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When John J. Fisher—billionaire businessman, heir to the Gap fortune, and owner of the Oakland Athletics—began trying to build a $12 billion stadium-anchored entertainment district on West Oakland’s industrial waterfront three-and-a-half years ago, central to his pitch was the promise that such a district would be profitable for all of Oakland. Call it trickle-down architecture.
The idea remains this: that the Waterfront Ballpark District Project, as it’s now known—and which the Oakland City Council will be voting on in a meeting on July 20—will be so grand, and galvanize so much economic activity, that it will remake West Oakland for the better. In addition to the baseball stadium, Fisher is proposing to build millions of square feet of retail and hotel space, apartment buildings, performance venues, parks, and a gondola, and he promises to deliver $450 million in direct “community benefits,” including several hundred units of affordable housing, environmental remediation, off-site infrastructure improvements, and guaranteed jobs for locals. All of this will be packed on and around a small pocket of underused but potentially very valuable port land just west of Jack London Square, called Howard Terminal.
“We’re building more than a ballpark here,” Dave Kaval, A’s team president and Fisher’s primary spokesperson, told me when we spoke over the phone earlier this year. “This is about more than just baseball.”
For many, however, it was precisely the project’s transformative potential—the fact that it was undeniably about more than just baseball—that stoked the most concern. Fisher’s Oakland might be a better Oakland for Fisher, and perhaps others who could afford to live there, but what about everybody else?
Oaklanders have reason to be skeptical. Architecturally speaking, cities are always being remade. Sometimes, they’re remade for the better. The City Beautiful Movement of the late 19th Century, for example, redressed issues of overcrowding and poor public health with bucolic public parks, well-lit boulevards, and stately communal meeting spaces. But efforts to remake cities aren’t always equitable, a fact exemplified by what has been, since the 1990’s, civic leaders’ preferred means of urban renovation: equipping swashbuckling private interests, like Fisher, with massive amounts of public money to construct large-scale, mixed-use developments, like sports stadiums. The hope was that stadiums would act like beacons, compelling people, jobs, investment, and tax revenues back to the city, where they’d cultivate a more prosperous urban core.
Of course, things haven’t worked out that way. As economists from the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan public policy think tank, have found, large-scale public-private developments like sports stadiums actually have “an extremely small (and perhaps even negative) effect on overall economic activity.” According to Kristen Erickson from Washington University School of Law, they can even “injure lower-income residents.” Disadvantaged communities are, in general, more susceptible to the side effects of redevelopment, like gentrification and displacement. They end up shouldering a disproportionate share of redevelopments’ costs, while reaping comparatively few of its benefits.The infrastructure projects Oakland undertook during the misguided “urban renewal” years of the 1950’s and 60’s, for example, resulted not in a more hospitable city but in the demolition of millions of dollars of private property and the displacement of thousands of mostly Black residents and businesses.
Oakland’s efforts to remake the city via sports stadiums haven’t worked out, either. The city is still paying down the bonds for the $223 million in debt it issued to build a mountainous expansion to the Oakland Coliseum, back in 1995.
Today, Oakland is one of the most intensely gentrified cities in the country, with rents that qualify as the fourth highest in the nation, and a homelessness crisis that the United Nations has singled out as “cruel and inhumane.”
All of which is why, in the minds of locals, redevelopment projects—even those dressed in seemingly charitable clothes—rank foremost among the forces of harm communities must protect themselves from.
“I was concerned,” said Saabir Lockett, a West Oakland resident and Director of the Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy at the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE). We spoke last month on the phone. I asked him how he’d felt about the Waterfront Ballpark project, when he first learned of it, years ago. “I was concerned about traffic, pollution, affordability,” he said. “And I was concerned about whether any benefits would actually reach the community.”
There’s a chance, however, that they could. For community groups have at their disposal a vehicle of leverage that allows them to better advocate for themselves in negotiations with developers like Fisher.
This is the community benefits agreement (CBA).
