Libby Schaaf in front of apartment building
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf at a press conference last year. Credit: Amir Aziz

Mayor Libby Schaaf has long been a fan of having an Oakland A’s ballpark at Howard Terminal. That’s been true since the A’s were looking to build at the Peralta Colleges headquarters near Laney College

In interviews, Schaaf often reflects back on her childhood as an Oakland native rooting for the A’s, Raiders, and Golden State Warriors. The Raiders and Warriors left during her two terms as mayor. The Warriors made good on a promised move to San Francisco, which they had decided on before Schaaf came into office. And Oakland refused to fund any part of a new Raiders stadium at the Coliseum and could not match Nevada, which put up $750 million to lure the team to Las Vegas.

Schaaf has called the Raiders’ departure painful. But when she looks up at Mount Davis, which she saw on Monday at A’s Opening Day at the Coliseum, she sees the symbol of a terrible deal for Oakland, one in which previous city officials agreed to put lots of public funds toward building an expensive concrete structure for the Raiders that, among other sins, blocked the baseball stadium’s gorgeous views of the East Bay hills.

In an interview with The Oaklandside where she noted that her diehard-fan mother has an entire Raiders wardrobe, Schaaf swore that Oakland isn’t going to be taken again. She promised that the city won’t approve a deal that eats into existing tax revenues, and that any future city funds that go toward paying for this project will be generated from the new development. “For me, it’s a line in the sand,” the mayor said.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You raised the A’s flag with A’s president Dave Kaval on opening day on Monday. What was the scene like outside the Coliseum?

It felt inspiring. There’s something about that feeling of hope that you have at the beginning of each season, and especially this season, because the last two years have been so difficult and heavy. This year not only brings the hope of a normal season of baseball—hopefully—but also the hope we will approve a new home for our Oakland A’s in an incredible neighborhood that will benefit generations of Oaklanders to come. 

Kaval was in Las Vegas the next day and is expected to release a shortened list of Vegas stadium options soon. How have the A’s so-called “parallel paths” impacted negotiations here? And what sets Oakland apart from Vegas? 

I continue to see this [a possible move to Vegas] as a backup plan, not a parallel path. The amount of progress and certainty on Howard Terminal just completely eclipses the beginning steps that have been taken in Vegas. Honestly, from my perspective, it doesn’t impact anything. I stay completely focused on what is in the best long-term interest for Oakland. 

What’s frustrated you most about the Howard Terminal ballpark plan process, and the public conversation about it, so far? And what do you wish more Oaklanders understood about the process?

I’m most frustrated by the opponents’ misinformation campaign that this is going to cost Oakland taxpayers money. What is true is that no existing tax revenues will be used by this project. We are looking to finance new public infrastructure and community benefits with the taxes generated by the project itself, which won’t exist unless the project happens. 

It’s so important for me that Oaklanders know this. When I stood to raise the flag by the Coliseum, I was reminded of Mount Davis. I was reminded that Oakland has entered into terrible sports deals in the past. I’ve been very mindful. I have never stopped being angry about that deal and you better believe I am not repeating the mistakes of the past. 

You know as well as anyone the history of sports teams screwing over Oakland, putting the city into massive debt with the 1990s deal to bring the Raiders back and the Warrior’s lease agreement that led to the team’s lawsuit seeking to stick Oakland with $10 million. What makes you think John Fisher, Dave Kaval, and the A’s might be different?

They came into this knowing that we would expect a fully privately-financed ballpark. We’ve been clear from the beginning about what our values are with regard to the use of public funds. We’ve worked very hard to keep to those values. For me, it’s a line in the sand. So that has framed the negotiations from day one. 

We are very fortunate because we are in an environment where there is a lot of competitive grant money for infrastructure. That has been a boon for this project because these are dollars that would be spent outside of Oakland, if Oakland didn’t successfully compete for them. And honestly, this project is exciting;I think it’s enhancing our ability to compete for these funds. Nearly all of the off-site infrastructure improvements are improvements that were called for in area-specific plans that were developed before we knew whether a ballpark would be going in Howard Terminal or not. 

