31 January 2008

Winter 2008 Progress Report

As the skies cleared up earlier this week, I got a quick glance of the light dusting of snow on Mount Hamilton and the hills east of San Jose. I figured that was my cue to dust off the progress graphics and post them anew. With no further ado, here are the five non-New York projects in motion and their relative statuses.

The EIR is in full swing and the site is acquired and largely cleared. Nothing else to report right now.

How's this for confusion: A
report released a week ago by the District of Columbia shows that the Nats ballpark is $43 million over budget, whereas a report released yesterday by a local labor union claims that the project is on time and on budget. The difference? Rising land acquisition costs thanks to eminent domain actions. Nevertheless the ballpark will, despite my misgivings, open April 7, less than two years from the original groundbreaking. That's good news for the A's, since they've got a shot to finish construction in a similar or even lesser timeframe - important if the approval process is extended for one reason or another. The big problem facing the Nats: Parking. Even though they expect up to 50% of the fanbase to use Metro to the nearby Navy Yard station, the team has counted only 5,000 parking spaces in the vicinity.

Construction of the downtown, open air ballpark began last May. Aside from squabbles about the price of the ballpark's land (sensing a theme here?), they appear to be on schedule. The Twins were, in a sense, winners in a game of public financing roulette. They and the University of Minnesota football team were able to score new venues last year, leaving the Vikings out for the time being. Both the Vikes and Twins were frequently considered relocation threats in the past, now only the NFL franchise is a candidate. Last year's bridge collapse appears to have squelched any talk of a new stadium for the Vikings. It's just too bad that the Twins "needed" a sales tax hike to fund their new digs, a point of regression when it comes to stadium financing. They also did an endaround past a normally mandated public vote in the process.

Next Tuesday marks a crucial step in the Marlins' quest for a stadium at the Orange Bowl (not their first choice of sites). That's when the city of Miami and Miami-Dade County may vote on a binding agreement to build a stadium with the team (the vote has been twice delayed already). The agreement may or may not be ready in time for the vote. While the pols scramble to get the deal in place, the deal faces greater scrutiny as it's only part of a massive $3 billion development plan. Former Philadelphia Eagles owner and longtime area businessman Norman Braman
filed a lawsuit against the city and county over the plan, claiming that the scheme misappropriates millions of taxpayer dollars while not involving the public in the process.

Speaking of public scrutiny,
various St. Petersburg-area groups are all taking a look at the Rays' downtown St. Pete plans. The Rays, chained to a watertight lease at Tropicana Field, have offered to get the land at the Trop developed, if the proceeds can help them escape the lease and move to the site of their spring training home, Progress Energy Park (a.k.a. Al Lang Field). The old park would be demolished and it its place would rise an open air stadium with a sail-like retractable roof to protect fans and players from the elements (well, except Florida heat). Concerns are coming in from downtown business and residents who worry about parking, and environmentalists who are concerned about extending construction into Tampa Bay, thereby threatening a manatee habitat. So far no local pols have visibly approved the plan, which seemed to come out of nowhere in late November.

28 January 2008

Coliseum redux, football style

As the 49ers continue to pursue their preferred Santa Clara site, the Raiders have been focusing mainly on the Coliseum, despite their brief (and largely fruitless) discussions with Dublin officials. Regardless of what anyone thinks of the Coliseum deal, Al Davis, or the politicians involved, the Coliseum remains the most feasible place for the Raiders to get any kind of stadium deal done. Here's why.

