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Oakland Eyes New Stadiums to Keep Pro Teams

Morris Newman on
Apr 21, 2014

Stadium proposal is battling stadium proposal in Oakland, a mid-sized city with limited resources that wants to keep its name on big-time sports marquees. So far, professional sports team owners appear to be tilting toward a proposal to build a new football stadium, and possibly a new venue for baseball, on the current Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum site. At the same time, Mayor Jean Quan and some powerful downtown Oakland business leaders are pushing a competing project in a site closer to downtown, on the Howard Terminal; and yet Quan is hedging her bets by supporting the Coliseum-site option as well, just to make sure the city ends up with new stadiums to keep sports teams in the East Bay city. Any predictions, however, may be premature until August, when developers of the two competing projects are slated to file proposals with the city.

One question for Oakland sports fans is whether the city or local developers can convince some restless local sports franchises that Oakland remains a good place to play ball and make big-league money. Subsidies in Oakland, a city with a broad swath of poverty and limited resources, are already a thorny issue among some City Councilmembers and Alameda County Supervisors, especially in view of the poor deal that the city made to bring the Raiders back more than a decade ago.

As a venue for Major League Baseball and the National Football League, Oakland is a glass half full. The city has not shared equally in the rising tides of high-tech wealth that have lifted many boats in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. On the plus side are the availability of land, the support of elected officials and a central location in the Bay Area, in terms of both freeways and mass transit, especially in relation to neighboring San Francisco. In the minus column, however, is a public image of Oakland, fair or not, as an unglamorous place with some patchy, even dangerous, neighborhoods.

Team owners are eyeing the suburbs. Despite the recent trend of building stadiums in downtown areas, Oakland team owners are aware that their fan base is made up largely of well-heeled suburbanites, who can afford season tickets. The San Francisco 49ers moved this year from the unpopular Candlestick Park in the tough Bayview Hunters Point district of the city nearly 40 miles east to affluent Santa Clara. In a similar bid to court the bulging wallets of Silicon Valley, the Oakland A's last year attempted to move the franchise to San Jose last year. Despite enthusiasm from local officials, Major League Baseball nixed the San Jose deal. (The proposed venue is less than six miles from the 49ers stadium in Santa Clara, and the 49ers want to control the South Bay baseball market. But the City of San Jose is still pursuing an antitrust appeal on the matter before the Ninth Circuit.)    

One thing that's certain is that the status quo is a no-go. Both the city's baseball team, the Oakland A's, and its football club, the Raiders, are dissatisfied with the aging Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. Football aside, the Coliseum qualifies as one of  the oldest stadiums in baseball, a sport that places a high value on newness. Neither team has adjusted well to the hybrid facility, which attempts to accommodate both sports by awkwardly reconfiguring the field for each.

Baseball and football are not the only pro sports franchises itching to leave the city of Jack London behind. Basketball no longer seems a possibility in Oakland: On April 21, Oakland's basketball team, the Warriors, announced they were buying a 12-acre site in the Mission Bay area, near the UC San Francisco medical school campus. The purchase, which won praise from coastline-preservation activists including former mayor Art Agnos, is less controversial, and a far easier candidate for government approvals, than the previously intended site on the Piers 30-32 just south of the Bay Bridge. 

The forced marriage of baseball and football at the Coliseum has bred discord between the sports and made headaches for Coliseum management, a joint effort of Oakland and Alameda County. The squeakiest wheel among team owners is arguably Lew Wolff of the A's, who angered many Oakland fans last year by attempting to move the team south to San Jose. For the inconvenience of staying in the Coliseum, Wolff wants a consolation prize in the form of a giant new scoreboard. He wants the scoreboard so much, in fact, that the A's owner has proposed relocating the team "temporarily" to another Northern California stadium until the Coliseum buys and installs the new hardware -- an idea described as "flying-unicorn nuts" by Mercury News sportswriter Mark Purdy.