These are safety improvements, environmental improvements, equity improvements, and mobility improvements that Oakland needs, ballpark or no ballpark. I’m excited that this project is making us more competitive at a time when these grant funds are available. 

So when it comes to grant money, how much has the city already received and what’s already in the pipeline? 

Forgive me because I don’t have notes in front of me. This is all out of my head. We did receive an extremely competitive RAISE grant [of $14.5 million] from the federal government. We supported the Port in an award from the state of California for, I believe, $280 million. Some of that money will go to projects that will support the ballpark. 

And we are in the process of submitting a $113 million grant to the Mega Project that is part of the bipartisan [federal] infrastructure bill. We are excited to have the endorsement of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission [for this grant application] as this is the most competitive project in the entire Bay Area for that particular funding category. I believe that would, if we are successful, pay for nearly all of the off-site infrastructure improvements. 

You’ve talked about the “good jobs” that can result from building this ballpark—what sorts of jobs? Construction? Stadium workers? Retail? How many? Are these likely to mostly be full-time jobs with benefits, or mostly seasonal or low-paid work? 

When I was recently meeting with White House staff and telling them about this project, they were particularly excited about the jobs that will come with this project. There are few projects that will result in so many union jobs—good union jobs with living wages and benefits. 

That is part of the agreement that is being negotiated as a community benefits package. We already know that the project itself will result in roughly 25,000 union construction jobs. Most of that construction is going to be done under the Port’s policy that not only requires union workers, not only requires a level of local hires, but also takes a percentage of the construction costs of the project budget and puts it in a social justice fund. Those funds are used to help historically excluded people get into the construction trades through apprenticeship programs. I’m talking about formerly incarcerated individuals, women, and people of color. 

The Port of Oakland abides by one of the nation’s most progressive jobs policies, and this project will be under those rules. 

We also believe the project will create 7,100 new permanent jobs. All the jobs in the stadium will be unionized. Unlike other sports, baseball has 81 [home] games, so the employment opportunity is far more robust than in other sports. 

The A’s have also agreed that any hotels that get built on the property will be fully unionized. 

When should we expect to see a more detailed financial plan? And what’s your understanding of what it will look like? 

The basis for the development agreement will be the City Council approved term sheet, not the term sheet that the A’s published prior to that. I am hopeful that we will have a development agreement to bring to the City Council for a vote in late summer. It may be closer to the fall. 

It’s important that this deal have lots of transparency and public process, so we will be sending it for a hearing in front of the Planning Commission, there will be a hearing in front of the Economic Development Committee of the City Council, there will be multiple opportunities for people to voice their opinions, their questions, their concerns, and their excitement about this deal. 

One unknown is whether the Alameda County’s Board of Supervisors will join the city in forming an infrastructure finance district. What are you hearing about whether they will or will not participate? And how crucial is the county’s participation?

Their participation is crucial. Again, these are incremental dollars. These are new tax dollars generated only by the project itself. Dollars that will not exist if the project does not happen. Enabling the project to happen is really a win-win for the county because it will produce other revenues the county will enjoy right away. Once the incremental financing period is finished, the county will enjoy the full benefit of all of those increased tax revenues. 

The county has already voted in concept to participate. What we are doing now is working with them and the experts they’ve retained so they can have independent advice about what their needs are, and what the revenues will be, so that they can determine to what extent they want to participate. That is where we are. 

An illustration shows pedestrians accessing the proposed new A's ballpark at Howard Terminal on foot.
An illustration shows pedestrians accessing the proposed new A’s ballpark at Howard Terminal on foot. Credit: Oakland A's

In terms of the economic promises of a new sports stadium, a 2019 report from the Berkeley Economics Review asked an interesting question: “Does public financing of sports stadiums create local economic growth, or just help billionaires improve their profit margin?” It found that “beliefs that stadiums have an impact that matches the amount of money that residents pay are largely unfounded. The average stadium generates $145 million per year, but none of this revenue goes back into the community.” What do you say to Oaklanders who fear that Oakland is going to get another raw deal here?

