Here is a link to my Sunday story about the future of the Raiders and A’s in Oakland. This story is a long one — it’s my War and Peace without the battles. The full text runs below:
When Lew Wolff thinks about a new ballpark for the Oakland A’s, he imagines something intimate. In his mind’s eye, he sees a small, cozy, state-of-the-art yard with all the modern amenities — much like AT&T Park, the gorgeous home of the rival San Francisco Giants.
Wolff is the managing partner of the A’s and he has run the team since 2005. He is nearing 80 years old. He is kind and his humor is self-deprecating, and he reminds people of their favorite uncle.
For at least a decade, he has sought his dream ballpark — a man on a quest, Sir Lancelot or perhaps, sadly, Don Quixote. He wants out of the Coliseum because he shares it with the Raiders. It is the only ballpark/stadium in America housing a Major League Baseball team and an NFL team. In the fall, the Raiders play on a dirt infield. When they extend the outfield bleachers for football, it ruins the grass for the A’s.
The Coliseum opened in 1966 and is hopelessly outdated. The toilets in the clubhouses routinely back up. The stadium was irrevocably ruined for baseball after the Raiders returned to the Coliseum in 1995. They erected new stands in center field, nicknamed Mt. Davis. The A’s felt their baseball park was shoe-horned into a football stadium.
Before Mt. Davis, fans could look past center field to the colorful ice plant lining the outer rim of the ballpark, and past that to the Oakland hills, golden in the summer. All that is blocked. Gone. The intimate feeling for baseball also is gone.
Sometimes, the A’s feel like second-class tenants to the Raiders even though they play 81 regular-season home games a season and the Raiders play eight. The A’s opened their 1996 season in a minor-league ballpark in Las Vegas because of renovations for the Raiders at the Coliseum.
For years, Wolff has been desperate to leave the Coliseum. He explored the Uptown neighborhood of Oakland, an area currently booming with restaurants and nightlife. But then-mayor Jerry Brown was not a sports fan and was more interested in residential housing than an A’s home in Uptown. And Wolff moved on.
He negotiated with Fremont for what he called Ballpark City, a village with residential housing and restaurants and hotels and a baseball park. He even had a little model of the whole thing he proudly showed potential investors. But Ballpark City didn’t work out. And Wolff moved on.
Still, he had his vision — that intimate ballpark, something retro, something Northern California and Major League Baseball and America could gaze at with pride.
He shifted his vision to San Jose. His dream had remained constant, but the location kept changing, a marksman aiming at a moving target. He already had developed property in Santa Clara County and he knows the land and the politicians. This could work. He believed it could. He hoped it could.
But the Giants put up a wall. Call it the Great Wall of Baseball. They insist Santa Clara County is their territory. Wolff and everyone in A’s ownership find this declaration insubstantial. Rude. The whole uncomfortable situation exists because the A’s once did the Giants a favor.
In 1989, the Giants were a failing business at windy Candlestick Park and A’s owner Walter Haas, a decent man, relinquished his rights to Santa Clara County so the Giants could pursue a ballpark in Silicon Valley. He did this to help the Giants and to help Major League Baseball.
The Giants’ ballpark initiative failed, but Haas never asked the Giants to give him back Santa Clara County. From the A’s point of view, the Giants “own” Santa Clara County on a fluke, own it because Walter Haas was a gentleman. The A’s want the Giants’ ownership to be gentlemen in return. The Giants say, no dice, Santa Clara County is an essential part of their fan base.
Major League Baseball established a committee to study the situation. That was five years ago. The committee never has made a decision. No one knows what the committee thinks. Nothing has happened. Not one spade has entered the ground for the A’s San Jose ballpark.
San Jose sued Major League Baseball, tried to overturn its antitrust exemption, saying the exemption does not apply to teams moving. The A’s could not sue Major League Baseball because they are part of Major League Baseball and that would be like suing themselves. That case is in appeal but it seems unlikely the city will prevail.
