A Howard Terminal Skeptic Warms to the Idea

Anyone who knows me knows that I bleed Oakland Athletics green and gold. I used to be a front page writer for Athletics Nation, Editor at Large for Newballpark and have season ticket holder pins, bobbleheads, jerseys, hats… nesting dolls. You name it, I got it in Oakland Athletics stylings.

And further, I started researching ballpark developments in 2000. This after the City of Oakland made an objectively TERRIBLE deal to bring the Raiders back to Oakland in 1996 and followed it up by refurbishing the Oakland Arena for the Warriors. Both of those deals, 25 years later, have real ramifications for the City of Oakland as they approach a potential new deal with the A’s. This despite, and probably a little bit because of, both of those teams plying their respective trades in different cities.

One of the very first “sites” I ever tried to understand was Jack London Square on Oakland’s waterfront and this was because at the time… The Giants had just completed their park right on the water and it was gorgeous. I quickly realized that “Jack London Square” really meant Howard Terminal based on the HOK Oakland Ballpark Study that was released not long after I started trying to figure this out on my own, and there were copious reasons that this site seemed like a fantasy back then, and I wrote about it. More than once.

I am here today to tell you that I am 100% in favor of a ballpark at Howard Terminal now, and it isn’t because of Sophomoric threats of relocation. It is about Oakland.

The Oakland Coliseum

Let’s start with a little bit about the site where the A’s play now. I have heard for years about how bad the experience in the Coliseum is and having been to home games for 24 MLB teams I can objectively say I agree. Those of us who love the place for what it is, Baseball’s Last Dive Bar, mostly agree that it should have been replaced at the turn of the century even if we think the experience is fine. But there is a vocal contingent of people, journalists and fans, that continue to push the idea that what the A’s need can be met at the current site. I have been open to that idea for a long time, but I no longer think that is the right move.

There are a couple points to cover here. First, despite a serious and sustained adherence to the theory that attendance at the Coliseum has suffered because the team hasn’t committed to Oakland or made any upgrades to the facility, the site has not been able to break a more than 50 year cycle of drawing less than the MLB median attendance with a few exceptions.

“Rooted in Oakland” was given five years to pan out. We have had upgraded food options, new experiences like the Treehouse, innovative ticket offerings like A’s Access and more. The team has put in the effort that many fans complained they weren’t seeing and it has resulted in… not much of a change at the gate.

The A’s have played at the site since 1968. They have been a winning team more than half of the time and made the playoffs 21 times over the course of their Oakland tenure, or every 2.5 seasons. This frequency of post season appearances is among the best in all of baseball over the last half century.

They have drawn more than the league median attendance in seven of those seasons. They have made the playoffs and been in the bottom half of league attendance twice as often as they have been in the playoffs and drawn more than the median number of fans for MLB teams.

Is this the result of the site? The stadium? I’d posit that in a metro area as large and wealthy as ours that it really doesn’t matter. The fanbase and the money is here, it hasn’t warmed to the Coliseum Complex for over half a century of trying and you could expect the team to do better by this measurement closer to the urban core of Oakland than out on the periphery.

Second, all roads to an A’s stadium in the Bay Area have included ancillary development as a vehicle to pay for the stadium. In San Jose, in Fremont, in any of the various Oakland plans (Coliseum, Laney College, Howard Terminal) the surrounding development pays for the building of a stadium.

It is pretty easy to do back of the envelope math using downtown office space, residential and retail per square foot prices and contrast that with the same near Hegenberger Road. You will find that both the price per square foot AND the demand for office space as measured by the number of properties on the market and time they have been available is not even remotely the same. Downtown is much more valuable and, thus, a much better place to use a private financing scheme to pay for a ballpark that relies on surrounding development.

If we tweak this a little and think about a different kind of use, warehousing and logistics… You’ll note that the differences are not as pronounced between the two parts of Oakland. Which brings us to the real reason I support Howard Terminal as a development and repurposing of the Coliseum for something other than a sports complex.