When the stadium balked at paying for the signage, Wolff said he could pay the bill if it were amortized over five years and offered to sign a lease extension for that duration.

Surprisingly, Coliseum officials said no. The reason was concern about alienating the Raiders. Last year, team owner Mark Davis, the Dutch Boy-coiffed son of the legendarily flinty Al Davis, signed a one-year lease extension at the Coliseum. The younger Davis, who appears no less decisive than his dad in the bid to elevate the Raiders brand, apparently believed that the old Coliseum was soon to be demolished (or that the Raiders were soon to be playing in another city). Accordingly, the Coliseum may not have five years to wait for Wolff to pay off his new scoreboard.

New development at the Coliseum site may solve problems for both teams, however. The program calls for two new stadiums, along with plentiful housing and retail on 800 acres. Colony Capital, a real estate financier, assumed control of the floundering project after the previous developer, Forest City, dropped out of the deal, presumably for lack of financing. To date no deal has been publicly announced, although Colony Capital, a real estate finance firm, is lobbying strongly for the project. Colony must assemble a development team and come up with a preliminary design before approaching the city for a building permit. According to the Mayor's office, however, the deal needs another $500 million to $600 million, and even in the high-rolling world of commercial real estate, that sum is considered a lot of money. 

Coliseum City is just a recent example of the growing trend among developers to use sports stadiums as "anchors" for large-scale development. Recent stadium developments nationally, such as the proposed Atlanta Braves stadium in suburban Cobb County, Ga., routinely include plans for retail, commercial and/or housing development, on a large scale. An optimistic way to view this stadium-plus style of development is that sports facilities attract investment and credibility to the immediate area, and cities can use stadium projects as a way to pursue large-scale urban reinvestment schemes. A skeptical view is that developers and team owners impose high costs of stadium development on the public sector while using the generous development rights attached to the project to enrich themselves with multi-family and retail projects.

Oakland's rival to Coliseum City is Howard Terminal, a waterfront site controlled by the Port of Oakland. On March 1, port officials removed an obstacle to stadium development by reviewing, and turning down, three alternate uses for the waterfront site. As a precondition for conveying the 170-acre site to stadium builders, the port had to demonstrate that commercial development would not displace any important maritime use. With that formality out of the way, the port appears open to proposal from a group of Oakland businessmen calling for multiple stadiums at Howard Terminal.

The waterfront site was endorsed by Mayor Jean Quan, who has also spoken glowingly of the Coliseum project. Quan's endorsement may be a mixed blessing: Quan is an unpopular mayor with limited political capital. Further, Quan embarrassed herself, and potentially the financiers behind the Coliseum project, by incorrectly stating that the crown prince of Dubai was a partner in the deal.  (Her spokesperson later backtracked on the claim.)

With or without Quan's support, the Howard Terminal proposal looks jinxed, largely by the disinterest of the team owners. Davis, the Raiders owner, has come out publicly in support of the Coliseum City project. Wolff, for his part, says the A's will never play at Howard Terminal, nor is he willing to sell the team to a new owner who would field the team at the port location.

If developers are serious about building a new stadium complex in Oakland, they may have do it without subsidies. A number of elected officials, including several Alameda County Supervisors and Oakland City Council members, oppose tossing public money into a new stadium deal. Those officials have a genuine basis for concern: Oakland has still not paid off the $200 million spent on improvements to the Coliseum 20 years ago, as part of the arrangement that brought the Raiders back to Oakland from Los Angeles. Taking on that debt was a tall order for a city whose budget for FY 2013-14 is $430.16 million.

The next proverbial shoes to drop are a feasibility report for Howard Terminal, to be followed by actual proposals in August. At that point the city expects at least one of the projects to be far enough along to sign an exclusive-right-to-negotiate with the city. Will Oakland, the long-suffering suitor of sports teams, participate in either project? "We'll see then," says mayoral spokesperson Sean Maher.

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