterfront, Howard Terminal sits on centuries’ worth of contaminated soil. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, before it was a parking lot, Howard Terminal was home to “oil tanks, a manufactured gas plant, a briquette plant where compressed charcoal blocks were made, a coal tramway, an asphalt paving plant and a blacksmith.” Some chemicals that remain in the soil and groundwater have been known to cause cancer and birth defects. Those chemicals are currently capped by the asphalt upon which Howard Terminal sits. Construction there could exhume those chemicals, and expose residents in West Oakland to them.
The A’s will need to clean all of this up—and find a way to prevent harmful exposure—before building on top of it. And they’ll need to do so while rising sea levels increase the risk of that contamination leaching out into the bay. As Brian Beveridge, co-director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, recently told The Athletic, “It is a really toxic mess. No one wants to take the asphalt off that parking lot and start digging around in it.”
Such concerns have fueled opposition to the Waterfront project. On Tuesday, April 20, a group called the Oakland United Coalition, convened by the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), hosted a virtual press conference to call attention to the project’s potentially harmful impacts. “The people of Oakland see serious shortcomings in the city’s current draft Environmental Impact Report for this massive project,” the press release for the press conference read. “The Mayor’s administration did an insufficient analysis,” said Liana Molina, EBASE’s Senior Campaign Director for Oakland. “And the draft Environmental Impact Report needs to be recirculated.”
The coalition is also critical of what they say is the project’s “failure to address the need for affordable housing” and a prioritization of “corporate interest” over community benefit. Such concerns mirror those of the East Oakland Stadium Alliance, which believes the A’s should build their new stadium at the current Coliseum site, and is demanding “an apples-to-apples analysis of a development at the Coliseum vs. Howard Terminal so the public can judge for itself which site has the most upside and presents the least logistical, financial, and environmental hurdles.”
The city’s rebuttal
The A’s and the city have answers for all this. Kaval has said that the A’s are prepared to cover all costs related to cleaning up the site, and Section 4.8 of the city’s draft EIR, “Hazards and Hazardous Materials,” includes a section that details how potentially contaminated soil will be classified and disposed of. Toxic soil will be removed and replaced, and the entire site will be raised by 3½ feet to accommodate rising sea levels—which could be a benefit.
“I have been interested in whether a new stadium at the Howard Terminal location could actually help,” said Dr. Kristina Hill, associate professor at UC Berkeley, with whom I connected over email. “Namely by removing old toxic soils before sea-level rise creates the risk that rising groundwater will inundate them and re-mobilize the contaminants. That would be a clear benefit to the neighborhood. If it isn’t removed, it could be inundated and start moving towards residential areas when the incoming tide pushes groundwater inland.”
Both the A’s and the city reject the idea that the choice between a waterfront ballpark and a healthy port is mutually exclusive. “You can have a privately financed baseball stadium on the waterfront and a thriving port at the same time,” Kaval told me. “The two things are not mutually exclusive.” Cestra “Ces” Butner, then-president of the Port of Oakland Board of Commissioners, said essentially the same thing, a tad more acerbically, in 2019. “You can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said. “And we can build a stadium and protect our maritime industry. We refuse to accept the notion that it’s an either-or proposition.”
The A’s and the city have also made specific concessions. The draft EIR for the Waterfront Ballpark Project includes a “Maritime Reservation Scenario,” which reserves a 10-acre corner of Howard Terminal for the port to utilize in expanding the Inner Harbor turning basin, if the port deems it necessary. Kaval insisted, as well, that the development would maintain a buffer zone separating industrial and residential uses. “We’ve agreed that areas closest to the port won’t have any housing,” Kavail said. “And that truck traffic will be protected and kept separate from pedestrians, bikes, and vehicles.”
On the issue of affordable housing, the draft EIR states that affordable units are to be included among the 3,000 proposed new homes, in a part of Oakland designated as a “Priority Development Area.” Kaval provided more detail in a letter to A’s fans published on Friday, April 23, stating that the A’s “will earmark $450M of project-generated revenue to be used for community benefits, such as affordable housing.” According to Kaval, the A’s have held “more than 200 meetings with the community” to ensure the Waterfront Project prioritizes “race and equity driven community benefits.”