  • LA can't get it together. Numerous groups with billionaires at their respective helms have cropped up from time to time to declare their viability for an LA expansion franchise. Often their talk would result in further discussions with LA pols, which would result in nothing. At times there would be two groups competing simultaneously. Multiple sites would come up as well, all of which would end up dead thanks to cost or pre-existing political conditions. While the NFL would love to place a team in LA, there's no indication they'd be willing to foot the bill any higher than what was required to get the NY Giants/Jets stadium going. That would leave any LA stadium woefully short of any real cost. At the same time, any team that wanted to move to LA would need the league's financial assistance, forcing such a team to bow to the league's desires. Right now the league is perfectly fine with the increased TV revenues they get from a blackout-free market such as LA.
  • Al Davis ain't selling or dying anytime soon. Davis has proven to be the NFL's version of Rasputin. He has survived legal battles. He has outlived nice guy owners such as Lamar Hunt, Wellington Mara, and Jack Kent Cooke. He continues to command from his throne, as evidenced by the current controversy involving head coach Lane Kiffin. He may be showing Nero-like tendencies, but like it or not, he's still there.
  • A refurbished Coliseum is far cheaper than a new stadium. The Mount Davis addition and additional renovations, which included the Westside Club and a new baseball/football press box and all new seats, cost $120-140 million depending on who you ask. New NFL stadia being planned or under construction have price tags of $800 million at the very minimum. No renovation plan should have a cost more than half that.

Renovation has many advantages that stem from cost. The site, once the original bowl is demolished, is already excavated and ready to build. New piles may have to be driven because the new western structure would be far taller and more complex than the old bowl. It would likely mimic Mt. Davis to an extent, though it would also include team facilities such as locker rooms and offices, a new press box, and an even more lavish club facility. The end zones would have limited seating, reducing the stadium's footprint.

The new structure would look similar to Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. The overlay above keeps the old Coliseum structure to show how odd the sightlines are for football from the old bowl. The only advantage it has over any new stadium its low profile. The design could eventually evolve into something more like what the 49ers are proposing, though having nearly 100 suites in the eastern section defeats the purpose.

It's hard to say how long it would take to build. Certainly not three or four years as new stadia typically take. Not 10 months as what happened with Stanford Stadium. Probably 24 months thanks to the site's readiness. Process should be quicker too because any EIR work would reflect the same use as the previous structure. That hidden process time and cost cannot be underestimated.

It would be difficult to conceive of the Raiders playing in the Coliseum in the interim. Demolishing the old bowl while leaving Mt. Davis intact would leave only 22,000 seats in place, and to make construction faster builders couldn't be interrupted by the occasional game or other events. It was doable for the 1995 construction, but not for a project this massive. The Raiders won't be welcome at an old or rebuilt Memorial Stadium on the UC Campus. No chance of playing at Stanford Stadium, and Spartan Stadium's far too small. So are the area ballparks.

That leaves Candlestick as the only venue large enough to hold the Raiders. Sounds blasphemous to be sure, but as both the 49ers and Raiders move forward with their plans, they may find themselves in the unusual position of needing each other. The Santa Clara site has at best a 50/50 shot since it will likely need a true citizens' vote in November, not an "advisory" vote that the 49ers were gunning for. Should that proposal lose, the team would be forced back to SF, only to face a city that has no public funds to pledge for a new stadium.

Meanwhile, the NFL will at some point tire of California's inability to get a new stadium built anywhere in the state. Unlike the situation in LA, it can't allow another exodus of teams because there aren't new stadia in other markets just waiting for football teams to move there. It can help the teams' relative plights by encouraging both teams to work together and by pledging a junior version of the Meadowlands plan for a renovated Coliseum. It's a proposal that won't tax the other 30 owners much, and it would allow the league to focus its resources on the remaining three potentially itinerant teams, the Chargers, Vikings, and Bills. From a local practical standpoint, both teams would have a far easier way to pay off the requisite bonds since both teams' stadium revenues would contribute.

There is, of course, a matter of pride. Both teams and their fans would have to come to grips with major territorial issues. The Raiders would have to deal with playing in the 'Stick temporarily, while the 49ers would deal with a far more permanent transition. That said, there is a point where pride has to give way to more practical concerns. Those who really want to see their teams stay in the area in the most financially responsible manner should consider such a plan.

21 January 2008

Grand plans abound

When Ray Ratto's Sunday column was published, I had only one immediate response posted at AN. It was short and at the time, I felt it was sufficient. Since then there have been numerous comments here I'll address it further.

There's nothing wrong with having contingencies. While Fremont appears to be moving along now that the process has gotten underway in earnest, one can't always see all of the things that could derail a project. So it doesn't hurt to continue to have an understanding of the Bay Area and even markets outside the Bay Area if Fremont doesn't come to fruition.