CBAs are contracts, designed to protect communities from the deleterious effects of redevelopment, but they’re also used to ensure benefits actually reach residents. And though communities often have to fight doggedly for CBAs to be considered in these kinds of deals, both the A’s and the city of Oakland have already committed to including a CBA in the final agreement for the waterfront ballpark. CBAs are contracts, designed to protect communities from the deleterious effects of redevelopment, but they’re also used to ensure benefits actually reach residents. This is done, often, through the marshaling of both private and public funds.
Ultimately, CBAs are means of spatial, cultural, and economic self-defense—of ensuring that efforts to remake cities consider not just what prospective residents might like, or what wealthy developers want, but what long-time locals need. As Mark Henderson, director of the Public Policy Master’s Program at Mills College, told me, “when they’re done well, and they’re representative of the community, CBAs can be a really positive force.”
In the case of the A’s waterfront ballpark, the CBA could be the thing that saves the project for Oakland—and, that saves Oakland from the project.
Where the ballpark deal stands
The battle over the Waterfront Ballpark project is a magpie’s nest of interconnected parts, but here’s where things are now.
Back on April 23, Fisher and the A’s released a set of proposed terms for the project, which Kaval insisted were designed merely to set a good-faith baseline for negotiations over a final agreement. But the “term sheet” release was also perceived as perfidious strong-arming, coupled as it was with Fisher’s threats to relocate the A’s to Vegas or another city if the Oakland City Council didn’t hurry up and vote on the terms, as he wished..
Fisher’s terms included, among other things, the demand that the A’s be able to pay the $450 million in promised community benefits using not private funding but theoretical future increases in property tax revenue. This, it seems, had been Fisher’s intent all along. As the independent journalist Omar Yassin reported in a recent newsletter, Kaval, speaking for Fisher, has acknowledged that “Fisher intended to provide no community benefits out of pocket.”
Though many of the terms in the sheet had been negotiated previously by the city and the A’s, the funding had not. And this surprise turned many people in Oakland against the project. Marcus Thompson of The Athletic summed up the prevailing sentiment: “I’m happy to tell A’s owner John Fisher to kick rocks.”
One big reason for the outrage was, for years preceding the release of the term sheet—since 2018, really—Fisher and Kaval had been touting the Waterfront Ballpark project not only as key to revitalizing Oakland, but as a project unlike publicly subsidized ballpark deals of the past. When we connected earlier this year, Kaval pointed to the community benefits that Fisher had agreed to attach to the project as proof. “These are things Oakland needs,” Kaval told me.
Importantly, none of the benefits were to come at any cost to residents. They were to be privately funded, and guaranteed. Kaval and Fisher both suggested this in public statements. As recently as several days ago, for example, Kaval told NBC Bay Area, “We’re paying for everything, all we’re asking for is some of the project tax revenue could go to reimburse us for some of the upfront infrastructure.”
But then came the term sheet, and with it Fisher’s clarification regarding the source of the community benefits funding, itself buried in obfuscating language tacked onto the term sheet’s final section—sort of the way disquieting physical side effects are tacked onto the end of pharmaceutical commercials.
In a nutshell, Fisher was proposing the city create two enhanced infrastructure financing districts (EIFDs). Essentially, EIFDs are mechanisms for generating public money. A city creates them by drawing lines around certain blocks of land that they believe are to be impacted by the development in question. Future increases in property tax revenue generated from land and buildings inside the district are then diverted from the city’s general fund and designated for specific purposes, such as financing development-critical infrastructure, or, in this case, community benefits.
The two EIFDs Fisher suggested Oakland establish were the Howard Terminal EIFD, which encompasses the small wedge of land where the new ballpark will actually sit, and the Jack London EIFD, which encompasses a much larger swath of land that includes property and businesses that are already bringing in a decent amount of property tax revenue.
This form of public financing—called tax increment financing (TIF)—is not uncommon in the world of mixed-use developments. Proponents say large-scale developments would not be possible in many cases without TIFs. But critics say TIFs divert tax revenues from other essential services—such as parks, libraries, and the fire department—to the private sector. And they hardly ever generate as much tax revenue as developers think they will.