“We think we have tremendous community support,” Kaval told me. “And we think we’ve allayed some of the concerns of the maritime community, and can work through what concerns remain.”
Cars, trains, and pedestrians: Getting people in and out
None of this answers the question of how fans will get to the Howard Terminal stadium, which may prove an even harder challenge. Access to and from Howard Terminal is limited to a single ferry line and the one- and two-lane roads surrounding it—one of which, Embarcadero West, is bisected by a pair of railroad tracks that serve freight, Amtrak, and Capitol Corridor lines.
This poses complications in terms of congestion as well as safety. In a letter to the Oakland Planning and Building Department, officials from Union Pacific, which today owns the rail lines, raised concerns related to railroad crossings. “Freight and passenger lines operate on this line both day and night, seven days per week,” officials wrote. They are asking for the lines to be fenced off and for overhead crossings to be installed, to keep the fans away from the tracks.
The A’s and the city have agreed and say they’ll construct the requested pedestrian bridges, in addition to the proposed gondola. According to the Oakland City Planning Commission, the project will include a Transportation Management Plan to address vehicle circulation prior to and after game days and large events, and make infrastructure improvements to increase pedestrian and bicycle access. The draft EIR also identifies the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit bus service, Oakland’s three downtown BART stations, the San Francisco Bay Ferry, and the Amtrak line as additional, reliable means of getting to the park.
But even these solutions have their limits. The gondola will shuttle only 2,000 fans per hour. The ferry service is only meaningful for fans traveling from San Francisco or Marin County. Each of the relevant BART stations is at least a mile away from the proposed stadium, and none lend themselves to routes as convenient or as nice as the bay-side stroll from Embarcadero Station to Oracle Park, in San Francisco.
After my tour of Howard Terminal, I walked down Embarcadero West to Jack London Square to see if I could imagine a new neighborhood there, one anchored by a state-of-the-art stadium and more meaningfully “connected to downtown”—the windowless buildings and barbed wire fences replaced by affordable condos and trendy brewpubs, the scrapyard-feel of the three-block strip made into something more conducive to families (and, for that matter, cars). I looked back at Howard Terminal. Trucks shuttled in and out in a constant rumbling tide. I stepped aside to watch the Amtrak avalanche by. Glass crunched underfoot. The smell of diesel fuel lingered, caught in the dust.
I was struck by just how large the Waterfront Project really is, the scale of it. It goes beyond revitalization; it’s reinvention. Which is not to say it’s impossible. But it does seem clear that completing it successfully, and in a manner that doesn’t harm any relevant stakeholders—be they members of the West Oakland community, the maritime industry, or the bay itself—will be hard. In comparison to other urban ballpark projects, it’s on the more complicated end of the spectrum. The writer Grant Bisbee put it poetically several years ago when he compared the challenges of the project to the spinning logs, spider walls, and bungee bridges of a certain famous reality show: Oakland’s Waterfront Project, he said, is like an “American Ninja Warrior course of bureaucratic and logistic difficulty.”
Repercussions of getting even small details wrong could be severe. Long-term risks extend beyond the viability of the port, the health of West Oakland, or environmental safety. The city’s future—from its ability to turn a profit, to its freedom to make additional investments in its various communities, many of which have serious needs—is likewise on the line. One need only survey Oakland’s past for proof. Shortly after Oakland incorporated, the nascent City Council voted to grant ownership of the entirety of its growing waterfront real estate to a man named Horace Carpentier, who went on to become Oakland’s first mayor. Though he built infrastructure along the waterfront, he hoovered up all its profits for nearly half a century, delaying the city’s ability to invest in itself—right until the moment he sold the waterfront rights to Southern Pacific, which held onto it until the city got it back around the turn of the century.