My confusion over Ratto's column comes from the highly convoluted machinations that would have to occur for it to even be feasible. Consider what would have to happen:
  1. Fremont plan would have to fail either by city council action or applicant withdrawal. Earliest time for that to happen would be a year from now - January 2009.
  2. Santa Clara (city, not county as Ratto suggests) 49ers stadium plan would also have to fail. We'll know this in November of this year. Don't forget that the Niners have threatened to take their headquarters with them wherever they go.
  3. Bud Selig would have to seek out punitive measures against the Giants. Ratto suggests conceding Santa Clara County territorial rights. That action would have to be taken by the owners during the next owner's meetings following points #1 and #2 above. This is despite the fact that the Mitchell Report recommends against punitive actions for "the past." ETA: Who knows?
  4. Santa Clara would try to pick up the pieces and negotiate with the A's on some land deal, which may or may not include the hotel tax pledged by area hotels. Santa Clara has in the past felt burned by former A's owner Steve Schott when news reports circulated that he was considering selling to Mandalay Sports Entertainment. That news irritated then-mayor Judy Nadler and others, who felt that Schott was not on the level. This effectively ended future talks. To get Santa Clara on board again, the city would have to set aside any residual bad feelings and be willing to slog through another political war - and another vote - to get any kind of ballpark deal in place. ETA: At least 18-24 months after #1 and #2.
  5. If San Jose were to be involved in any manner, they would have the Diridon South site and its EIR to fall back on. But that would means potentially being in a bidding war with Santa Clara. What would happen if either city required county support? Who would get it and why?
Not to be forgotten in all of this is money. No other sites could be considered unless some financing scheme were in place. Don't think that A's ownership is going to suddenly become magnanimous and offer to pay for the bulk of a ballpark out of their pockets just because it's in San Jose or Santa Clara. Some public or private financing method would have to be identified, and if it's the typical methods we normally see, it's going to be an uphill battle to say the least. The housing crisis has rendered the A's ballpark village financing plan not particularly portable, meaning it wouldn't work in Las Vegas or Sacramento. Portland - maybe if there's a sufficiently large enough piece of land to do so.

I could start to believe the above twists and turns if they didn't so thoroughly violate Lew Wolff's prevalent m.o., which is to take the path of least resistance. At Fremont he has the site, the financing method, and he's gathering the necessary political will. Just about everywhere else he's going to require public votes, massive changes to the financing, or something else that will draw out the process considerably. Lew's joked about getting this done before he dies, and his references to his own mortality are borderline creepy. However, I sense there is an element of truth to it. It may be as strong a motivator as any other factor.
The Giants have their own plans for the parking lot across McCovey Cove from AT&T Park. Their plans would allow for a similar amount of parking from the lot as they have currently, while introducing additional shopping and entertainment options. They've even teamed up with Cordish, a development firm working on the St. Louis ballpark village concept. The anchor for the plan would be a 4-5,000-seat concert hall. The closest similarly-sized venues are the outmoded Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, the outdoor Greek Theater on the UC Berkeley campus, and the SJSU Event Center. That is, of course, unless others come up with their own plans for such a venue, such as Santa Clara County or even the 49ers. The Giants will be openly bidding against many other developers, who may have different designs for the Port-controlled parcel known as Lot A. If it's working for the Red Sox and it just might work for the A's, more power to the Giants if they can pull it off.

16 January 2008

Introducing the consultants: Short and sweet

I got to last night's work session 10 minutes late. I didn't miss much. Seated in front of the council were familiar faces from Berkeley-based LSA Associates, the firm drafting the ballpark village environmental impact report. They were going over expectations and timelines for the report. Some of the important points from last night:
  • LSA had an internal kickoff meeting shortly after the city council approved the study. Since then they've been working on the EIR.
  • The next two months or so will be background work.
  • A "Notice of Preparation" will be circulated prior to the publishing of the Draft EIR, followed by a 30-day public review period
  • The Draft EIR will be distributed, followed by a scoping session and a 45-day public review period
  • Comments and responses will be included along with possible changes in the Final EIR
  • Public hearings will be held, and the Final EIR will be approved or rejected by the city council.