Highest and Best Use

There are four criteria used when defining the Highest and Best Use of a particular area within a city. Those are legal permissibility, physical possibility, financial feasibility and maximum productivity. If we think about these criteria, both Howard Terminal and the Coliseum Complex check off some of the boxes for a sports centered development.

The Coliseum Complex is already entitled and through the environmental reviews required, so it has a leg up on Howard Terminal in the context of “legal permissibility.” The process to get Howard Terminal caught up here is not an easy thing and it is what we are currently watching play out. As I wrote back in 2016 on Athletics Nation, if the A’s chose this site then I didn’t expect an Opening Day until 2026 despite the A’s talking about 2023.

As Dave Kaval himself recently offhandedly confirmed, Howard Terminal won’t be a reality until 2027 at the earliest. This is not simply because of COIVD related delays… it is because that is what reality is for this kind of development and he did a real disservice to all of us when he postured and pretended 2023 was realistic. I don’t expect Opening Day at Rickey Henderson Park presented by Square at Howard Terminal until 2028 and God help us all if this process turns into what happened at Oak to 9th, I mean Brooklyn Basin. But that is the risk the A’s assumed when they picked such a difficult site. The site requires approvals from 33 State Agencies for Pete’s sake!

Physical possibility is a wash as far as I am concerned, when thinking of a ballpark. Either the Coliseum Complex or Howard Terminal has plenty of space. You can physically fit a 12 acre ballpark comfortably at either site. The Coliseum Complex has more than twice the acreage available, but there is also plenty of room at both to build “stuffs” around the park.

The last two criteria, heavily favor a ballpark at Howard Terminal and… a warehousing and logistics hub at the site of the Coliseum. Think about it, the freight railway that runs right by the Coliseum, the airport with Fedex and UPS operations a mile down the road and the 880 freeway all combine to create a nexus of transportation options that support a company like Amazon, or Walmart or any other omni-channel-same-day-delivery-eCommerce-behemoth would pay a helluva lot more money for a 120 acre site with all this access than a residential developer would pay to build condos in a mostly industrial area.

Were I arguing to keep the A’s at the Coliseum, I’d point out the proximity to BART. But as I have proven by conducting two experiments (one full video posted below, JLS to BART in about 10 minutes)… the BART to Howard Terminal challenge is mildly overstated because it is really the BART to Jack London Square challenge. From the City of Oakland’s perspective, the idea with a stadium located closer to the urban core is not the same as with one built at the Coliseum Complex, the point is to expand the tax uplift around the stadium as much as it is to get people into the yard.

My grandfather used to say “Jack London Square has been the next big thing since 1958.”

Part of the reason the City should be full throated supporters (or at least less Coliseum Complex whataboutism pushers) of getting this thing done is to finally make that a reality. And it is more than JLS, the Oakland waterfront has long been an underdeveloped asset. The Port is great! But there is plenty of room for both a Port and a vibrant mixed use district anchored by a ballpark. I’d look to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor for inspiration, for example.

The Port operations already stop at Howard Terminal, anyway. From where the ballpark might be and down along the estuary has a fantastic potential to transform from a pretty cool, sparsely visited place to a culturally significant entertainment district stretching down Embarcadero Road.

The Mirage in Vegas

While we can all debate the seriousness with which the A’s are truly considering moving to Las Vegas, I am personally not that worried about it. I think a good hint as to why I am not that concerned is the cancellation of a reported trip to Portland. But what about the Raiders? The NFL has a much better model for small market teams than MLB does, this is like comparing apples and blueberries, but the Raiders move is really the entire point of evoking Las Vegas.

I believe Rob Manfred when he says that he sees baseball as a “growth industry.” I believe him when he says he wants to expand the league in the not too distant future. I believe that logistically, there is really only one market on the West Coast worth exploring for that expansion and that this is Portland, Oregon. If the A’s start talking with Portland in earnest, I will be nervous.

From every perspective one can reasonably measure Las Vegas is a mediocre market for MLB. It would instantly become a revenue sharing recipient rather than a contributor. The Metropolitan Statistical Area is 27th largest in the country with 2.3 million people and the median household income is lower than the US household median income. The Media Market is the 40th largest in the country and so much of baseball’s revenues are about local media revenue that this alone should make anyone skeptical.