Then there’s the former owner of the then-named Los Angeles Raiders, Al Davis, who, in 1995, convinced Oakland to issue $223 million in debt to overhaul the Oakland Coliseum with an oppressive 22,000-seat expansion. By the time the Raiders abandoned Oakland for Las Vegas, the city and county were still paying down the bonds. This deal is likely what Mayor Schaaf was referencing when, in a press conference earlier this year, she said that “Oakland has made some pretty bad deals in the past with sports teams.”
This is one reason groups like the East Oakland Stadium Alliance insist that the right thing for the A’s and the city to do is build a new stadium at 7000 Coliseum Way. (The A’s have committed to redeveloping the East Oakland Coliseum site, in addition to Howard Terminal, though that’s not a part of the Waterfront Project.) The A’s and the city, of course, insist that building at Howard Terminal, though ambitious and even risky, is important. That it’s what the A’s need, in order to turn a profit and remain in Oakland, and that it’s what the city needs, in order to realize its true promise as a place. Both sides believe they’re right. Neither side is backing down.
What do the fans think?
One wonders, amidst all this back and forth, whether a new stadium is something fans want. Again, opinions differ.
To this life-long A’s fan, the prospect of a beautiful ballpark on the water, within walking distance of downtown—were the A’s and the city able to build it without disrupting the port or harming West Oakland—does seem undeniably awesome. It would serve, in my view, a sense of redemption. I was 12 when the Giants moved out of Candlestick and into Pacific Bell Park. The A’s remained stuck in the Coliseum. And while the Coliseum proceeded to become the laughing stock of baseball, Pac Bell became the glory of it. It hosted three World Series championships. The Giants sold out every game. The A’s languished.
I remember watching all this happen. It was a bit like watching your more attractive and over-achieving older sibling woo and date the classmate you’d had a crush on since elementary school. It didn’t seem fair. The part of me that remembers that sort of envy wants nothing more than for the A’s to finally build a beautiful downtown ballpark of their own, and to finally—finally—reacquire our place in baseball’s limelight. Doing so, one imagines, might even return Oakland to sports glory, recapturing the magic of that moment in time when Oakland was the best sports city in the world. I want to believe that’s something Oakland is capable of.
To other fans, however, where the A’s play matters much less than the strength of the team on the field. “Personally, the stadium doesn’t matter to me,” said Bryan Johansen. Bryan’s a diehard fan who’s been going to games at the Coliseum since 1987. “I love the game of baseball and could care less about the confines that surround it. To me, the beauty lies within the game itself. What I want most is for an ownership group to invest in the players.”
My neighbor, John, meanwhile, who I run into most mornings walking my dog around Lake Merritt, and who is always wearing a faded A’s cap and a crisp, Stomper-emblazoned windbreaker, told me that he understands why the A’s want the new stadium to be downtown. “It’s more exciting. More non-fans would probably go to games,” he said. “What matters most is the team on the field. The A’s do need a new stadium, but even if that stadium were in the east, if the team was good, people would go.”
The point might be moot. The A’s are as fully committed to the waterfront plan as the maritime industry is to stopping it. I asked Kaval if the A’s would consider building a new stadium at the Coliseum site, should the City Council vote this year not to approve the Waterfront Ballpark Project. He reiterated the importance of the new ballpark being downtown. “We’re focused on making the Howard Terminal project a success,” he said. He also reminded me that the A’s current lease at the Coliseum is set to expire in 2024. The A’s don’t seem to have any plans to renew.
Either way, in this battle, baseball is a proxy. What the maritime industry, community groups, the A’s, and the city are all fighting over isn’t just the construction of a baseball stadium, but the casting of a silver bullet. The battle is about the future, and whether it’s possible to do right by the port, the environment, and West Oakland all while transforming large swaths of the city.
The clock is ticking. On April 20, the A’s started a petition urging Oakland City Council to “take a vote on our project before summer recess.” As of this writing, it had more than 4,000 signatures. “We need the political will of the City Council,” Kaval said, near the end of our conversation. “But we’re hopeful.”
Both sides will hash out their arguments in the coming months, and nothing yet is certain. But there’s no shortage of reasons to pay attention to what happens next.