The Howard Terminal in the Port of Oakland. August 23, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

The Oakland A’s proposal to build a $12 billion ballpark and mixed-use development on the waterfront near Jack London Square cleared a key hurdle Wednesday evening. 

The Planning Commission, after hours of public testimony, voted unanimously to recommend the City Council certify the project’s environmental impact report, a 3,500-page document outlining impacts to traffic, air quality, noise, and rail safety. 

Councilmembers could certify the document as early as next month. A finding that the environmental review is in compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act is a crucial step in moving the project forward. But it is only one of several approvals needed from local and state agencies. 

The A’s have proposed building a 35,000-seat ballpark and mixed-use development on 55 acres at Howard Terminal, which is located at the end of Market Street, west of Jack London Square. Plans include constructing 3,000 residences, 400 hotel rooms, 1.5 million square feet of office space, 270,000 square feet of retail space, and about 18 acres of public open space. Currently, Howard Terminal is used as a hub for trucks coming to and from the Port of Oakland. 

Before Wednesday, the commission received several written comments from the public asking for the hearing to be postponed to allow residents more time to review and analyze the document. Many of the concerns centered around air quality impacts, cleanup of toxic substances at the site, and rail safety.

But commissioners voted to continue the public hearing as scheduled. Pete Vollmann, a city planner overseeing the project, said the public was provided more notice than legally required. After the draft EIR was released in February, the city extended the period of time for the public to provide written comments. The final EIR published on Dec. 17 included responses to more than 400 written comments. 

“This was a huge, fairly extraordinary undertaking,” said planning Commissioner Jennifer Renk. “I agree with how well it was organized and easily digestible for me. This final EIR shows that CEQA does work. This kind of public engagement is what makes projects like this better. This is not the end of the conversation. There’s a lot more work to do. The council will have to take up some of the feasibility questions that were raised today.” 

“Even if council were to certify the EIR, it’s not going to allow the project to move forward or a shovel put into the ground until there is a lot more input and a lot more granular analysis about what is going to happen out in the field,” commission Vice Chair Jonathan Fearn said. “I want to underscore that.” 

Mayor Libby Schaaf applauded the decision. 

“Tonight’s Planning Commission recommendation to send the Final Environmental Impact Report onto the City Council for certification is a huge win for our entire region and puts Oakland one step closer to building a landmark waterfront ballpark district with the highest environmental standards,” Schaaf said in a statement released Wednesday evening. 

Some 200 people attended the hearing conducted on Zoom and more than 50 speakers addressed the commission, many with concerns over traffic impacts in Chinatown and worsened air quality in West Oakland and other nearby neighborhoods. 

“You are not taking any consideration for our health,” said Margaret Gordon, a founding member of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project. 

Sonya Karabel of East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy said the environmental impact report failed to adequately address how the site will be cleaned up. “It’s full of dangerous toxic substances,” Karabel said. 

Representatives of Union Pacific railroad and the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority also warned that the study does not include effective grade separations at rail crossings, which fans would have to cross to get to the stadium. And groups representing Port of Oakland workers said the EIR fails to address disruptions to port operations. 

Scott Taylor, CEO of GSE Logics, said the company, which employs 400 port workers, is considering relocating if the A’s move to Howard Terminal. Taylor said an “amusement park” is not compatible with the nearby port. 

The California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, allows for a judicial review of a development project’s environmental impact report, and many large projects face legal challenges. However, a state law authored by former Assemblyman Rob Bonta streamlines the process for the A’s. Under AB 734, any lawsuits would have to be adjudicated within 270 days. 

Other agencies are involved in the approval process. The Department of Toxic Substances will review the proposed cleanup of the site; the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission along with the Port of Oakland will determine if the project is seaport compatible. 

Separate from the environmental review, the city of Oakland and the A’s are negotiating the financial terms of the project as well as a development agreement, which will finalize the project’s community benefits and affordable housing on and off the Howard Terminal site. In addition to the city, the Port of Oakland must approve the project. 

Some changes could be added to the plan later. For instance, the A’s have discussed constructing an aerial gondola to carry fans from the Oakland Convention Center to the stadium. While the team has not filed an application for the gondola, the proposed route would be along Washington Street and through Old Oakland, potentially impacting the historic neighborhood

The project could also be reduced in size. The Port of Oakland is studying whether to use 10 acres of Howard Terminal to accommodate a turning basin for ships. That land is located on the southwest portion of Howard Terminal, near Schnitzer Steel. 

A’s President Dave Kaval has said the team is on “parallel paths,” exploring stadium options in Oakland and Las Vegas. On Wednesday, he told the commission it would be possible to put a “shovel in the ground” in Oakland within a year of getting final approvals, thanks to AB 734. 

“We just want to ensure it’s done in the utmost transparency and openness so we can move forward with this transformative project,” Kaval said Wednesday. 

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the cost of the proposed A’s ballpark. The correct number is $12 billion.

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David DeBolt reported on City Hall and policing for The Oaklandside. He spent 12 years working for daily newspapers in the Bay Area, including on the Peninsula and Solano County. He joined the Bay Area News Group in 2012 where he covered a variety of beats, most recently as a senior breaking news reporter. During his time at BANG, DeBolt covered Oakland City Hall, the Raiders stadium saga and the A’s search for a new ballpark, as well as the Oakland Police Department and police reform efforts. He was part of the East Bay Times staff honored with the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News for coverage of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire.