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Oakland’s Baseball Future Hangs on a Waterfront Stadium Deal

The Athletics are turning up the pressure on city leaders to commit to their vision for a new ballpark. But the era of big public funding for stadiums may be over. 

The Oakland Athletics play in a ballpark that’s a relic of a lost age. Now known as the RingCentral Coliseum, the stadium dubbed “baseball’s last dive bar” is a Brutalist donut erected in the mid-1960s to house both football and baseball, a cost-saving configuration since abandoned by both sports. It’s the last multipurpose facility of that era still in use, and the fifth-oldest major-league ballpark overall. The years have not been kind: In 2013, heavy rains flooded a dugout with raw sewage; last month a bank of left field lights failed, causing a game delay. 

The A’s have called the Coliseum home since arriving in Oakland in 1968, but for many years the team has been pursuing a new ballpark on Oakland’s waterfront. Now they’re turning up the pressure on city officials to strike a deal. On May 11, Major League Baseball gave the team the green light to talk with other cities about relocating, saying that the aging Coliseum is not a “viable option for the future vision of baseball.” This week, team leadership is expected to visit Nevada to explore the possibility of moving the team to Las Vegas. 

The Oakland city council is slated to sound off on the A’s new ballpark proposal in late July, so now officials have to quickly decide how much public funding should be designated for the project. 

“We are running out of time,” says A’s president Dave Kaval. “There are a lot of complexities with playing in a facility that is 60 years old and is way past its sell-by date.” He calls the team’s ballpark proposal “a game changer” and a way to put the city “in a much better long-term situation.”The debate rippling through Oakland comes at a time when cities are increasingly wary of tying up public money in stadium projects, especially as many municipalities try to recover from the fiscal hit of the coronavirus pandemic. The hesitancy marks a change from an era when cities scrambled to lure new teams, or coddle existing ones, with lucrative public subsidies, handouts and debt that saddled taxpayers for decades. 

“It’s difficult to get local governments to commit a lot of money to a team,” says Roger Noll, an economist at Stanford University. 

The A’s want the rights to develop the Howard Terminal, a 55-acre stretch of land near Jack London Square, a popular waterfront district of bars and restaurants. The Copenhagen-based Bjarke Ingels Group has produced a plan for a 35,000-seat open-air ballpark that features a rooftop park — a walkable, tree-lined space atop the seating areas that would be open to the public.Around the stadium, a new ballpark district would emerge, boasting 270,000 square feet of retail space, 400 hotel rooms and a 3,500-seat performance center, plus 3,000 apartment units and a gondola to ferry fans from the nearest BART station. The stadium itself and its surrounding development would be privately financed; if fully built out, the team estimates the cost at about $12 billion. The A’s say their proposal could create 35,000 new jobs and bring $7 billion of new revenue into the city over the lifetime of the ballpark. 

In exchange, the team is asking the city for about $855 million in future tax dollars to finance infrastructure like roads, sidewalks and transportation improvements. In a term sheet the team released last month, the A’s agreed to pursue a community benefits agreement aimed at addressing concerns about affordable housing and the displacement of existing residents near the Howard Terminal site. 

The team also plans to redevelop parts of the old Coliseum site in East Oakland into a campus with residential units, office space and stores centered by an amphitheater that would encompass the existing baseball diamond. The adjoining Oracle Arena, former home of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, has already lost its major tenant: The team now plays its home games across the Bay in the $1 billion Chase Center in downtown San Francisco.

Why not just build a new A’s stadium on the Coliseum site? Critics of the waterfront ballpark proposal have argued that simply reusing the team’s current location would be far less costly and logistically complex than bringing baseball to Howard Terminal, which is still a working port. But the A’s say that, as in so many real estate decisions, this is all about location. “It’s important to note that the complex used to have three teams, and two are already gone,” Kaval says, referring to the Coliseum campus that used to house the Raiders, Warriors and now only the A’s. “That’s the market speaking.” 

The A’s plan is very much in keeping with contemporary stadium-building trends; since the opening of Baltimore’s Camden Yards in 1992, 20 MLB franchises have built new ballparks, often close to downtown areas. Such a transition can “rejuvenate” a neighborhood, says architecture critic Paul Goldberger, author of Ballpark: Baseball in the American City. After the last pitch, fans can stream out of the gates and swing right into bars or grab a bite to eat at local restaurants. A’s leadership can look longingly across the San Francisco Bay and see that model in action at Oracle Park, home of the San Francisco Giants near the waterfront Mission Bay neighborhood.It’s a more appealing vision than the one represented by the Oakland Coliseum — a utilitarian structure sited far from downtown, surrounded by a moat of parking. “The A’s are the last team playing in one of these dinosaurs, and it’s a dinosaur from an era that’s been rejected,” Goldberger says. 

