After five years, A’s rejected a $12B waterfront ballpark site in Oakland for 9 acres on the Strip
Editor’s Note: This story is the second of a two-part series on the potential move of the Oakland A’s to Las Vegas. To read the first story which focuses on the reactions of fans and players, click here.
OAKLAND – An hour after the Oakland Athletics closed out a 2-0 win over the Texas Rangers at the Oakland Coliseum, a large debris pile caught fire at the Schnitzer Steel/Radius Recycling plant next to the site where the city and the ballclub had hoped to build a new waterfront baseball stadium.
The third such blaze since 2018 at the Schnitzer site, which is bordered by the Port of Oakland, sent billows of smoke above the city and across the East Bay. Even as the flames were extinguished by the next day, the fire’s remnants continued to smolder, much like the back-and-forth scorched dealings between Oakland’s leadership and the A’s ownership, which dissolved in their own smoky bonfire.
Schnitzer has been at the same location since 1965 and put up several legal roadblocks the A’s have blamed for keeping them away from its preferred waterfront location. The complications with the plant are just additional fuel on the ongoing dumpster fire.
After Oakland’s decade-long effort to keep the American League baseball team from relocating from its home since 1968, the A’s are seemingly on their way to Las Vegas. The team rejected three different Oakland stadium sites — including the waterfront location — and spent the past two years on a “parallel path,” keeping alive talks with the city while exploring some 20 potential locations around the Las Vegas Valley.
A’s leadership walked away from negotiations with Oakland officials in April when it announced the franchise would relocate to Las Vegas. A month later, the team pivoted from its initial off-Strip site to a 9-acre location on Las Vegas Boulevard. The A’s spent the next few months lobbying Nevada lawmakers and the governor to approve $380 million in public financing for the team to build a $1.5 billion, 33,000-seat retractable roof stadium.
The pending move to Las Vegas still needs approval from Major League Baseball and the Las Vegas ballpark won’t be ready until 2028.
Before the deal with Nevada was announced, Oakland leaders believed they were close to reaching an agreement on an open-air 35,000-seat ballpark along the waterfront at the Howard Terminal, an unused 55-acre location in the Port of Oakland near downtown that would include 6 million square feet of mixed-use development, including commercial buildings and high-rise residential units.
The estimated price of the entire project was $12 billion.
The port is one of three primary locations for shipping commerce on the West Coast along with Seattle-Tacoma and Long Beach, California. Officials from the facility said they were supportive of the terminal site being transformed to house a Major League Baseball stadium
“There were so many different hurdles that we actually lifted,” Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao said in a July interview. She said she believes professional sports add to a city’s overall attraction. Oakland has already seen two teams leave: the NFL Raiders to Las Vegas and NBA’s Golden State Warriors across the bay to San Francisco. She didn’t want to watch another one go away.
“It wasn't just the city of Oakland. It was a whole California effort,” Thao said of the drawn-out process to keep the A’s. “You go through all that [and] you think that you're going to have an honest partner to work with. This is what you receive on the back end.”
According to the A’s, Schnitzer Steel presented one of several barriers obstructing the Howard Terminal stadium plans. The plant, which shares a border with the port, filed multiple lawsuits to block the development of the baseball stadium.
During an interview last week, A’s President Dave Kaval called the waterfront land near downtown Oakland “an amazing site” but said along with delays caused by Schnitzer’s lawsuits, the site would require a 15-year development timeline. The A’s wouldn’t be able to move into a new ballpark in Oakland until sometime after 2030 — far too long for a team with a low payroll and few outside revenue sources.
“I'm saddened that we weren't able to pull it off because [the designers] had such an incredible vision,” Kaval said. “We had private capital willing to go into that location.”
Oakland officials disputed Kaval’s claims that legal issues with Schnitzer Steel stalled the Howard Terminal site. The California Supreme Court refused to review lower court rulings earlier this year on the lawsuits.
“The A's ownership group had selected the Howard Terminal site and insisted on a massive, multibillion-dollar project that included substantial residential, commercial and retail space as well as a ballpark,” the mayor’s office Chief of Communications Pati Navalta said in an email to The Nevada Independent. “The conditions and length of the project timeline were entirely dependent on those two decisions made by the ownership group, including Dave Kaval.”
City officials said the Howard Terminal has been approved for use as a stadium site by the Bay Conservation Development District and they submitted a 10,000-page environment impact report that removed other risks to the project.