Unlike many other EIRs which are typically done from scratch, this one will be partly based on the previous Catellus/Pacific Commons EIR, which was completed a decade ago. This may prove to be a double-edged sword as much of the work will involve evaluating various mitigation measures and effects of the original project plan. The big item is the creation of a new wetlands area - did it work as planned? And if so, what measures need to be taken to "preserve the preserve?" LSA has indicated this aspect actually makes the process somewhat more difficult. Don't expect a lot over the next several weeks.

While there wasn't much new detail coming out of the Community Specific Plan, one tidbit emerged that the council found curious: the largest residential area (2500 units) may contain some number of single family residences. When asked to elaborate, LSA said they didn't have a specific number. It also looks like the buildout will progress in the following manner:
  • Phase I: Ballpark, mixed-use, and school
  • Phase II: Residential east of Cushing Pkwy
  • Phase III: Development west of Cushing Pkwy
Questions from the council centered largely around LSA's experience. The firm has been around for over 30 years and has worked on numerous projects of varying sizes. As mentioned previously, they have worked on the San Jose ballpark EIR - which was certified but ended up nowhere. LSA has never worked on a successful ballpark project. (Co)Incidentally, LSA also wrote the EIR for Oakland's Uptown project (I sense tinfoil hats sparking a bit...). LSA cited their previous experience working on other redevelopment projects, which will be very useful since the ballpark really only amounts to a quarter of the project.

The San Jose ballpark EIR came under fire on multiple fronts. Critiques generally came under three categories:
  • Traffic. While traffic counts were made for the area immediately surround the ballpark and the nearby freeway infrastructure, some felt that it should have also included additional neighborhoods near the ballpark site.
  • Noise pollution. The sound noise curve drawn for the ballpark was considered oversimplified and should have taken into consideration more factors related to how weather as well as how fans attend baseball games.
  • Neighborhood impact. A small, quiet hamlet of sorts lay across Los Gatos Creek from the ballpark site. They are already affected by increased traffic and noise from events at the nearby HP Pavilion. Many of them felt their needs weren't taken into consideration.

Point #3 may not be relevant to the Fremont discussion. The first two are entirely relevant and should be discussed and reviewed at considerable length.

There was only one speaker, and he was representing project proponents. The whole thing was wrapped up in less than an hour.

11 January 2008

Raiders look to Dublin + Santa Clara moves forward

How does "Dublin Raiders" sound?

No? Try "California Raiders."

Maybe not. In any case, according to the SF Business Times, the Raiders have expressed interest in the Army-owned Camp Parks site in Dublin. So far, Dublin mayor Janet Lockhart isn't a proponent, saying, "My personal opinion is it would destroy the city of Dublin if we even considered it."

One interesting nugget about Camp Parks is at the end of the article, which states that the Army isn't allowed to sell land. They are able to exchange land for construction of additional structures, but my guess is that an $800 million football palace isn't all that well suited for reserve training purposes. There was no mention of how a stadium on the site would be paid for, nor what the plan would look like.

Is it a stalking horse or something more concrete? What about negotiations with the Coliseum Commission? We'll find out soon enough.
Down in the valley, Santa Clara city staff have recommended the city start negotiating in earnest with the 49ers for their new digs. I'm still wary of a 100,000-person city taking on over $100 million in financial risk even if it's largely redevelopment money. The biggest obstacle, Cedar Fair, remains in opposition to the plan. Efforts to placate the theme park operator may eventually sink the plan. We'll know by the end of the year, one way or another.

10 January 2008

City Council Meeting 1/15 - EIR

And now the fun begins.

Next Tuesday @ 6:00 p.m. (note the time change), the Fremont City Council will have a session to discuss, among other things, the enviromental impact report. Not sure if it's a general Q&A thing, or for comments to the site plan. Regardless, it's the first of many sessions that will help shape the final plan.