So now, in the year 2014, Wolff is not even close to realizing his vision. It remains just that, a vision, a beautiful thing of his imagination. He wants San Jose, where he is not allowed to be. And he is stuck in Oakland, where he doesn’t want to be.
Things recently got worse for Wolff, if worse was even possible. He is trying to negotiate a 10-year lease extension at the current site because he has no other place to play, at least in the short term, a decade apparently being short term. And things seemed to be going well. Oakland wants the A’s and the A’s need Oakland, although Wolff has talked of building, if necessary, a “temporary” ballpark, whatever that is and wherever that may be, if negotiations peter out.
A month ago, the situation surrounding a new lease became nasty, especially between the A’s and the Oakland-Alameda Joint Powers Authority (JPA), which negotiates leases for the Coliseum. The A’s sent out this news release: “The A’s received the Oakland-Alameda County Authority’s proposal earlier this afternoon. While the proposal was for 10 years, it did not address all of our issues. Consequently, we cannot accept the terms of the offer. We have tried to negotiate in good faith for the past several months. As the Authority knows, it is still our preference not to negotiate this agreement through the media.”
The head of the JPA publicly accused the A’s of owing $5 million in back rent and of asking for $35 million in rent subsidies. In a statement, the A’s said, “There is absolutely nothing in either our lease offer to them or their counter proposal to us that mentions any kind of subsidy. We have nothing additional to offer and, as a result, there will be no further negotiations.”
This was almost a lover’s spat. It is important to understand who the lovers are. On one side there are the A’s. On the other side, there are three entities: Oakland and its mayor Jean Quan; Alameda County, and finally the JPA which negotiates with the A’s, Raiders and Golden State Warriors. But the politicians get the final vote. The arrangement is complicated, and this further confuses and frustrates Wolff. Whom exactly is he speaking to?
After the public spat, Rebecca Kaplan entered the negotiations. She is an Oakland councilperson and a member of the JPA. Kaplan calmed people down — call it marriage counseling — and got them talking again. Negotiations have resumed for a 10-year lease, although neither side to the negotiations will publicly address specifics.
A 10-year lease, as attractive as it is to all parties, does not address the real question. Where will the A’s play in the long term?
The general conception is this: Wolff wants to put the A’s in downtown San Jose and will die fighting for that cause. Is that true?
Wolff recently spoke to The Press Democrat about that very topic:
PD: Is there an ideal scenario for the A’s, or are you now thinking only of a 10-year span at the Coliseum?
Wolff: That’s a good question. You know as time passes, changes in the economy, the world, in baseball happen. We don’t have a specific program right now. Our first goal, we know for sure that we would like to extend in Oakland and, if that’s possible, I think that’s our first step. Everything is incremental from there.
PD: Do you still want only San Jose?
Wolff: No. What we’d like to do is have a new venue in order to have a better fan experience. We have tried, we think — although other people may not agree — in Oakland, Fremont and San Jose, and we’re willing to continue looking at those areas.
PD: Is Oakland one of your options?
Wolff: We haven’t closed the door on anything.
Pause a moment. Understand this. Wolff just announced a radical policy shift. It used to be San Jose all the way. Other places, no way.
And now he’s reopened the door for Oakland. He retains his vision, that intimate ballpark, that retro ballpark. Now he sees it — well, possibly sees it — right where the old place stands now. In Oakland. The same piece of land, although slightly enlarged. Oakland and Alameda County would provide the land and pay for the infrastructure, and the A’s would build the ballpark.
The A’s are not negotiating a new stadium now. They have enough trouble with the lease. But they are at least open to talking, to working things out, to staying.
The A’s would be alone in a new, long-term Coliseum deal or they would share the real estate with the Raiders, depending on what the Raiders decide. The teams could play in two separate venues. In two spanking new venues.
None of this sharing one stadium. That’s out.
“We’re not planning that,” Wolff said of sharing the Coliseum area, “but that’s certainly possible. Another place, Kansas City, is a good example.”
