A big-rig truck hauls a shipping container at Howard Terminal.
Howard Terminal is mostly used to store shipping containers, but has some other ancillary uses at the port today. The Athletics would like to build a ballpark on the site. Credit: Amir Aziz

A powerful regional government agency that controls development on the San Francisco Bay’s waterfront decided Thursday that Howard Terminal, a 55-acre portion of the Port of Oakland, can be used for purposes other than maritime trade—like, for instance, housing a ballpark.

The decision by the San Francisco Bay Conservation Development Commission to amend the San Francisco Bay Plan and Seaport Plan is one more crucial step forward for the Oakland Athletics baseball club, which hopes to build a $12 billion complex of housing, retail, and offices surrounding a ballpark at the site, which is just west of Jack London Square. 

Had the commission voted down the proposal to reclassify the uses of Howard Terminal, it could have spelled the end of the A’s plans. BCDC Commissioner John Gioia used a baseball analogy to describe the commission’s actions: “​​The approval of the [environmental impact report] by Oakland is what brought this project to first base. If the commission votes today to remove Howard Terminal from port priority, it would move the project to second base. If not, it’s like throwing the runner out at first base. Game over at that point.”

Today’s vote also represents a powerful blow to the project’s critics, including maritime companies and workers who view the A’s project as a threat to the port’s future, and to Oakland residents who fear it will fuel gentrification and object to giving the A’s a tax break to finance part of the project.

The BCDC commissioners voted 23 to two to reclassify Howard Terminal’s uses.

Before the vote, BCDC staffers underscored that the issue at hand wasn’t whether commissioners support or oppose the A’s plans, but instead whether or not Howard Terminal is needed to ensure a bright future for the shipping economy of the Bay Area.

The vote followed several hours of presentations, discussion, and public comment from supporters and foes of the A’s plan.

“You have heard from your staff unequivocally and with deep research that Howard Terminal is not needed for future cargo growth,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf told the commission before the vote. “And I just want to commend you for your attention and commitment to environmental justice and equity. Through this commitment I ask that you give Oakland its shot, to allow this project to succeed. To explore what incredible community befits may come from it is to allow Oakland to have its chance.”

Opponents appealed to the commissioners to maintain the terminal’s status as part of the port’s maritime operations.

“What we are facing here is a land grab and a billionaire’s attempt to get access to public resources,” said Trent Willis, president of ILWU Local 10, the union that represents longshore workers.

“[Dave Kaval] doesn’t care about the city of Oakland,” said Christopher Christensen, another ILWU member, referring to the A’s president. “He only cares about the money he’s going to make building condominiums and tearing down the Howard Terminal.”

‘No’ vote commissioners worry about future shipping growth without Howard Terminal

Ultimately, most of the commissioners said they were convinced that removing seaport activities from Howard Terminal wouldn’t have a negative impact on the Bay Area’s overall ability to plan for future expansions of maritime trade in future decades.

The commission’s staff and officials from the Port of Oakland said that removing Howard Terminal from the areas at the port where ships dock and cargo is moved won’t make much of a difference because the terminal is relatively small and can’t accommodate the large vessels that are the norm today.

For a few years, Howard Terminal has been used for “ancillary” activities like storing shipping containers. BCDC and port staffers said they think the rest of the port can accommodate these activities. They also said Howard Terminal has been used lately mostly due to logistics backups caused by the pandemic, and they don’t expect this need to continue far into the future. 

Another concern has been whether the development of Howard Terminal would prevent the port and Army Corps of Engineers from widening a turning basin where large ships pivot to enter and exit the port’s narrow berths. Port staffers said they don’t think changing how the terminal is used will impact the turning basin’s expansion.

“We feel very strongly that Howard Terminal is not viable as a container terminal,” said Kristi McKenney, the port’s chief operating officer.

The two commissioners who voted against removing Howard Terminal’s port priority designation, Jim McGrath and Richmond Mayor Tom Butt, said they weren’t convinced that the region will have room to absorb future growth in shipping traffic without Howard Terminal.

McGrath said one of his concerns is that future ship traffic that could have been handled at Howard Terminal will be displaced to other areas, possibly more upwind of communities like West Oakland.

“If you had to find nine acres on the waterfront in the Bay Area, where would you go?” asked Butt. “I know we don’t have any room in Richmond.”

What will—and could—happen next in the Howard Terminal saga

While the BCDC’s decision was key to advancing the A’s project, final approval is by no means assured.

The A’s will still need to apply for a permit with the BCDC based on the new designation of Howard Terminal. And the team must still cement a community benefits agreement with the city of Oakland and sign a development agreement with the City Council. 

The Port of Oakland also must approve the project. And the State Lands Commission and Department of Toxic Substances and Control also have approval power. Alameda County will also likely need to join Oakland to help finance the project.
Considerable opposition in Oakland could also scuttle the A’s plans. On Wednesday, opponents of the Howard Terminal ballpark rallied outside Oakland City Hall and promoted a potential November 8 ballot measure that would give voters the ability to approve or kill the project’s financing—a special district that would channel future tax revenues into infrastructure upgrades.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.