If you follow Oakland political news at all, which, if you’re reading this, you presumably do, you are already aware that the Oakland Planning Commission will be discussing the Victory Court ballpark proposal at their December 1st meeting (PDF).
Before we get into exactly what that means, let’s step back a little bit and review how we arrived here.
The winner among the four is a site called “Victory Court,” bordered by Oak Street, Embarcadero, the Lake Merritt Channel, and 880. It’s situated just east of the Jack London District and just south of Laney College. Further east is the planned Oak to 9th development.
The stadium itself wouldn’t take up the entire site shaded in the picture above. Obviously, a ballpark is not going to span a freeway. The land included in the site on the other side of 880 is a surface parking lot currently owned by the Peralta Community College District that would likely be transformed into structured parking should a stadium end up getting built. The stadium itself would be sandwiched between the Lake Merritt Channel and Fallon Street, with some kind of public plaza on the Channel end and with the block between Oak and Fallon reserved for some kind of adjacent development like retail or condos.
Why Victory Court?
Advocates of a Victory Court ballpark use the term “hole-in-the-donut” to describe the location. The idea is that the site is surrounded by a number of (hopefully) up and coming neighborhoods.
To the west, you’ve got Jack London Square, with its restaurants and bars, fancy hotel, and frequent outdoor events. Plus, eventually Jack London Market will be open. I know that a lot of people like to dis Jack London Square and call it a failure or whatever, but I gotta say, I kind of like it. It’s a spectacular spot for big outdoor events like the Eat Real Festival, the water is pretty, I like the view of the cranes, and for the past year or two, every time I go there, there seems to be a remarkable number of people out. For a while it always seemed kind of deserted, but lately the people are totally back. I have no idea why. Perhaps they just can’t stay away from the kick ass happy hour at Bocanova. Anyway.
So there’s Jack London Square on one side, and that’s kind of the only part of this theoretical donut that actually exists right now. On another side, you might be able to get away with claiming you’ve got maybe some half-baked dough, and then on the other you have totally raw dough. Or maybe just your mise en place for making the dough.
The half baked side I mentioned is the area surrounding the Lake Merritt BART Station, just to the north. It’s always been a mystery to me why this place is such a total wasteland, what with it being right next to Laney College and Chinatown and the adorable Lake Merritt Apartment District and so on. It seems to have everything going for it, yet the only place to even get a cup of coffee is the MetroCenter cafeteria, which is a place I prefer to avoid. Anyway, the City is hoping to rectify the problem of this neighborhood being a failure for no reason through the Lake Merritt Station Area Plan process, which is going on right now. I hope they can figure it out.
Finally, there is the planned Oak to 9th project to the east. I think Oak to 9th sounds really cool, and I totally want to hang out on the big new waterfront parks and all that, so I really hope that shit gets built. But I’m not holding my breath for it to happen anytime soon. Some people say that if we had a successful stadium nearby, it could act as a catalyst for more development because people would want to live near it, and then Oak to 9th would get built faster. Maybe.
So the idea is that we have all these cool things on all sides of the site — whether they’re existing, but maybe struggling a little, or planned but not built, or just somewhere with a lot of potential. And they all have the same problem, which is that they’re kind of disjointed. It all seems so close if you’re looking at a map or something, but the connectivity isn’t there. And each area suffers because of that isolation and therefore is not able to reach its full potential. And a ballpark could provide the missing connection, and also could provide the flows of people needed to boost the surrounding areas to success. It solves a problem for Oakland.
And from that broad planning perspective, I completely agree. The major barrier to the success of downtown Oakland and downtown-adjacent neighborhoods is the lack of connectivity between them, and there is nothing better you could do to spur the success of Jack London Square and the Lake Merritt BART Station area than sticking a big attraction smack in between them. It is, without question, the best of any location in Oakland I’ve seen suggested in that sense.
But will it work for a stadium?
Of course, it’s one thing to say that a Victory Court ballpark makes a ridiculous amount of sense on a map, when judged on this one, fairly specific criteria. It’s another thing entirely to say that it is actually a good place to build a baseball stadium, or a feasible place to do so.