Wolff already has imagined an Oakland arrangement similar to what the Chiefs and Royals have in Kansas City — or the Seahawks and Mariners in Seattle, or the Steelers and Pirates in Pittsburgh — separate venues next to each other. His vision is getting specific.
“(One) of the things nobody looks at as closely as we do is the timeline,” he said. “What can be done in a year? What can be done in five years? Ahh. (Wolff sighed.) We’d like to have a venue sooner rather than later. I haven’t done that too well, but that’s what we want.”
Wolff was saying, among other things, he wants his vision to become reality in his lifetime. “I prefer to be more optimistic than pessimistic,” he said. “We’re trying to do for our ownership and our fans the best we can do, but we all agree that we need a viable venue for baseball.”
Chapter 2: Mark’s story
When Mark Davis thinks about a new stadium for the Oakland Raiders, he imagines something impressive, something up to date. In his mind’s eye, he sees a shining, state-of-the-art building with all the modern amenities — much like the 49ers are putting up in Santa Clara.
He sees his vision becoming reality in Oakland. Davis says he wants to stay exactly where he is — on the ground at the Coliseum site.
He sees the Raiders as the anchor tenant in a massive development known as Coliseum City. The word “anchor” is a key word in his talks with Oakland and the JPA. Coliseum City — and it would be the size of a small city — would go up on the current site, only the site would be larger.
Right now, the Coliseum footprint is 200 acres, give or take. The new site would be about 850 acres along the I-880 corridor. Colony Capital, trying to put this deal together, envisions restaurants, hotels, condos along with the A’s new stadium. Coliseum City would be like Wolff’s abortive Fremont Ballpark City, but it would be in Oakland and it would anchor, if you will, Oakland’s current renaissance and bring life to an area currently industrial or desolate or both. Colony Capital has until the end of the summer to come up with a workable plan.
“We have said we want to stay in Oakland and that’s the situation we’re in,” Davis told The Press Democrat. “With the A’s saying they want to leave and the Warriors saying they want to leave, I might be the dummy because I’m saying we’ll put up $400 million to stay. We believe it would be about a billion dollars total (to build a new stadium in Oakland). The city has said they would be able to come up with possibly $100 million for infrastructure. That leaves about a $500 million debt. That’s what we’re trying to figure out. How are we going to fill that debt? I don’t say that I’m optimistic. I’m not pessimistic. I’m realistic.
“The Raiders would put up $200 million. The NFL would loan the Raiders $200 million. And Oakland would provide $100 million for infrastructure. That leaves the $500 million debt.”
Filling the debt will be difficult. Davis can’t expect much money from the city and county. Oakland is a chronically underfunded city, and taxpayers are still contributing $20 million a year on the makeover of the Coliseum for the Raiders and the makeover of Oracle Arena for the Warriors.
Davis is so committed to Coliseum City, so deeply into the project, he already has imagined solving drainage problems and “ingress and egress” — his words — into and out of the parking lots, and the tearing down of the old building and the building up of the new Raiders home.
He wants the current building demolished before any new construction takes place. For the two or three years it takes to build a new stadium, the Raiders would play elsewhere. He doesn’t say where, just that, “In the Bay Area, there’s a number of places we could go for the two- or three-year process.”
The 49ers’ soon-to-be-opened Levi’s Stadium has a third locker room, clearly an invitation to the Raiders to play in Santa Clara while Coliseum City goes up or, in an extreme situation, if Coliseum City never goes up.
“I have to see within the next couple of months what’s going to happen and see if there’s a realistic chance to get something done here,” Davis said. “If it was money I was after, hell, I’d have gone to L.A. years ago. That’s not my goal. My goal is to get a stadium our fans can be proud of, that the team’s going to be proud to play in and that gives us enough revenue streams to actually compete for players. That’s all it’s about.