The A’s term sheet estimates $1.4 billion in new tax revenue will come from the Jack London EIFD alone. Almost two-thirds of Fisher’s proposed community benefits spending comes from this sum; the other third is to come from increases in property tax revenue generated by the Howard Terminal EIFD.
But it gets worse. The A’s term sheet also didn’t specify whether or how Fisher and the A’s would be held accountable for delivering the $450 million earmarked for community benefits in the event that new increases in tax revenue don’t materialize. (City Council Vice President Rebecca Kaplan pointed out on Twitter that the A’s term sheet says Fisher will cover shortfalls in tax revenue coming out of the Howard Terminal EIFD, which is mostly earmarked for infrastructure to benefit the ballpark.)
Finally, the $450 million in community benefits drawn from tax revenue, if it materializes, would be distributed to the community over a period of “15-20 years,” as Kaval told the San Francisco Chronicle.
In other words, and to borrow the parlance of our past time, the term sheet revealed Fisher’s promise to be a balk—strategic misdirection. According to Neil deMause, co-author of the book “Field of Schemes,” the community benefits were effectively “a mirage.” Henderson, the urban planning professor at Mills College, put it this way: “Money tied to future increases in tax revenue is much different than money that is guaranteed.”
For community members like Lockett, who lives in West Oakland, the difference changed the calculus. Lockett is on the CBA steering committee for the waterfront ballpark project. (To create CBAs, community groups often select members of their own to form steering committees, who define what terms to include and take the lead in negotiating those terms with the developer and the city.) He’s been working alongside other committee members for more than a year to finalize the CBA and to address concerns he and others had regarding the project. The term sheet, Lockett told me, made Fisher’s earlier promises seem “disingenuous.”
But Fisher’s terms are not in any way final. On July 7, Oakland’s city administrator released an analysis of Fisher’s terms, along with recommendations that Fisher commit to a binding 45-year non-relocation agreement and that Fisher take on more fiscal responsibility in the construction of affordable housing. Fisher and city officials will continue negotiating these terms—including those specific to the financial plan—ahead of the City Council vote on July 20.
Perhaps most importantly, amidst all this back and forth, Lockett and the rest of the steering committee in charge of drafting the CBA for the stadium project have been hard at work. They released their draft community benefits recommendations in May. Although they didn’t identify specific sources of funding, they’re currently drafting the final version, which could include specifics as to funding, including a requirement that community benefits not be paid for with public tax dollars from an EIFD. The final CBA—along with a separate term sheet for it—will need to be voted on and approved by both the City Council and Fisher as part of negotiations over any final developer agreement.
This positions the CBA definitively as a bulwark—a last line of defense.
What have CBAs accomplished?
Earlier this year, I contacted Miya Saika Chen, chief of staff to Oakland City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas. Before joining Bas’ team, Chen had helped community groups in Oakland negotiate CBAs through her work at the Partnership for Working Families. (Bas was executive director of EBASE, before getting into politics, and there she helped community groups do the same.) I asked Chen whether she thought a CBA attached to the waterfront ballpark project had the power to make the project a good investment for the community. Could it demand, for example, that affordable housing be completed in the first phase of construction? Could it somehow ensure that Fisher be held more accountable for delivering that investment?
“Yes,” she replied. “Absolutely.”
“A CBA is a contract,” said Chen. “You can put anything in it, and you can be specific. You can demand that the developer puts X amount of dollars into a fund by Y date and that those funds be used specifically for community benefits. And if the developer signs, they’re bound to deliver. And when you have a solid set of demands from an activated base of residents and advocates, negotiating that document directly with the developer, CBAs can be really amazing. They can bear a lot of fruit.”
Possible benefits that can be won in a CBA range from environmental protections to the requirement that developers reserve for construction jobs and other employment opportunities generated by the project. Some CBAs have required developers to help set up job-training centers and produce units of affordable housing.