Obviously, there’s the issue of getting the land together. The City owns some of the acreage there, but nothing close to all of it. And some of that non-publicly owned land contains businesses who may not be eager to move. So getting the space together is gonna be expensive, and it could be messy and controversial as well, depending on just how resistant the existing businesses are to relocation.
Property acquisition, however, does not seem to me like the primary barrier to a ballpark at this location. Transportation does. Yes, it is true that the site is conveniently located an easy walk from the Lake Merritt BART station. But no matter how convenient the site is for public transit, if you’ve got 30,000 people going to a ball game, you’re going to be bringing in a lot of cars.
So the first thing you might think of with all those cars is where are they going to park. I’m not worried about that. There is plenty of parking in the Jack London and Laney College/Chinatown neighborhoods. You have to provide some spaces really close for VIPs, but most people will walk for a while. So I don’t see that as an issue at all.
What is an issue, however, is getting all those cars to their parking spaces. To move that amount of traffic around the area, you would need major upgrades to a number of freeway on and off ramps, plus some kind of reconfiguration of traffic flow on surrounding surface streets. Like most transportation problems, these barriers are not insurmountable. What they are is very expensive. Exactly how expensive all this would be, I don’t know. I tried to come up with a figure by looking at the ramps that would need expansion and then adding it up based on the costs of other recent freeway improvements, but then when I told my number to a Victory Court ballpark booster who has studied this more than I have, and they were like, no way, that’s crazy high. So who knows. Since we’re not at the stage where we talk about financing yet, I don’t really see the point of playing guessing games about price tags right now.
The other big issue is the fact that you are talking about sticking 30,000 people right next to an active railroad track 80 days a year. I swear, I bring this up every time someone tries to talk to me about Victory Court, and every single time it happens, people laugh at me. But I’m serious! Sure, you don’t have to cross the tracks to get from the BART station to the stadium. But a big part of the reasoning behind this particular site is that the City is expecting that at least some of those people are going to go eat and drink in Jack London Square either before or after the game, and to get there, they are going to have to cross those tracks.
It’s a legitimate safety issue. And given the way they freaked out over Oak to 9th, I cannot imagine the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) liking this idea one bit. Laugh all you want, but the PUC is mysterious and weirdly powerful, and they are not going to let the City add that much vehicle and pedestrian traffic to this area without some major safety improvements to all the intersections with track crossings going way down Embarcadero. Again, that’s doable, but expensive.
Plus, you have to remember that a couple thousand people live right nearby, and I would count on significant and vocal opposition from at least some of them. So the site is clearly not without challenges.
Time for an EIR
So. Victory Court is not my fantasy stadium site. In a perfect world, we’d get Jingletown Stadium, where the glass factory is. There are a number of reasons that isn’t going to happen. I know a number of people who think we should build a new ballpark on top of 980. The idea is cool conceptually — I have long dreamed of capping that part of 980 and turning it into a big public park. But the lengthy and complex negotiations and approvals with Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration that would be required to do anything on top of the freeway render the site completely unrealistic from a practical standpoint.
If Oakland wants to have a realistic shot at retaining the A’s, it is long past time to stop talking and start moving. And to that end, I am very happy the City has finally settled on a site and is taking the important step of preparing an Environmental Impact Report (EIR).
If you’re not familiar with the EIR process, this old post offers a pretty solid overview, plus links for further reading. I’ll do a briefer version here.
Basically, California state law requires that before a City can approve a development, they have to recognize what impacts that project will have on the surrounding environment. An EIR is the document that tells them what those impacts are going to be.
When a developer or, in this case, the City decides that they need to complete an EIR, the first step is to issue a Notice of Preparation (NOP), which briefly describes the proposal and notes what types of impacts are expected. The City issued a NOP (PDF) for a ballpark at the Victory Court location on November 10th. The purpose of this document is to alert the public and other interested parties that you are doing an EIR.
A NOP includes instructions for those who want to submit comments about what the EIR should study, a deadline for comments, and the dates of any public hearings where verbal testimony on the scope of the EIR will be accepted. In this case, comments are to be directed to:
Peterson Z. Vollman
City of Oakland, Community and Economic Development Agency
250 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, Suite 2114
Oakland, CA 94612
Comments must be received by 4:30 PM on December 9th. Additionally, a public hearing will be held on December 1st. More on that below.