“We’ve been trying to get a stadium done for many, many years. The fact that we’re playing on a baseball field now is nobody’s fault but our own. I’m not putting the blame on anybody but ourselves. The situation we’re in now, the Raiders put themselves into that situation with the deal we made coming back. That doesn’t mean I have to keep making the same mistake.”
Davis is not playing hardball with Oakland. He has not overtly threatened to leave. In this sense, he is different from Wolff, who has tried to leave. Davis likens Coliseum City to L.A. Live, the vibrant entertainment district in downtown Los Angeles with a theater, restaurants and hotels surrounding the Staples Center, the anchor tenant.
If Coliseum City does not come about, is not a realizable goal, one assumes Davis would seek options outside the Bay Area. He is a businessman, not a philanthropist. Like Wolff, he prefers not to negotiate through the media.
Aside from getting the Coliseum City project off the ground — actually, on the ground — Davis perceives his biggest obstacle as Wolff and the A’s. Nothing personal.
“I just don’t know what the A’s are going to do,” Davis said. “I don’t know what they want to do. People don’t understand that what the A’s are going to do affects me. It does affect us. We need to know what the landscape, the portrait of that footprint for the stadium could be. Baseball won’t let them go to San Jose. They have a problem there. So they’re in as much of a problem as we are. It’s not a Raiders vs. A’s thing. I don’t want it to sound anything like that. It’s just reality that we need to know where they’re going to be so we know what we’re working on in planning and building a stadium.”
Davis said he’d prefer the Raiders to be at Coliseum City as the single sports tenant, without the A’s — although, after the Warriors go to San Francisco, Davis would like Oracle Arena to remain as a concert and events venue. He’s leery of the A’s taking up his parking. But he’s willing to work that out if the A’s stay. What confounds him is Wolff, whom he perceives as enigmatic. In his interview with the PD, Davis returned to that concern — to that worry.
PD: What are your chances of getting a new stadium at the current site?
Davis: I would say that’s going to be up to Lew.
PD: Meaning you can’t move ahead until you know his plans?
Davis: Let’s say the A’s sign a 10-year lease in the Coliseum. Where does that leave the Raiders?
It is interesting how little Davis and Wolff know about each other. When presented with Davis’ concern, Wolff explained, “We provided in our offer to the JPA a provision if the Raiders were able to put together whatever they’re looking for, we would leave an exit for ourselves. We’re not tying up the land for 10 years. We’d like Mark to get what he wants, and I think he would like us to get what we want. I think it’s all very sensible for both of us. I’ve talked to Mark a few times. He’s very easy to deal with and I think we both want what’s best for our teams. And we also realize that we have to accommodate each other, and I think the easiest accommodation for us is to offer an exit should Mark’s financing, or whatever he’s looking for, come together. So, I don’t see this as an impediment for either one of us.”
Should Wolff’s position reassure Davis? Wolff is putting up no Great Wall between the A’s and Raiders. Still, it is unclear where Wolff will go if he invokes the exit clause. He may have an exit to nowhere. He may have to stay in the old Coliseum, exit plan or no exit plan. This lack of clarity in Wolff’s vision worries Davis.
Their visions — close but not congruent — are not even the same for Coliseum City, the bonanza project involving more than two stadiums.
“We have no interest in what is called Coliseum City,” Wolff said. “That’s about 800 acres, a lot of it to my knowledge, and I haven’t really been involved in it, but it includes a lot of land that is under private ownership. We would only be interested in land controlled by the JPA, and I think there’s one parcel owned by the city. I just don’t know how you go take people’s property.”
Davis has no such misgivings about Coliseum City, talks passionately about it. His vision: “I would think some hotels. I would think an entertainment district. The reason I really like the Coliseum site is not only for its ingress and egress, but it’s got BART that 30 percent of our fans use. With the 49ers moving all the way down south, it would really be close for people in San Francisco to just come right across the bridge.”
In Davis’ vision, if his vision becomes reality, the Oakland Raiders fill the void left by the 49ers. The Raiders become the home football team for Oakland, Contra Costa County and San Francisco. San Francisco’s loss is the Raiders’ gain.