I wholly agree with the findings of those studies. Wholly. That is why we are not publicly financing the ballpark itself. Those studies looked at public investment in actually building those sports facilities and that has not even been contemplated here. It has been a non-starter from day one. 

I am born and raised in Oakland. I have grown up a Raiders, a Warriors, and an A’s fan. I can’t tell you how painful it was for me to lose the Raiders on my watch. But I would not compromise my belief that public money does not belong in a sports facility itself. I do believe that investing in what the public values and what will be available for all to enjoy—public parks, affordable housing, better infrastructure—are appropriate investments of the public dollar, especially if we are using the project itself to pay for them. 

Remember, the City Council has been very clear about the affordable housing requirements for this deal. This project right now is proposed to create 3,000 desperately-needed units of housing. Fifteen percent of them would have to be at least deeply affordable. What’s more important is that we would take the taxes generated from this project and use it to create roughly another 650 units in the surrounding neighborhoods to ensure that this project does not create displacement. That’s more than a thousand units of new affordable housing in Oakland total. Plus, the 2,250 market-rate units. That is something that Oaklanders know we need. We have to address our housing crisis and this project is going to be a huge way to do that. 

To be clear: the studies you are talking about looked at investments in building the stadiums themselves. That is not being contemplated here. 

Like what the Raiders did in Las Vegas? 

What the state of Nevada did in Las Vegas, which was to give the Raiders a $750 million loan that is guaranteed by their general fund. 

My mom is a crazy Raider fan. I was just out of college or law school when they were having hearings about getting the Raiders back from LA. I remember going with my mom to a big public hearing at the Henry J. Kaiser Auditorium and I remember public official after public official promising that the personal seat licenses [aka PSLs] were going to generate enough money to service the city’s debt and the general fund would never be touched. I remember that promise being made back then as a girl sitting in the audience long before I ever worked in local government. It was a huge reminder to me that these types of promises can absolutely be broken. 

You saw me stand firm in our negotiations with the Raiders and you better believe I am just as firm with the A’s. It is not an option to put public money into the stadium itself, into the athletic facility. That is theirs to build. 

What’s in place to prevent a situation like what happened in Brooklyn at the Atlantic Yards, where taxpayers $500 million to subsidize but has fallen far short in its promises on the construction of new affordable housing?

I can’t opine on a project I’m not familiar with. So I am not able to give you a comparison. I can just tell you that based on our painful experiences of the past, we are creating structures so that our general fund, our existing tax base, is never touched and is never even at risk based on the financial deal we are putting forward. 

We are using a structure called a community finance district that essentially acts as the guarantor of that enhanced infrastructure financing district, and assures that the payments are made. That if the revenues from the project fall short, the property owner—in this case, the A’s—is on the hook. That is the structure that was approved as part of the term sheet and that is the guarantee that the project will generate the funds to create the community benefits over time. 

Opponents of the Howard Terminal proposal, especially the maritime companies and some waterfront unions, say the project will undermine the seaport’s viability. What can you say about what’s being proposed that would alleviate these fears?

I’m listening to the maritime stakeholders very carefully. It’s very important that we take their concerns seriously because they are such an important part of not just our city’s economy but the country’s ability to move goods. We are listening to the issues they raise and trying to address them issue by issue. 

For example, rail safety is important. Part of our application for funding is to even study whether or not we might be able to do a complete grade separation—in other words, put the trains below ground so that there is no conflict between bikes, pedestrians, cars, and trains. 