Meeting agenda
(only live during session)

09 January 2008

New South Fremont shopping center brings a benefit

Fremont's quest for sales tax dollars continues as it considers a new shopping center at its southern limit along I-880:

The 49-acre Bayside Marketplace would include several big box retailers, about a dozen smaller shops and 1,993 parking spaces just north of Dixon Landing Road.
The distinction that the retailers would be big box and the usual assortment of smaller retailers is important, as Bayside Marketplace is not expected to be competition for the ballpark village's upscale retailers. Cisco Field and the ballpark village are 4 miles north.

However, the new shopping center would provide competition for other big box-anchored centers in the area. In a small area sandwiched between the bay and nearby hills, it's a curious choice to add additional, similar retail since at first glance it would appear that the area if pretty well serviced already. Here's a partial list of nearby stores:

  • McCarthy Ranch (2 miles south, Milpitas): Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Borders, OfficeMax, Sports Authority, Michaels, Ross
  • Pacific Commons (4 miles north, Fremont): Costco, Circuit City, Kohl's, Old Navy, Lowe's, Ashley Furniture, DSW, Party America, Office Depot
  • Auto Mall/Durham (4 miles north, Fremont): Wal-Mart, Fry's, Home Depot
  • Great Mall (4 miles south, Milpitas): Kohl's, Marshalls, Burlington Coat Factory, Home Depot
  • NewPark Mall (6 miles north, Newark): Target, Macy's, Sears, Toys "R" Us
  • Fremont Hub (8 miles north, central Fremont): Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Trader Joe's, Cost Plus, PetsMart, Pier 1 Imports
Looks like they're pretty well covered, right? If the developer and Fremont are willing to move in this direction, more power to them.

A couple of nice benefits will come out of the project. The developer is also going to build on 49 of the parcel's 150 acres. The rest has already been converted to wetlands (I've biked through there in the past, including what appears to be an old runway/tarmac). Then there's the extension of Fremont Boulevard all the way down to Dixon Landing Road. The extension will provide an alternate parallel route along I-880 along with bike lanes and new trails. Currently, Fremont Blvd hits a dead end at a flood control channel that defines the northern limit of the property. Fans coming from North San Jose (hello, Cisco) can use McCarthy/Fremont to bypass 880, then head onto Cushing, which would take them straight to the ballpark. The extension's been in the plan for years but the downturn in the commercial real estate market forced the developer to pull back. The extension could prove beneficial in lightening the load from the south.

07 January 2008

Upper deck reopening - but there's a catch

For the glutton in all of you, the A's are reopening three sections of the vaunted View level/third deck. All 81 games will be available for the low, low price of $35! Borrowing a page from the Dodgers, the A's are designating sections 316-318 as All-You-Can-Eat sections. Fans will enter through a special entrance and will be given wristbands indicating their, um, opportunistic status. Each fan can go to one of the open View level concession stands and get two food items and a soda per visit. The stands will be open until the end of the 7th inning.

The concept was a massive hit at Dodger Stadium, so they're trying it here. I suppose if you can't recognize many of the players on the field, at least you can gorge yourself enough that it won't matter. Whether or not it's really a deal depends on what items will be available. Beer's not on the menu. Some of the premium items such as Saag's sausages and Round Table personal pizzas probably aren't either. I hope that at the very least they have big dogs or polish sausages. Hamburgers and nachos would be good too. If you're going to stuff yourself with ballpark food of questionable nutritional value, go all the way!

One thing the Coliseum will have over Dodger Stadium: Dodger Stadium doesn't include ice cream in their deal.

Santa Clara Chamber & Hotels Support 49ers Stadium Tax

Steve Van Dorn, head of Santa Clara's Chamber of Commerce and its Convention-Visitors Bureau, wrote an opinion piece for Monday's Merc in favor of a proposed hotel or transient occupancy tax. The additional 2% levy, which would be tacked onto nightly bills for eight Santa Clara hotels near Great America, is projected to raise $35 million in funds for the stadium.

As noted previously, this isn't the least bit surprising because the supporting hotels all see dips in business during the fall, and one of them would likely become the hotel of choice for visiting teams. Undoubtedly they would also benefit if the Santa Clara stadium were awarded a Super Bowl, or if a bowl game were played in the area.