In 2007, for example, the Pittsburgh Penguins, a hockey franchise in Pennsylvania, asked the city of Pittsburgh for $750 million in public funds for a new hockey arena and hotel. Their desired location was Pittsburgh’s historically Black Hill District. The Hill District had been impoverished years earlier by publicly subsidized projects precisely of this kind; the last hockey arena the Penguins had been built there had displaced more than 8,000 residents. The area still lacked vital resources, such as grocery stores, and unemployment was high. So community groups organized and formed the One Hill CBA Coalition, which drafted a CBA and fought to have it attached to the final agreement between the developer and the city. They succeeded: when the arena and hotel opened four years later, 38% of the 522 new jobs created had been reserved for Hill District residents, living-wage requirements for those jobs had been instated, and a grocery store, which created 120 additional new jobs, was built. Perhaps most importantly, the community had also won veto power over all future development projects proposed inside the District.
Local examples exist too. The best is likely the CBA that Councilmemember Bas helped community groups secure for the Brooklyn Basin development project, a 65-acre, $1.5-billion mixed-use residential “district” currently under construction just a few miles down the Estuary from the waterfront ballpark site.
First proposed in the early 2000’s, back when Jerry Brown was still Oakland’s mayor, Brooklyn Basin was pitched in a similar manner as the waterfront ballpark, which is to say, as basically a new neighborhood. It called for 3,100 new units of housing, 200,000 square feet of retail space, new public parks, shops, and two separate marinas.
Of course, all this worried existing residents of neighborhoods around the development, such as East Peralta, Chinatown, and the 5th Avenue Marina. Locals feared the project would increase traffic and drive up rents and housing prices, leading to possible displacement.
Like residents of Pittsburgh’s Hill District, they organized, forming in 2004 the Oak to Ninth Community Benefits Coalition, led by organizations such as EBASE, APEN, and East Bay Asian Youth Center. Altogether, Oak to Ninth represented thousands of low-income families all fighting for the inclusion in Brooklyn Basin of guaranteed community benefits, with a focus on deeply affordable housing.
They brought their demands both to the city and directly to Signature, the lead developer—neither of whom had yet offered to include any such benefits in the deal. The back-and-forth took years. In 2006, a CBA was finalized, but then came the Great Recession, and the future of the project was thrown into doubt. But earlier this year, Bas and Mayor Libby Schaaf unveiled phase one of the Brooklyn Basin district, which included a strip of waterfront greenspace, impressively repurposed from the Port of Oakland’s formerly dormant 9th Avenue Terminal, called Township Commons; the district’s first luxury residential building, “Orion”; and two fully built-out complexes of deeply affordable housing—211 units in all, the first of an eventual 455.
In the end, 15% of the housing units built at Brooklyn Basin will be deeply affordable and 600 long-term jobs—supported by developer-financed community job-training—will have been created. The waterfront parks will be open to all.
“There is much to celebrate today,” Bas said at the unveiling.
“This is the type of city, private, and community partnership that will continue to move the City of Oakland forward with affordable housing.” The Mayor added, “Our community led a long and difficult charge to ensure that a new development at Brooklyn Basin included spaces and places for longtime residents and set a new standard for community engagement.”
Fisher’s ballpark project differs in that the goal, at least initially, isn’t to build an apartment complex, to which additional units of affordable housing could be easily appended in the first phase of development. But there’s technically nothing stopping him from making a similar commitment—or the city of Oakland from demanding he make such a commitment.
Might this compel Fisher, who has made it clear he doesn’t want to pay directly for community benefits, to walk away from the deal? Possibly. But for community members who want a CBA, Fisher walking away from a fair deal for the city would be preferable to Oakland accepting a bad deal for residents.
What’s next for the Waterfront Ballpark CBA?
Back in May, Oakland United—a coalition of community and neighborhood groups (certain of which are represented on the CBA steering committee)—sent a letter to the Oakland City Council urging them to demand in their renegotiated terms that “a robust community benefits agreement, including specific commitments on affordable housing for low income families, resources for tenants, good jobs, local and fair chance hiring requirements, and environmental benefits” be paid for by Fisher.
