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Environmental plan for A’s waterfront ballpark backed by appeals panel

Many Major League Baseball opening days will come and go before the A's play in a new waterfront stadium — if ever.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A California appeals court panel upheld a San Francisco Bay Area judge’s OK of Oakland’s environmental impact report for a multibillion-dollar A’s ballpark complex at the Port of Oakland. 

First Appellate District justices cleared the city's environmental impact analysis of the Howard Terminal site, over petitions from several agencies challenging the analysis and mitigations for the project’s expected effects. In 2018, the A's selected Howard Terminal — at one of California’s largest ports — as the preferred location for a new ballpark, rather than staying at East Oakland Coliseum, which led to years of negotiations with the city. The A’s also propose 3,000 units of housing, a Bay trail and a 400-room hotel at the 50-acre site, all pegged at $12 billion.

In 2018, Governor Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 734 — special legislation that applies solely to the Howard Terminal project and allows for expedited judicial review under the California Environmental Quality Act if he certified that the project meets certain criteria. The state appeals court ruled against trade groups in 2021 who claimed Newsom missed the deadline to certify, finding the California Air Quality Board took 16 months to determine the project met the greenhouse gas requirements and the governor couldn’t certify before that decision. 

The challenge several petitioners mounted against the Oakland City Council’s certified environmental impact report on a Howard Terminal ballpark is one of several to the contentious plan. 

There have not been updates on negotiations between the A’s and the city for months, since before Mayor Sheng Thao took office. The project already faces a long, arduous process if a deal is reached, even without an advisory vote from residents. This past June, the site was cleared for mixed-use applications by the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, but the A’s would next need to apply to the commission for the project to be considered. 

In August 2022, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Brad Seligman ruled the petitioners largely failed in their challenge of the city’s analysis. Except with respect to one wind mitigation measure, Seligman found Oakland's report in compliance with state environmental law.

Thursday’s First Appellate District opinion by Justice Tracie Brown, with justices Jon Streeter and Jeremy Goldman concurring, affirmed Seligman’s findings. 

“The question before us is not whether substantial evidence supports a petitioner’s critique of the EIR; it is whether substantial evidence supports the agency’s conclusions,” Brown said. 

She rejected the petitioners’ claim that Oakland's plan for safeguarding ballpark visitors from rail traffic is infeasible, saying they did not cite laws “that the infeasibility of a single feature of a mitigation measure necessarily renders the entire measure infeasible.”

Brown also found the city had adequately analyzed the project’s effects on air quality. She said that when the environmental impact from a particular project feature “cannot be reliably ascertained” then “it is properly characterized as speculative.”

The justices backed the city’s plan to mitigate displacement of parking for trucks and container storage, a vessel berth and truck repair and training facilities. The project will require these be moved, which has caused controversy among longshoremen and other port interests. The panel backed the city’s plan to put 30 acres of parking within the port, saying no evidence from petitioners suggests that parking needs created by closing Howard Terminal cannot be accommodated.

The justices also approved the city’s “substantial evidence” finding that the extent of some parking relocation could not be determined. They supported the conclusion that the impact report did not need to consider impacts from using a site that could have expanded the Port’s turning basin for large vessels, which is still being studied for feasibility.

Brown backed the city’s mitigation measure to control the project’s greenhouse gas emissions, which prohibits approval of any construction-related permit unless a sponsor has “retain[ed] a qualified air quality consultant to develop a project-wide GHG reduction plan.”

Finally, Brown rejected the petitioners’ contention that Oakland did not adequately address the presence of hazardous materials at the site, given its long history of industrial use causing contamination of fill, soil and groundwater. Most of Howard Terminal is an active cleanup site subject to the ongoing oversight of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control.

But Brown said the city’s plan to leave contaminated soil in place rather than disturbing it, following standards required by a health risk assessment, should reduce negative impacts. 

“We conclude that the extensive history of remediation efforts at the site, the establishment of quantitative target levels for each COC, the presentation in the consultant’s report of a detailed range of alternative approaches to remediation, and the presence of a state agency responsible for oversight of remediation are sufficient to satisfy the requirements for deferring the final details of contamination mitigation,” Brown wrote. 

“What a way to celebrate opening day!” Mayor Thao said in a statement.

“Today’s unanimous decision once again confirms that the city not only complied with the law but undertook a thorough and thoughtful environmental analysis of the A’s potential ballpark development at Howard Terminal. Oakland will continue upgrading our infrastructure so we can support sustainable and resilient communities and promote economic development. Now that two courts have ruled in favor of the city, we hope we can all come together for the betterment of Oakland.”

A representative for East Oakland Stadium Alliance did not respond to a request for comment before press time. 

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