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Public hearing highlights tension over Oakland A’s stadium proposal for Port of Oakland

A $12 billion ballpark project proposed at California’s third largest port in Oakland took heat from many speakers at a contentious public hearing this week, as the deadline for a crucial approval step approaches.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — A $12 billion ballpark project proposed at California’s third largest port in Oakland took heat from many speakers at a contentious public hearing this week, as the deadline for a crucial approval step approaches.

While an environmental impact report (EIR) on the Oakland A’s proposed ballpark complex has Oakland City Council’s approval, three lawsuits are underway signifying concern many industry workers have over losing the Port's Howard Terminal to a major development.

The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) received 825 comments before a hearing Thursday about whether to remove Howard Terminal’s priority port use designation. BCDC holds the power to kill the project — the A’s need the designation removed to proceed. The Seaport Planning Advisory Committee, which advises BCDC on planningvoted to recommend preserving the waterfront site for maritime use.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, Port of Oakland staff and A’s president Dave Kaval presented their support of the project to the Commission. BCDC staff reported their finding that removing Howard Terminal would not detract from returns and capacity to handle cargo. 

Out of more than 100 speakers, the majority disagreed with that assessment. 

Many local workers, including union longshoremen, spoke against the project and said the A’s project will push out residents and industry workers. More than 15 companies wrote a joint statement to the Commission to say “BCDC should be looking at ways to increase port land to support maritime operations — not remove it.”

Susan Ransom, a manager for Stevedoring Services of America International, said “The fact that we are thinking of giving up maritime land during a global supply chain crisis is amazing to me."

Union worker Aaron Wright said that “Howard Terminal is needed for maritime use. As the supply chain continues to be impacted by the pandemic crunch, we are busier than we’ve ever been.”

The Sierra Club’s San Francisco Bay chapter wrote that the Commission “should defer consideration of this amendment until a full environmental review has been conducted regarding toxic contaminants that could affect groundwater and San Francisco Bay.”

Some A’s fans attended to support the project, like Sean Cochrane, who said "For too long, citizens of the East Bay have been denied access to the Oakland waterfront." Referring to cities like San Francisco and Vancouver, he asked "If they can do it, why not us?"

The Commission won’t vote on whether to remove Howard Terminal’s priority use designation under the port until June 30, and a two-thirds majority out of 18 commissioners would be required.

The A’s and Schaaf have promoted the project as a major boon for Oakland revenue, offering 3,000 units of housing, a Bay trail and a 400-room hotel alongside a new ballpark. Kaval has criticized Oakland Coliseum conditions and proposed the site as the team’s one option to stay in Oakland.

Asked to comment, city staff provided an updated FAQ website with statements about the project.

The city promises the A’s would be on the hook to reimburse the city for ballpark events while funding infrastructure maintenance, and said grants and project-generated revenues would fund infrastructure, parks and affordable housing. An enhanced financing district (EIFD) — a strategy to fund construction by using money the project generates from property tax revenue — would be used to prevent using general funds. City staff claim that property tax revenue will fund about 1,000 units of affordable housing and generate around $3.8 million annually.

The Board of Port Commissioners voted unanimously in 2019 to support terms with the A’s proposal. The Bay Area Regional Building Trades Councils and other unions have voiced support for the project’s promise to add thousands of union construction jobs. Some Oakland residents spoke in previous City Council meetings arguing that the project will make West Oakland a “destination” in the Bay.

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Not everyone on the Council is in favor. The stadium would be built in Councilmember Carroll Fife’s district, and Fife and Councilmember Noel Gallo voted against certifying the EIR, according to news source The Oaklandside.

After an April 29 strike when teachers and longshore workers shut down schools and the Port — protesting school closures and the Howard Terminal project — Fife and Councilmembers Sheng Tao and Nikki Fortunato Bas proposed a feasibility study on using an EIFD for affordable housing in Oakland. The Finance Committee received a report from Kosmont Companies in April.

Fife said in an email she has received more than 1,000 letters from residents wanting the A’s to stay in East Oakland, and said “I want to see an unbiased report on future impacts to the Port Industry. I want clear answers about the financial and social impact this project will have on Oakland residents over time.”

“‘I believe that most billionaires could develop affordable housing if they wanted to,” she said. “Instead, working residents, property owners and tourists are taxed to provide for the majority needs of a city while the wealth of the billionaire class creates more wealth, power and influence concentrated in the hands of a few. This is a business deal and the A’s are trying to maximize their bottom line.”

Multiple government agencies would have to sign off on the project. The county Board of Supervisors must vote to “opt in” to fund the project, or else it is “a dead deal,” according to city staff. 

The A’s have not stopped exploring other options. According to Las Vegas Review-Journal, the A’s have considered more than 20 sites for a ballpark on or near the Las Vegas strip.

Kaval said via email that Major League Baseball instructed the team to explore the Las Vegas market “while we continue to pursue a waterfront ballpark in Oakland.”

“The Coliseum does not fit into MLB's long-term strategy for baseball,” he wrote. “Our lease at the Coliseum is only through the 2024 season. A new facility is necessary to compete at the top level of MLB.”

The A’s complained about conditions at the Coliseum on May 13 in a letter to the Coliseum Joint Powers Authority, about issues with the stadium’s seats; plumbing and water leaks; security, including break-ins; press box window malfunctions; areas of open dirt and weeds; a homeless encampment on Baldwin Street; and cat and moth infestations. 

Even if the A’s clear a vote from the Commission this month, litigation is underway. Union Pacific Railroad and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority filed lawsuits against Oakland in April, alleging the project’s environmental impact report was negligent under the California Environmental Quality Act. East Oakland Alliance and a coalition of port workers, truckers and cargo terminal operators are suing the city for approving “a flawed environmental impact report” which they said did not address how port operations would be impacted by development.

Harbor Trucking Association president Matt Schrap, also part of the suit, said via email “This isn’t about the 84,000 jobs that port operations support … It is about giving in to a spoiled billionaire who has threatened to rip the team out of Oakland if he doesn’t get his way. 

“The only reason the A’s refuse to build a new ballpark and residential development at the existing Coliseum site is about money,” he added. “If the full development is built, it is the beginning of the end of the Port of Oakland.”

The Alliance also surveyed 800 residents and reported 76% want a ballot measure to vote on whether there will be development at Howard Terminal.

A survey conducted by East Oakland Stadium Alliance shows the majority of Oakland residents want to have a ballot measure to decide if there will be development at Howard Terminal by the Oakland A's. Photo from East Oakland Stadium Alliance.

Alliance Attorney Ronald E. Van Buskirk said his clients “believe the environmental impact report and other compliance with what’s called CEQA is insufficient and that it needs to be redone.”

All lawsuits against the A’s EIR will be heard in Alameda County Superior Court on August 19. 

Although he does not live in the Bay, UCLA housing and urban planning researcher Michael Manville said in a phone interview that such large projects are “magnets for controversy” which can deter developers who have to fend off lawsuits. 

Manville said planners advise against using valuable land for stadiums.

“If the value comes from building housing and commercial, then just build housing and commercial,” he said. “Oakland has a lot of needs. Certainly there’s many things they could put that money into that could be a better use of those funds.”

CEQA lawyer Kevin Johnson said three lawsuits on one project is unusual, when less than 1% of projects subject to CEQA review go to litigation.

“These types of complex projects are why you need the law, because you need to analyze the expected consequences of the development, both direct and indirect,” Johnson said in a phone interview. 

“CEQA requires you to look at the big project and try to avoid negative impacts. And if you can’t avoid negative impacts, you need to pay to mitigate it.”

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