Oakland resident and longtime city government observer Michael Keough said the A's never submitted a development agreement for a stadium to be voted on by the council.
“The hangup was focused on the 3,000 housing units and millions of square feet of retail and office space in a massive $12 billion project that the A's also wanted,” Keough said.
Views across San Francisco Bay
The A’s and the City of Oakland spent much of the past five years focused on the Howard Terminal location for the new ballpark. When the ever-present Bay Area fog isn’t rolling across the horizon, the site offers views across the water of downtown San Francisco, the San Francisco Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Renderings of the development showed the open-air waterfront ballpark, surrounded by walkable parklike settings and high-rise buildings. Several of the large stationary cranes used to lift containers off cargo ships remained as a homage to the location’s former use.
Kaval said former Oakland Mayor Libby Schaff suggested the Howard Terminal site to the A’s after an idea to use downtown Oakland’s Laney Community College as a stadium site fell apart.
Documentation Thao provided to Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred during a July meeting at the All-Star Game in Seattle shows the city sponsored legislation to facilitate the project, planned to create an Enhanced Infrastructure Financing District and agreed to fund the A’s $360 million in off-site infrastructure costs and secured more than $425 million in public money.
The Howard Terminal was also backed as a stadium location by the Port of Oakland because it was no longer usable without millions of dollars in renovations to service container ships that span up to 1,200 feet in length.
The site is used as a storage location for shipping containers and a decommissioned Navy vessel the U.S.S. John Glenn is docked at the terminal. Robert Bernardo, communications director for the Port of Oakland, said the Howard Terminal’s large cranes are obsolete.
Bernardo said the 1,300-acre location has more than enough room for expansion after adding a decommissioned military site in 2006.
He added that the growth of Jack London Square as a waterfront entertainment district, which is a short walk from the Howard Terminal, was another selling point.
“There was an opportunity to activate Jack London Square [by connecting it] with the baseball stadium,” Bernardo said.
Developers were also creating plans to build pedestrian overpasses above the railroad tracks that run alongside the Howard Terminal. Bernardo said the rail tracks are still part of the port’s shipping process for the containers and an Amtrak line offers passenger service between Oakland and Sacramento.
The only drawback was that the site lacks a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station. Oakland representatives said a station might have been included in the next phase of BART development.
Molly Mayburn, who had been the city’s Howard Terminal’s project manager for the past four years up until last week, said unlike the A’s deal in Las Vegas, the stadium in Oakland would have been owned by the team.
“They were going to finance it and take on this much larger project,” Mayburn said. “They came to us and said, ‘Not only do we want to stay in Oakland, but we want to be real estate developers."
A long and winding road
In the mid-2010s, the A’s began exploring stadium possibilities outside of Oakland in other Bay Area communities, Fremont and San Jose. When those efforts were exhausted, the A’s turned their attention back to the aging Coliseum.
Oakland and other local officials began developing a master plan for a new ballpark on the 120-acre site that also houses a sports arena. Until 2019, the venue housed the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. The team moved across the bay to San Francisco into a new arena in the Mission District, roughly 2 miles south of Oracle Park, home of the San Francisco Giants.
While Oakland was making plans for changes to the Coliseum, the A’s set sights on another stadium location, this time on the grounds of Laney College near Downtown Oakland. However, members of the Peralta Community College District Board and the college’s overseers decided to not pursue a deal. No reasons were given for the decision.
Officials in the mayor’s office said they didn’t know Laney was considered for a ballpark until they were told by the A’s. Kaval said the site was attractive because it had a nearby BART station and is downtown near Lake Merritt.
“It was a beautiful urban location and you had the BART access,” Kaval said. “Your infrastructure costs were going to be far less than the Howard Terminal, so that was the site we picked originally. But there were a lot of challenges with the Peralta board.”
Thao, who was elected to the Oakland City Council in 2018 but was not directly involved in the negotiations with the A’s until she was sworn in as mayor in January, said the focus on the Coliseum was ongoing. The site is also serviced by BART and the city was developing “shovel-ready” plans.
But the A’s were never on board, even as cosmetic improvements were made to the facility over time.
“The message from the Oakland A’s was they wanted to be on the waterfront and they wanted commercial and residential as well as the ballpark,” Thao said. “The goalpost was continuously moving for the city of Oakland.”
The mayor was surprised when the A’s settled on a 9-acre site in Las Vegas that houses the Tropicana Hotel and Casino for their new ballpark.