“The developers must invest their own resources towards actualizing these benefits, and not rely solely on the revenues generated from new tax districts,” the groups wrote. “We believe that if this project is done right, it can deliver on real benefits that meet the needs of Oaklanders.”
This was echoed by members of the public who spoke during the meeting of the City Council’s Community and Economic Development Committee on July 7, convened as a “study session” to discuss the Waterfront Ballpark project. “It’s not asking too much,” said one commenter, “for the A’s to fund adequate community benefits, housing, and job opportunities as part of this project.”
“This is our town,” said another. “Our town, our terms.”
Lockett, who is on the steering committee, seems to be on the same page. “The Fisher family is no different from any other developer who’s built in Oakland recently,” he said. “There’s no reason the A’s can’t agree to the same things those developers agreed to. Any development built here should benefit the community.”
It’s not yet totally certain what the steering committee will include in the final CBA they submit to the city and to Fisher, or what the term sheet the City Council votes on will ultimately look like—whether, for instance, the steering committee will more forcefully demand that Fisher invest his own resources towards actualizing the benefits he’s promised, or whether the City will request benefits such as affordable housing be included in the first phase of development, as occurred in the case of Brooklyn Basin. “It’s common in these kinds of agreements for something like affordable housing to be built before the money-making side of the project,” Henderson, the public policy professor, said. They could do either of those things. They could ask that Fisher provide the $450 million for community benefits up front, with the expectation that Fisher will make a big return on his total investment later on. The CBA steering committee could also ask Fisher to simply pay for affordable housing.
Kaval has indicated that Fisher, in spite of his previous obstinance, is open to negotiating. “There can always be things along the edges that can be modified,” he told the Chronicle earlier this year. “I have not received any counterproposals. I’m always open to have conversations.”
Still, a lot could go wrong. “Like any contract, it requires a lot of strategic, specific legal language,” Chen said. And CBAs wither when such diligence isn’t present.. The CBA associated with the new New York Yankees Stadium, completed in 2009, was finalized not by community groups but by the Yankees owners themselves. It stipulated that the Yankees would create a “New Yankee Stadium Community Benefits Fund” to manage the dispensation of benefits; since that time, it’s been found to have produced almost no new benefits to people who “live near the stadium,” though it has sent millions of dollars to already well-off groups far away from the park.
Many Oaklanders hope the City Council does not sign off on any term sheet or developer agreement that isn’t ironclad with strong community benefits.
Reasons extend beyond this moment. The A’s stadium project will not be the last culturally, politically, or spatially consequential development that community groups are confronted with in the years to come. On the table in the fight over its CBA is the chance not just to win useful community benefits—or to defend residents against displacement—but to consecrate a new standard for construction in the city, one that redefines how we go about remaking this place, and who we do it for.
What might that look like, in practice? I believe I got something of a glimpse last month, when on a warm, fog-less morning, I drove with my dog down to the Brooklyn Basin construction site, where under the blue-ribbon sky we walked across Township Commons, the public park built on the former 9th Avenue Terminal. A lattice of salvaged steel beams cast shadows over the lawn. The water on the estuary was still, and lapped gently against the wharf.
We sat a while on the grass, taking in the view. To the north was Downtown Oakland, the Tribune building with its iron-green clock looking noble as a chess piece, and to the west, across the bay, lay San Francisco, its skyline spangled by the sun. In the foreground, off to the right, were the high cranes of Howard Terminal, where one day there could be a baseball stadium, more parks, and another new neighborhood.
Up and down the concrete paths passed pockets of all different kinds of people. Some paused at the water’s edge, or read from the placards commemorating the place’s history. Others towed children who delighted at chasing the gulls. Atop one of the grassy knolls, near where my dog and I sat, an older man read a book.
It was nice, is what I’m trying to say. And being there made me want badly for Bas to have been right: that this can be a version of how we do it, moving forward; that the things we build to remake our cities can be for—and benefit—everyone.