Anyway, once the comment period is over, the next step is to prepare a Draft EIR. This is a ridiculously long document that lists the project’s expected impacts, explains how they arrived at their conclusions about the impacts, lays out the impacts of “alternative” projects, and notes what steps can be taken to mitigate the impacts. To get an idea of what that looks like, check out the Draft EIR (PDF) and Draft EIR Appencides (PDF) for a proposed development nearby, at 375 7th Street. (This project will also be discussed at the December 1st Planning Commission meeting, FYI.)
Once the Draft EIR is released, the public gets a period of time in which they can provide comments. It will generally be available online, although I personally tend to have a hard time reading them on my computer, since they are just so long and frankly, pretty damn dry. So I like to go read them at the library instead. The Oakland Main Library keeps copies of all the current local EIRs out on a shelf in the main reference area, and usually whatever branch is near the proposed development will have a copy available as well.
Then the entity preparing the EIR has to respond to all the comments, which may require further study of impacts and likely will result in at least some changes to the Draft EIR. Finally, a Final EIR is issued, at which point it can be certified by the City, and the environmental review process is complete.
Got all that?
Scoping Session on Wednesday
Listening to the way people are talking about this week’s meeting, you might get the idea that a “Keep the A’s in Oakland” rally was on the Planning Commission agenda for Wednesday (PDF). It’s not. What is on the agenda is an EIR Scoping Session. The staff report (PDF) helpfully explains:
The main purpose of this scoping session is to solicit comments from both the Commission and the public on what types of information and analysis should be considered in the EIR. Specifically, comments should focus on discussing possible impacts on the physical environment, ways in which potential adverse effects might be minimized, and alternatives to the project in light of the EIR’s purpose to provide useful and accurate information about such factors. Comments related to policy considerations and the merits of the project will be the subject of future, duly noticed public meetings.
So basically, this is when you have an opportunity to go say what you think should be studied in the EIR. Like, for example, you could go and say, “I think it’s really important that the EIR examines pedestrian and vehicle safety impacts at the railroad crossing at the intersections of Embarcadero and Broadway, Franklin, and Webster” and that would be appropriate. If you went and said instead “I think Lew Wolff is an asshole and the A’s should stay in Oakland,” that would not be appropriate. Or productive. You don’t have to go to the hearing to have input on what gets studied — as I mentioned above, you are also encouraged to submit your comments in writing.
My take on all this
I have been accused, in the past, of being “anti-Oakland” because I’ve been pretty upfront about the fact that I do not believe it is realistic for Oakland to expect to retain the A’s. I don’t think that’s a fair characterization of my position. I love going to baseball games, I go to a lot of them every year, and I would be very sad if the A’s moved to San Jose and I couldn’t go anymore. But I am also a realist. And the attitude from so many City officials and A’s-in-Oakland boosters that we should keep the team because we just deserve them rather than because we have an actual plan for how we’re going to accomplish that infuriates me.
So it isn’t that I’m anti-Oakland so much as I’m anti-whining. And running around bitching about how unfairly Lew Wolff treats Oakland while doing absolutely nothing to further the goal of offering a viable stadium site is whining. While Oakland sat around feeling all put upon and pouting about being rejected and claiming there are tons of great ballpark locations all over Oakland if your ignore all the feasibility problems with them, San Jose, without any guarantee or even real reason to believe they could land the team, identified a site, bought up most of the land, certified an EIR, and built up significant community support for their proposal. That’s what being serious looks like.
I remain skeptical that Oakland can pull this off, but I am absolutely certain there’s no shot in hell of pulling it off if the City doesn’t stop dilly dallying and talking and actually do something real. And that’s why I support this new step of beginning an EIR. Because it’s action.
It’s not everything. Once the EIR is completed, which will take at least a year, and probably a whole lot longer, there will still be significant issues to address with respect to financing (both for the stadium, which would have to be done mostly privately, and for the infrastructure and land acquisition, which would have to be done with redevelopment funds) and infrastructure improvements. We remain way behind San Jose in terms of having an actual feasible plan to offer. But we’re never going to get there if we don’t at least start moving, and while we’re starting years later than we should have, well…better late than never, right?