- MLB team looking to build a new home after almost 20 years of searching for a site
- Design aims to veer away from established MLB stadium norms, creating “a ballpark in a park”
- Club has earmarked 2021 to begin building the site, with a view to opening it in 2023
The Howard Terminal site now sits fallow on the waterfront near downtown Oakland, California. Once a delivery base for cargo shipped across the seas from Hawaii, it’s currently 54 acres of pavement covered with carcasses of truck compartments parked in no particular order.
But the Oakland A’s have a bold plan for the property.
If all goes well, by 2023 the Major League Baseball club that has played its games for the last 51 years at the nearby but badly antiquated Oakland Coliseum (soon to be renamed RingCentral Coliseum) will call their new home a modern, 34,000-seat ballpark built at the center of an entirely reimagined harbor real estate district.
“We’re completely committed to building out the ballpark on the waterfront,” Dave Kaval, the team’s president, told SportBusiness before embarking on a private tour of the property.
Of course, Bay Area baseball fans, MLB executives, and by now even the most casual followers know the A’s stadium pursuit for nearly 20 years and counting has been a Sisyphean pursuit withering the hope of plenty of others preceding Kaval, now in third season running the club’s day-to-day operations for team owner John Fisher.
But the eternally optimistic Kaval insists this time it’s really different. After one false start after another over the years, including aborted attempts to relocate to nearby San Jose and Fremont, California, and quickly rebuffed bid to build a new ballpark at Oakland’s Laney College, the A’s late last year settled on a bold, two-tiered and two-parceled plan to build not only the stadium at the Howard Terminal site, but also renovate the current Coliseum property six miles away into a community park and mixed-use development.
And unlike those prior, unsuccessful bids, the A’s have already made enough progress thus far in the complex political, permitting and legislative process to have growing confidence in an actual 2021 groundbreaking that would allow for the new ballpark opening two years later.
Once that happens, the A’s stadium pursuit that has been one of MLB’s thorniest problems, and a sizable impediment to the league thinking more seriously about expansion, could instead become a gateway to the future.
“It’s going to be spectacular,” he says.
A dramatically-changing Oakland
The A’s plan arrives smack in the middle of a period of historic change for Bay Area pro sports. After the upcoming National Football League season, the A’s’ Coliseum co-tenants the Oakland Raiders will end their second stint in the city and move to Las Vegas. The Golden State Warriors, playing in Oracle Arena adjacent to the Oakland Coliseum since 1971, this fall will shift across the Bay to San Francisco and their gleaming new $1.1bn (€976m) Chase Center.
That leaves the A’s the only pro team on the East Bay and presented the club with a huge opportunity to think radically about new ballpark options. And think radically they did. The club veered away from the known handful of established American sports facility architects and instead tapped Bjarke Ingels Group, a design firm co-headquartered in New York and Copenhagen with no prior experience in developing a ballpark.
Wanting fresh, progressive ideas, the A’s received from Bjarke Ingels Group a preliminary design that looks far unlike any other MLB facility, featuring a wooded park lining the top of the edifice, starting at a steep incline behind home plate and gracefully sloping downwards toward the bleachers. The dramatic sweep creates a majestic view of the facility’s interior from the main entrance behind the outfield gates.
Despite that futuristic vibe, Kaval insists the core thinking behind the design is actually a historic nod to baseball’s origins.
“The original baseball was played in places like Hoboken [in New Jersey] and Doubleday Field in Cooperstown [in upstate New York],” he says. “And it was all in a park. It’s a way to create an homage to the genesis of baseball 150 years ago. We’re very excited about it and think it will be unique.”
Bjarke Ingels, founding partner of the firm that bears his name, says the vision for the design was to create “a ballpark in a park”.
“Our design for the A’s new home at the heart of Oakland’s revitalized waterfront seeks to return the game to its roots as the natural meeting place for the local community,” Ingels says. “The perimeter park connects a cascade of social spaces for the fans to enjoy on game days and extends the urban fabric with a neighborhood part to be enjoyed 365 days a year.”
The new ballpark design is also designed to provide much more intimacy than the Coliseum, which through its multipurpose life set fans far back from the field and created the largest amount of foul territory in all of MLB.
“Even in the second and third decks you’re going to be right on top of the action,” Kaval says of the planned facility. “You’re going to be so much closer to things than the Coliseum. I think it’s going to be really appealing to the fans.”