Part of the infrastructure improvements will improve the separation and safety of port truck traffic. That’s something that will benefit Oaklanders. I care deeply about the future of our port. You may know I served as the director of public affairs for the Port of Oakland for two years. I am familiar with its operations and the complexity of its partnerships and how goods movement is a complex set of players. We are absolutely determined to make sure that the Port of Oakland is protected and has room to grow and thrive and we have a world-class ballpark. I believe we can do both. 

Howard Terminal has not had a container shipping operation for a decade. That’s because it’s the last part of the channel, the most expensive part of the channel to dredge, and the part of the channel that can no longer accommodate the newest generation of mega-ships. 

That is why it’s quite appropriate for Howard Terminal to become a natural extension of Jack London Square. The ferry landing is already there, the Amtrak station is already there, and it’s within walking distance of three BART stations. The place where the Port has room to grow is on the Outer Harbor, the place where the water is deep. The part of our harbor that faces the bay. That’s the part where we added all the converted Army base land to the port area, which can accommodate all the new mega-ships. 

I have every confidence that we’ve protected the port’s growth and viability, and it’s appropriate to let Howard Terminal become part of our mixed-use waterfront entertainment district. 

District 3 Councilmember Carroll Fife has been vocal about supporting the idea of putting the Howard Terminal project to the voters by placing a measure on the November ballot. You have publicly opposed this. Please explain your reasons. 

There are three reasons. One is it would needlessly delay the project. We’ve seen public opinion polls. We know that a waterfront ballpark is very popular and has high levels of support from people across the city. 

Second, this is an extremely complicated deal. The City Council members are paid a full-time salary, have full-time staff, and have access to experts. It seems unreasonable to expect residents in their own free time to have the ability to do the type of due diligence, to make an informed vote on all the complex aspects of this project. 

And third, placing something on the ballot is not free. It can cost upwards of $1 million to place an item on the ballot. The irony is that while the project as designed does not use any existing taxpayer funds, placing this on the ballot would. I don’t think that’s a good investment of the taxpayers’ dollars. 

I don’t think voters are the appropriate decision-makers of issues that are judicial issues, where the City Council has an actual regulatory role to play in making land-use decisions as well as approving complex financial deals. 

$1 million? How is that calculated? 

You can talk to the clerk but basically, Alameda County charges the city for every measure it places on the ballot—printing, translation, percentage of the postage costs for mailing out voter materials. And staffing at the polls. The more items that go on a single ballot, the per measure cost goes down. That’s why Alameda County will never give us a firm cost until after the election itself, but that is a ballpark estimate. No pun intended. 

Do you think it harms Oakland’s identity, the city’s sense of itself, if it were to not have any professional sports team?

I do. That’s why I fought so hard to keep the Raiders in a way that I could live with in regard to fiscal responsibility—because it’s worth for civic pride, for identity, and that’s what sports teams give you. I remember being a little kid and going on my first Girl Scouts national convening. A lot of the kids had never heard of Oakland until I named our sports teams. That was my first impression of how sports help define a city. 

At the same time, I am never going to repeat the irresponsible decisions that were made in the past. I think they were horrible. I think they did harm to the city. And I think they did harm to other cities because when city officials won’t stand up for a decent deal, a fair deal, it sets the bar for all other cities that have negotiations for these professional sports teams. So while it was painful to lose the Raiders, I felt good about moving that bar for other cities that hopefully will have a little more leverage the next time they negotiate with their sports teams. 

What does a win look like for you here?

A win looks like sitting in the grass on a beautiful sunny Oakland day, seeing the full beautiful diversity of Oakland families playing and enjoying our sunshine, hearing the shouts of the A’s crowd in the background, seeing a diverse array of small businesses and workers that are thriving in this new neighborhood that Oaklanders are so proud of. 

Seeing that this development has eased our housing crisis, has provided housing security to people who have felt threatened by displacement and gentrification pressures, and to see that you can enter into a partnership that involves a significant development and results in true community benefits that generations after generations of Oaklanders enjoy and prosper from.

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.