“They were perfectly fine with a stadium without commercial and without residential and of course without the waterfront,” she said. “The waterfront was supposedly a really important part in all of this.”
Copying the Giants
Kaval said the San Francisco Giants’ development of Oracle Park in the South Market District in 2000 changed Bay Area baseball. The 42,000-seat stadium, located along San Francisco Bay in an area named McCovey Cove — dedicated to the team's longtime first baseman Willie McCovey — “is an incredible, walkable downtown ballpark.”
He said the stadium allowed the Giants to “really steal market share from the A’s.” Kaval said it made the Coliseum “an obsolete location for baseball.”
The A’s shared the Coliseum with the Oakland Raiders until 1981 when the team moved to Los Angeles. To lure the team back, Oakland built suites and upper-deck stadium seats that expanded the venue to more than 63,000 seats for football. Oakland residents still pay the tax assessment for the costs of the stadium expansion through 2025, even though the Raiders moved to Las Vegas in 2019.
After the football team left, the A’s covered up the upper deck seats with a tarp that lists the retired numbers for certain A’s players. Fans at the Coliseum have dubbed what many view as an eyesore as “Mount Davis” for the late Raiders owner Al Davis.
“This site six miles south of downtown Oakland is a very challenging site for baseball,” Kaval said of the Coliseum. “It’s actually a great site for football because it's like a regional destination.”
Not quite finished with Oakland
The A’s will finish out the 2023 season and will play at least the 2024 season at the 47,000-seat cavernous Coliseum, where the team has averaged roughly 10,600 fans per game, less than 10 percent of the stadium's overall seating capacity. Kaval said Major League Baseball is “running point” on the team’s future plans, which could mean a return to the Coliseum in 2025 and beyond until the Las Vegas ballpark is completed.
“There is an opportunity to potentially continue to play in Oakland for a period of years, but we need a lease extension,” Kaval said. “We don't know if that's possible.”
Leigh Hanson, chief of staff in the Oakland city administrator’s office, said there have not been any discussions with A’s since the team announced it was heading to Las Vegas.
“Our assumption is they will play here next season but it’s not clear if they will ask us for an extension,” Hanson said. “But it’s also not clear where they intend to go in the interim.”
A fourth home
If the Las Vegas relocation becomes official, the A’s franchise will have had four homes — more than any other Major League Baseball team. The A’s played for 54 seasons in Philadelphia starting in 1901 but moved to Kansas City, Missouri, for the 1955 season. Thirteen years later, the team landed in Oakland.
According to baseball historians, poor attendance was cited as the reason for the team leaving Philadelphia and Kansas City.
When the late Chicago insurance salesman Charlie O. Finley gained ownership of the A’s in 1960 he began exploring relocating the franchise to larger metropolitan areas, including Dallas, Denver and Atlanta, before settling on Oakland for the 1968 season.
Inside the Coliseum concourse, the A’s dedicated several walls documenting key moments in the team’s 55-year timeline through Oakland.
“We have a history that goes all the way back to Philadelphia,” Kaval said. “We're going on our fourth market. We’re like the story of America. We've been all over the place.”
Two other MLB teams have had three homes.
The Baltimore Orioles started out as the Milwaukee Brewers in 1901, which lasted for one season before a move to St. Louis where it played for 53 seasons as the St. Louis Browns. The move to Baltimore came in 1954.
The Atlanta Braves began life as the Boston Braves in 1876, playing there for 77 seasons before relocating to Milwaukee for the 1953 season. The team moved to Atlanta 13 years later.
In moving to the Strip, the A’s are swapping the East Bay’s Alameda County with a population of more than 1.6 million, including almost 434,000 Oakland residents, for Clark County’s 2.2 million population, which includes 646,700 people within the Las Vegas city limits.
However, the A’s full fan base covers Northern California’s nine-county Bay Area, which is home to more than 7.7 million people, which allows for a faster commute to Oakland or San Francisco.
The A’s are also trading the Oakland-San Francisco television market, ranked 10th by the Nielsen Company, for the 40th-ranked market in Las Vegas.
With renovating the Coliseum not an option and too many obstacles to overcome for the Howard Terminal, Kaval said Southern Nevada presented the best opportunity for the franchise.
“At the end of the day, we needed somewhere to play,” Kaval said. “We love the can-do spirit of the community. The governor has been a tremendous advocate, as well as Clark County and the commissioners. We've been really pleased with how things have gone and we look forward to continuing things once we get through the [relocation] process with the other owners.”