Chapter 3: Oakland’s story
When Oakland politicians and Alameda County politicians and members of the JPA think about the future of the three professional sports teams in Oakland, their vision is hazy, vague, only partially formed.
Oakland already has lost the battle of the Warriors, who are planning a new arena at Mission Bay in San Francisco and could play there by 2018.
Oakland is still in the game for the A’s and Raiders, but nothing has been guaranteed, arranged, settled. Nothing is yet real. Studies show the A’s have a small fan base even in the East Bay. This could be Wolff’s fault. He disparaged the Coliseum for years and seemed to drive fans away, although his stance is changing.
The fear in Oakland political circles is that the city will also lose the A’s and Raiders, lose them during the administration of current mayor Jean Quan. This outcome, if it comes out, is informally known as the hat trick from hell. It also could be called the totally terrible trifecta.
Quan has not always been subtle in her negotiating tactics, especially with the A’s. Recently, she insisted she won’t negotiate a long-term lease for the A’s at the Coliseum until Wolff signs a deal pledging to build a new ballpark in Oakland.
Wolff responded, “The mayor conditions the A’s lease acceptance on us guaranteeing that the A’s build a new ballpark. Under no condition can I entertain such a requirement to enter into a lease, anywhere.”
Quan has apparently backed off her demand. In baseball terms, she threw a high hard one at Wolff and he stayed in the batter’s box.
She noticed a Dubai firm, Hayah Holdings, is partnering with Colony Capital on the Coliseum City proposal and she went on radio April 10 and proclaimed the crown prince of Dubai is involved in the project.
She was forced to retract.
No crown prince for Coliseum City.
The original developer of the Coliseum City plan, Forest City, dropped out, saying the numbers didn’t add up. A few months ago, Quan appointed Fred Blackwell as the City’s top administrator and her point man for Coliseum City. Within a month, he announced he was leaving Oakland government to run a philanthropic organization in San Francisco, a post he will assume shortly.
Mark Davis seems confused about whom he’s working with on Coliseum City. “Initially we were working with … ah … ah …” He paused, searching for the name (previous City Administrator Deanna Santana). “She left,” Davis said. “Then Fred.” Davis paused again, unable to remember Fred’s last name. “You got me,” he finally said. “As far as the city manager side and all that stuff, I’m really not sure who we’re dealing with.”
Davis found this lack of name recognition troubling, but feels more confident that Colony Capital is involved. He said his relationship with Quan is fine.
When Wolff was asked about the quality of his relationship with Quan, he laughed. “We really haven’t had any real communication,” he said. “Maybe it’s my fault or hers. The JPA, that’s our landline and I don’t really get bogged down in local politics.”
So far, no contracts have been signed with Colony Capital or Hayah.
There is an irony in all this. Quan is actually trying. The two previous Oakland mayors, Jerry Brown and Ron Dellums, had little interest in sports or in retaining the three teams. Quan does, believing they are vital to Oakland’s self-image. But is she too late?
Sean Maher, a spokesman for Quan, said, “The city and county have worked hard to offer the A’s options in the East Bay.” True. Maher said Wolff’s rhetoric has softened in his stance toward remaining in Oakland. Also true. Quan did not agree to be interviewed for this article.
Quan and Oakland have something else to offer Wolff. This is the most controversial proposal. A 50-acre parcel of land exists just north of Jack London Square, a tourist attraction and one of Oakland’s crown jewels. It is an abandoned shipping terminal commonly known as Howard Terminal. A broad-based community group called Let’s Go Oakland is promoting this site for the A’s.
The actual negotiating group, the folks with the money, have formed a consortium called Oakland Waterfront Ballpark LLC. The team includes Michael Ghielmetti, CEO of Signature Development Group, which is building condos, retail and hotels along with parkland south of Jack London Square; Clorox CEO Don Knauss; former Dreyer’s CEO T. Gary Rogers, and former Oakland Planning Commissioner Doug Boxer.
