The Oakland Waterfront Ballpark District Project—the Oakland A’s proposal for a privately-funded baseball stadium and mixed-use development at Howard Terminal on Oakland’s port—is at a crossroads. What happens next will determine the fate of the project, and possibly the future of major professional sports in Oakland.
On Tuesday, May 11, Major League Baseball put out a statement that the organization is concerned with the project’s “rate of progress.” The statement went on to assert that the Coliseum Complex, in East Oakland, where the A’s currently play, “is not a viable option for the future vision of baseball.” Then MLB dropped the hammer: “We have instructed the Athletics to begin to explore other markets while they continue to pursue a waterfront ballpark in Oakland.” The A’s owner John Fisher followed up with a statement saying, “The future success of the A’s depends on a new ballpark.”
In other words, what before had merely been hinted at is now the team’s official position: If they’re not allowed to redevelop Howard Terminal, they’ll likely be moving elsewhere—leaving Oakland, a once-great sports city, without a professional sports franchise.
Of course, the A’s could just be posturing. But as The Oaklandside reported last month, even if the A’s weren’t threatening to leave, there are no shortage of reasons to pay attention to what’s happening down at Howard Terminal (and now at City Hall). If the project is approved, it’ll reshape Oakland.
But there are a lot of moving parts. If you’re following the action but you’re maybe a bit lost, here’s what to keep an eye out for next.
The looming City Council vote
On April 23, the Oakland A’s released an updated “term sheet” detailing how—and with what amount of public financing—they are planning to pay for the massive Waterfront Ballpark District Project. A few key points from the term sheet to highlight: The stadium and its surrounding commercial and housing space, and all the infrastructure supporting this, will cost somewhere around $12 billion, making it one of the most expensive development projects in the entire country. The baseball stadium itself will cost $1 billion—and that’s all the A’s will technically be on the hook for. The rest of the infrastructure and the community benefits the A’s are promising, according to the A’s proposed term sheet, would be paid for using tax revenues generated by two city-established infrastructure financing districts: the Howard Terminal Infrastructure Financing District and Jack London Infrastructure Financing District.
The A’s made their proposed term sheet publicly available after the city of Oakland released its draft Environmental Impact Report for the Waterfront Project, a document meant to help people assess the project’s potential pros and cons. The public comment period for the draft EIR—during which community groups had their chance to provide feedback on the report’s findings—ended on April 27.
Now both the term sheet and the draft EIR are with the City Council, who will vote on whether to approve them, along with other land-use entitlements, at an as-yet unspecified date.
Both the A’s and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf are hoping for that vote to be held no later than the end of July, when the City Council adjourns for its annual summer recess.
The City Council vote is the most consequential next step. On the phone with me last month, A’s President Dave Kaval called it “the culmination of many years of hard work.”
For her part, Mayor Schaaf has suggested the city is taking the vote very seriously. She told the San Francisco Chronicle recently that the city is in “continual dialogue” with the A’s to make sure this is “a good deal for city residents.” In a statement given to the Mercury News, a spokesperson for Schaaf’s office provided a bit more detail: “The A’s contend that the growth in tax revenues attributed to their project will be sufficient to fully fund those investments, and that they will benefit the entire community, (and) the city is critically examining these claims.”
It’s worth noting that Schaaf has been an ardent champion of the Waterfront Ballpark Project since its inception, and later on in her interview with the Chronicle, seemed to suggest that increased municipal investment in the project is not necessarily a dealbreaker. “There are a lot of improvements to our transportation system and community benefits that Oaklanders deserve as part of this project,” she said.
Certain members of Oakland’s City Council have also expressed openness to the project, even seeming to signal that they’re planning to approve it.
On May 11, Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas tweeted that the council is committed to keeping the A’s in Oakland, adding she met with Kaval in April and told him that Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan and District 3 Councilmember Carroll Fife are ready to move forward before summer.
If you’re the A’s, or an A’s fan, Bas’s openness to the project is an encouraging sign. As is her inclusion of Fife, who previously had come out against the project.
In a way, everything rests on this vote. If the City Council votes “no”—that’s it; game over. And though a yes vote from the City Council would technically only pave the way for the drafting of a final development agreement between the A’s and the city, it would all but ensure that the project is allowed to move forward.
Other regulatory agencies with decision making power
“Moving forward,” however, itself entails a variety of steps. In a nutshell, the A’s and the city must attain approvals from a host of other public agencies. These include:
- The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which will approve or request any changes to the A’s plan for amending use of the seaport, changing port-priority use designations, and impacting the strip of shoreline on which Howard Terminal is located and which falls into the SFBCDC’s jurisdiction.
- The California State Lands Commission, which oversees the Port’s management of Public Trust lands along the Oakland Estuary, which includes Howard Terminal.
- The California Department of Toxic Substances Control, which will need to approve any and all required investigation of contamination at Howard Terminal and environmental cleanup at the site, if needed.
- The Port of Oakland, which will need to approve an exchange agreement and trust settlement between the Port and the A’s, as well as “address issues ranging from road congestion and vessel traffic to a buffer zone between the seaport and residential development,” according to the Port.
Obtaining these approvals, should things get to this step, will likely be straightforward, and the real thing of existential consequence for the project is the City Council vote. But a delay in getting these approvals could in turn delay construction.
No dates have yet been set for the above agencies to begin approval processes or deliberations.
The ninth inning
The city of Oakland’s website lists only one additional meeting for community stakeholders to observe discussions about the Waterfront Ballpark Project. This is the Howard Terminal Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) Steering Committee Meeting, scheduled for Saturday, May 22, at 9 a.m. (The Steering Committee is the body charged in the A’s term sheet with ensuring that “the CBA meets its objectives and has sufficient transparency and community accountability.) The meeting will be hosted on Zoom and it’s open to “all Oakland stakeholders.” Participation, however, will be “limited to Steering Committee members and the facilitators only.”
It’s unclear how consequential community meetings like this will be in the ongoing battle over the ballpark at Howard Terminal, or whether more will be scheduled.
According city spokesperson Karen Boyd, there will be future hearings on the environmental impact report once the Final EIR/Response to Comments document is published on the city’s website, along with hearings on the entitlement applications for the development project once all the required application materials are submitted for review. None of this is scheduled yet.
The bottom line is that we’re probably in the ninth inning of the A’s ballpark saga. It’s all about communications between the A’s and Oakland’s City Council, and the council’s big vote before they go on break for the summer recess. What they’ll decide is anyone’s guess.
Clarification: the tax revenues generated by the Howard Terminal Financing District will pay for infrastructure and community benefits, including some housing. The A’s and its investors will privately finance the stadium and commercial and market-rate housing portions of the project.