Still, even with the tax there's a projected $51 million funding gap for the Niners' new digs and some sources that were previously considered are now off limits.

04 January 2008

You gotta know when to hold em...

...Like the man said.

I don't usually get into moves on the baseball side. I feel compelled to do this now because there's a bit of fervor and backlash about first the Haren trade and now the Swisher trade (guess Swish isn't getting that ballpark-facing condo now, eh?).

I harken back to a game at the Coliseum in 1998. The A's were predictably mediocre, fighting to stay out of the cellar. I sat out in left field for a Wednesday "businessperson's special." The announced crowd may have been 10,000 but I could have sworn only half that many were there.

Late in the game a journeyman utility player named Jack Voigt played mop-up duty for Rickey Henderson in left. A couple of bleacher creatures played a little game with Voigt. They repeatedly begged him for some kind of souvenir paraphrenalia. The exchange went something like this, in rapid fire like an well-practiced vaudeville routine:

Fan 1: Voigt, give me your batting glove!
Fan 2: How about your hat?
Fan 1: Sunglasses!
Fan 2: Jersey!
Fan 1: Socks!
Fan 2: Jock!
Fan 1: Underwear!

Amused, Voigt turned around quickly and saluted the two fans. The fans yelled in delight.

Voigt didn't give the two fans any souvenirs AFAIK. The game would be one of Voigt's last as 1998 was his last season in the majors. He's now a realtor in his hometown of Sarasota, FL.

Throughout the A's eight year run of winning baseball (only surpassed in Oakland by the nine year run from '68 to '76), I've mentally gone back to those games when I was younger. I didn't have a mortgage, much disposable income, or many responsibilities. The team was horrible and somewhat depressing at times, yet I enjoyed going to the ballpark just the same. In fact, in some ways I enjoyed the game just as much then as I relished being present when the A's went up 2-0 on both the Yankees (road) and Red Sox (home) in the ALDS. No matter where the A's play, regardless of record, I'll still love the game and the team the same way. No labor stoppages, drug scandals, or other ills can take that away.

So I look at the two recent trades as the end of an era. I come not to bury, but to praise the first Beaneball/Moneyball tenure. It's given me and many others immeasurable amounts of joy, fulfillment, and sadness. I'm proud to be an Oakland Athetics fan. I'm proud of my team.

That said, Billy sure knows how to rip a fan's heart out, doesn't he? He does it with surgical precision, and who's to argue with the results? Depending on how long you've been a fan, you've seen this tearing down and rebuilding happen already once, twice, maybe three times. Chances are you're used to it. You may have even steeled yourself somewhat as I have. The A's aren't the Yanks or Red Sox, who never really have to go through such a difficult process.

It's for that reason, that sense of history, that I don't understand the conspiracy theory going around. The idea is that the fire sale is being done to help grease the skids to Fremont by alienating additional older fans. I can understand this if you've only been a fan since 2000 and you don't have that appreciation for the A's tenure in Oakland. But if you have been a fan for 20, 30, 40 years, you know this is inevitable. Sure, it would be advantageous for ticket sales and marketing if the A's put together a highly competitive team by the time the ballpark opens, but we don't even know when the ballpark will open. 2010? 2011 or later? We all know how injury-prone this team has been. A couple of injuries can mean the difference between winning the division and packing it in in late August. Should Billy also shift his scouting/drafting plans to move towards less risky players who have lower ceilings?

What we are witnessing is the product of the MLB economic system. Since most teams aren't the big money teams, their windows of opportunity have to precisely defined. Good draft yields and healthy players that proceed through the system in a timely manner are paramount. As a team gets better, it gets worse picks and has to take more chances to replenish the farm system. Over the last couple of years this strategy has not paid off for the A's. Plus the A's aren't in the position to pay exhorbitant fees for international players. They can't make frequent dips into the free agent market for big ticket players. We've had eight years of mostly wonderful, at times heartbreaking, always entertaining baseball. Billy and his current/former assistants have defied the odds repeatedly. Let's take a moment to appreciate this, then move on to the next era. As Billy folds this hand, we know that the next hand's just around the corner.