The organizers of Oakland Waterfront Ballpark LLC imagine an intimate yard with 38,000 seats, a ballpark rising across the bay from AT&T Park, presiding over the Oakland waterfront, rivaling AT&T, the two parks staring at each other. Oakland Waterfront Ballpark LLC is working on an exclusive one-year negotiating agreement with the Port of Oakland for Howard Terminal.
This is all very exciting except for one hang-up.
“We have no interest or no possibility at — what do they call that other, you know, by the water?” Wolff said.
PD: Howard Terminal.
Wolff: I’m sort of tired of hearing about it. We’ve done the research. It just isn’t relevant for us.
PD: That group would like to buy the team from you. Is that possible?
Wolff: No. We have absolutely no interest in selling. We’ve said that over and over again. I don’t know how many times I can say it. We want to stay in the Bay Area. We’re going to figure that out. But Howard Terminal is of no interest to us because we’ve explored it in more depth than anyone and it would take years and years and millions, billions of dollars.
PD: To remove toxins?
Wolff: There’s so many issues beyond that, I don’t know what to tell you. It’s sort of sad. It’s not on our radar. Zero.
Wolff is concerned, among other things, that the site is too contaminated for development. It would be the A’s problem to clean it up, and the figures do not pencil out for him. Others disagree. There is a prevailing theory that if Wolff shows the slightest interest in Howard Terminal, a mere sliver of light, if he wavers at all, he loses his leverage in San Jose.
Perhaps, but he is willing to show interest in a modified, smaller version of Coliseum City.
Doug Boxer, a member of Oakland Waterfront Ballpark LLC and son of U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, disagrees about the level of toxins at Howard Terminal. “The site is no different when it comes down to it than what AT&T Park looked like when the Giants started their process. It’s an industrial site.”
Boxer says a concrete cap of between six inches and a foot in depth sits on top of the land and blocks the contaminants from spreading. In his plan, the city would build the infrastructure for the ballpark and the A’s would build the stadium.
“I’m not saying it’s easy,” Boxer said. “Development in California is hard, especially sports facilities. If you look up and down the state, the Chargers need a facility. The Warriors need a facility. The A’s need a facility. The Raiders need a facility. The Dodgers have Dodger Stadium but at some point that’s going to run out of its useful life. And they’re trying to get a football stadium in L.A. None of this is going to be easy. None of these public entities are sitting on a pile of cash. But we’ve got a 50-acre site on the water. We’d love to have the opportunity to explore it for a baseball team. It makes so much sense.”
Chapter 4: So, what’s the story?
The game is in the bottom of the ninth. The city of Oakland is trailing. Quan is at the plate. She has fouled off two fastballs. Down to her last strike. She still has life.
The A’s and the JPA are no longer issuing caustic emails about each other. That’s progress.
“The tone of negotiations can be every bit as important as the dollars and cents of the proposal,” said Kaplan, Oakland councilperson and member of the JPA, and an Oakland mayoral candidate in the fall. “In terms of what was happening a few weeks ago and the progress we’re making now, the fact that we are now talking directly is really important. When completing a deal it isn’t always just the haggling over the price. It could also be, ‘Are people speaking to each other respectfully?’”
The negotiations with the Raiders always have been more respectful. Still — and this is the paradox — Oakland stands a better chance of keeping the A’s than the Raiders. The A’s have nowhere to go. They are eager to sign a 10-year lease to stay right where they are.
The Raiders are giving Colony Capital a short window to show palpable progress toward Coliseum City, a project with a high degree of difficulty. If that does not work out, no one knows what the Raiders will do.
Quan hopes her vision of keeping both teams is feasible, although her vision, Wolff’s vision and Davis’ vision are not always the same.
Quan digs into the batter’s box. The pitcher winds up. He throws. She strides forward. She swings.
For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at firstname.lastname@example.org.