Two rethought urban cores
The A’s aggressive thinking for the ballpark carries to the rest of the project. The club is envisioning the stadium flanked on its northern side by what Kaval calls his version of a ballpark district akin to Atlanta’s SunTrust Park and The Battery, the mixed-use complex that opened in 2017 at a combined cost of about $1.1bn.
Kaval said the A’s plan calls for 3,000 housing units, 1.5 million square feet of office space, and about 400,000 square feet of retail at the Howard Terminal site. Based on the club’s agreement with the Port, some of the buildings will be rented via ground lease and some could be purchased.
To the south of the intended ballpark site is Jack London Square, a hub of consumer activity that hasn’t yet become what it could be.
“We have an existing commercial district adjacent to the location,” Kaval says. “Really, for 20 years, they’ve tried to get this humming down here on the Oakland waterfront. It never has achieved its full potential. What it really lacks is people.”
The ballpark also promises to bring new life to a local waterfront that hasn’t seen any major shipping activity in five years.
“It’s a very shallow berth at that location,” Kaval says. “It’s under 40 feet. And Howard terminal, most of the ships that used to dock there went to Hawaii. They were smaller. And there’s not a lot of trade going on with Hawaii right now.”
The A’s have also proposed an ornate gondola system to transport fans from downtown Oakland to the ballpark site as well as water ferry service to supplement fan arrival by foot, car and train.
The Coliseum site, meanwhile, will become a second mixed-use area with additional housing, including some affordable units to help address the crippling Bay Area housing crisis. The site, somewhat similar to the ballpark area, will also have more retail, restaurants, and other community gathering spaces. Notably, the original Coliseum baseball diamond will be preserved, and Oracle Arena will be purposed into a concert and cultural events center.
A firm price tag for the entire two-site project has not yet been devised. But it’s all but certain to exceed the Braves’ total construction costs given the naturally escalated construction costs in California. But with public financing for sports facilities an increasing non-starter in the US, particularly in California, the A’s project will be privately financed, similar to how their crosstown rivals the San Francisco Giants built Oracle Park.
“We don’t have a full-fledged price,” Kaval says. “We’re still working with the city on the infrastructure piece. We’re focused more on entitlements now and making sure we know what can be built. And we’ll be put a plan together in that way.”
It’s also highly likely that equity partners will join the club in financing the effort.
“Potentially, I think all things are open,” Kaval says. “This is such a big process. There’s actually two projects. But there definitely will be partners. There could be local partners. We’ve met with a lot of people here in the East Bay and Oakland who we think could be great. But we want to first get the project completely entitled and approved and then find the right partners to work with in that way.”
Preparing for obstacles
Despite the sizable progress made to date, Kaval is well aware many more hurdles must still be overcome. The current plan is to have the legislative and entitlement processes, as well as an environmental study, completed by the end of this year.
The club has then earmarked 2020 to work through any lawsuits that might be filed against the projects. Though there have been local protests from longshoremen, no legal action to date has materialized. The A’s did get some welcome definition around this portion of the process from the California state legislature, which last year limited the timeline of any legal complaint on the project to 270 days from inception to the end of the last appeal.
“That allows us to feel more confident in our dates,” Kaval says. “Without that provision a lawsuit could take up to four years.”
To get where they are already, the A’s have already made several concessions with legislators, and agreed to multiple conservation provisions, including the preservation of open space at the waterfront site. Kaval also is planning on a sizable environmental remediation effort.
“That’s something that’s pretty well-known and studied,” he says. “And that’s something we’re going to be willing to fund as part of the project. Right now, to gain public access to this, who would pay for it? And so this is another community benefit as part of the project.”
Last month, the Port of Oakland approved an exclusive term sheet for the lease of the Howard Terminal land by a 7-0 vote. The approval gave the A’s four years to obtain the necessary permits and finish the environmental report. When construction is completed, the A’s will pay $3.8m in rent annually for the next 20 years.
Beyond the A’s ongoing work with local politicians, there is also a significant looming economic component within the league. A provision of MLB’s collective bargaining agreement with the MLB Players Association has been phasing out the A’s access to revenue-sharing funds since 2017, with this year representing its final year receiving that money.
The prevailing theory behind the phase-out is that Oakland plays in a top-10 US media market, and enjoys market-size advantages other revenue-sharing recipients such as Kansas City and Pittsburgh don’t. During their lengthy ballpark pursuit, the A’s have enjoyed an exemption and maintained access to annual payments reportedly in excess of $30m in peak years.
With that money now going away, the A’s have more economic incentives to make the new ballpark at last a reality.
Meanwhile, the moribund Howard Terminal awaits.