If we start hearing about the A’s in conversations to replace the faltering Sacramento Republic soccer stadium in the old rail yards with a ballpark, I will get nervous. After Portland, and without a two team Bay Area market, Sacramento makes a ton more sense than Las Vegas by the metrics I mentioned above.

I can see two scenarios where the A’s actually move. One would be the team fleeing to Portland and creating a situation where MLB could expand to Sacramento. The other is the A’s moving to Sacramento, leaving Portland available as the front runner for expansion on the West Coast.

And none of this happens until there is a real engagement with each of these cities and probably a few more for good measure. We are not close to a relocation. We will know it is a real threat when there is a series of meetings with multiple cities meant to inspire a bidding war for the right to pay for the A’s new home. When that happens, stick a fork in Oakland but not a second before.

That does not mean that the Las Vegas threat is without purpose. It should be seen for the clear and concise message that it is intended to be. It is no coincidence that all of the relocation talk has focused on Vegas. It is a not so subtle thumb in the eye to the officials in Oakland who let the Raiders walk and an attempt to leverage the rage of fans who share loyalty to both the A’s and Raiders with a fresh and painful memory. It is a warning shot across the bow and a call to action, and honestly… it seems to have worked.

The Win-Win-Win Potential

It is not wrong to cast the decision before Oakland officials as an inflection point that is much bigger than baseball. A move by the A’s to the waterfront, closer to downtown represents a sea change. It will be an entirely different vision for the waterfront than what exists now and a completely new approach to baseball games in Oakland. But the A’s at Jack London Square doesn’t have to mean East Oakland is losing out or that the Port of Oakland will wither on a vine and die.

While the large park with a little development that the A’s have proposed for the entire Coliseum site is one vision, that isn’t the vision that will help East Oakland out economically. Both the City and the County of Alameda should be demanding something for that part of Oakland that meets the Highest and Best Use criteria, they should be demanding a logistics facility and the good paying jobs that come along with it. That is how you get the first win in this equation, you bring good paying, long term jobs to a part of Oakland that has needed them for decades.

The A’s, as owners of half the property currently stand to win from this as well. They can be the developer for the facility and ink a long term lease with whoever uses it. Or they can just turn around and sell the half of the site that they bought on the cheap from the county and turn a really big, quick buck. These are just two examples of how they can win here, there are other ways, but the point is… the HBU benefits everyone. The City, the residents and the developer.

To me, it is the key to the whole deal. Maximizing the potential of the Coliseum Complex for the economic benefit of the residents of East Oakland, increasing the vibrancy of the waterfront and keeping the A’s in Oakland.

There is a win-win-win scenario and it is time for all parties involved to focus on closing it out.


8 thoughts on “A Howard Terminal Skeptic Warms to the Idea

  1. Pingback: Getting to Yes – newballpark.org

  2. Lakeshore/Neil

    Wow, Jeff. I didn’t know you had your own blog. I really appreciate the insight well thought out content. Thanks.

  3. Scott

    Why does Sacramento never seem to be in real conversation for expansion or the A’s moving there? (My first choice is Oakland, but would be okay with Sacramento – as I live in the valley). I have thought Sacramento would be a great location for baseball.

    1. jeffreyaugust Post author

      I don’t actually know because I am just a dude observing from the outside. I did live in Sacramento for 7 years and I agree, it’d be a better market than many existing MLB markets… I believe the big hang up is probably the fact that the Bay Area is MLBs smallest two team market and not that far away.

      1. Scott

        It a team moving (A’s) could be fit both from the new and existing regions, in some sense, expanding their fan base. I’d see many Oakland fans following them to Sacramento

      2. Scott

        Let me try that again… lol:

        if a team moving there came from the bay area (let’s say A’s), they could very well attract fans from both the new and existing regions, in some sense, expanding their fan base. I’d see many Oakland fans following them to Sacramento.

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