That shift of moving stadiums into center cities and creating multi-use luxury neighborhoods around them has changed the business of baseball, says Noll, the Stanford economist. “The kind of people that have skills necessary to be a successful owner of a professional sports team has evolved,” he says. Traditional family ownership is being displaced by billionaires that have a larger focus on real estate, entertainment and residential and retail development: “That’s the future of sports — that’s what the guys in Oakland have in mind.”  

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf has supported the relocation of the A’s to the waterfront, but she’s concerned about the future tax dollars in the team’s current proposal. “While these are public benefits that we’ve long wanted, it is dedicating a very large amount of our future new taxes and I believe it would be more responsible for us to reduce that commitment,” she says. 

While some Oaklanders have reaped benefits from the Bay Area’s technology boom — home values in the city have surged more than 260% in two decades — the city is now wrestling with a stubborn affordable housing crunch, a huge racial wealth gap, and a host of competing priorities. Oakland also has a bitter recent experience with a costly stadium deal: For more than two decades, the city was on the hook for at least $10 million a year to pay off the 1995 Coliseum expansion that the NFL’s now-departed Oakland Raiders had demanded when they returned to the city. “That deal continues to infuriate me,” she says.

In 2017, as mayor, Schaaf also opposed leveraging the city’s budget to build a new stadium for the Raiders. The team eventually got funding from Nevada taxpayers and relocated to Las Vegas for the 2020 season. “I was not willing to ransom the city’s future to keep a sports team and that remains my position,” she says.

Schaaf says the A’s deal is different. The team isn’t asking for the city’s unlimited tax rolls and they plan to pay for the ballpark entirely through private dollars, a point which further illustrates how the political climate around sports financing has shifted. Still, the proposal is controversial, with competing polls showing residents split in their support of the waterfront stadium. In a May 14 editorial, the San Francisco Chronicle warned that the deal could be a “naked cash grab,” noting that the history of publicly subsidized stadiums is “littered with promises of public benefits that prove false.”

City Council president Nikki Fortunato Bas says further review of the deal is necessary. “Taxpayers are going to be paying for this for 45 years into the future,” she says. “That has to make sense for our financial future and for our taxpayers.” 

In other cities, stadium subsidies have continued. Clark County, Nevada, pledged more than half a billion dollars for the new Raiders stadium in Las Vegas, while Worcester, Massachusetts, authorized more than $100 million of debt for a new ballpark to host the Red Sox’s minor league affiliate. Those deals are not without risks. Clark County is expected to draw on its reserve fund for a second time on Tuesday in order to make a payment on the new Raiders stadium bonds, a sign of financial struggles, according to a regulatory filing. The debt is backed by hotel room taxes and further secured by the county.  But more cities are hesitant to shell out such cash. And when they do, the funds are often less obvious than they once were, like donating the land for a stadium project or dedicating future tax dollars for infrastructure. “You’re seeing cities not being quite so forthcoming, and not spending quite so much on these places,” says Temple University economist Michael Leeds. “The leagues are picking up more of the tab.”

In Florida, St. Petersburg leaders have so far been reluctant to support a deal for a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said the ballparks for the A’s and the Rays need to be redone before the league can consider expanding to other cities. And although Manfred and the MLB have given A’s leadership permission to look into relocating options, experts are skeptical the team can find a better deal elsewhere.

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Most scholars who study the public finance dynamics of stadiums dismiss the gaudy promises of future economic benefits that accompany these deals. Schaaf agrees that it’s important for cities to scrutinize the terms closely, but she remains optimistic that the city and the A’s can come to an arrangement. “Cities have been sold bad deals in the past. I am very mindful of that; I’ve demonstrated my willingness to not to be fooled by those types of proposals,” she says. “But I actually believe that we have the structure of a deal here that will be great not just to keep our A’s rooted in Oakland, but to create a healthier environment for future generations of Oaklanders to come.” 

The slogan “Rooted in Oakland” emerged as part of the team’s branding not long after Kaval took over, to emphasize the franchise’s commitment to remaining in the city. It’s a connection that’s now being sorely tested. “I grew up going to games with my grandparents,” says city councilperson Loren Taylor, who represents several East Oakland neighborhoods near the Coliseum. “Just because we love the A’s doesn’t mean that we are just going to give a green light to any terms that are thrown out there.”

There is a value to having a major-league sports team in Oakland, Taylor says. “But that value is not unlimited. We need to make sure we are really finding that win-win situation.” 

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