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Welcome to the A’s New Ballpark at Howard Terminal: A Dispatch from 2028

How the A’s built the stadium of the future.

 

Editor’s Note: This is one of many stories San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the June 2018 East Bay Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.


Welcome, at long
, long last, to Pandora Field at Jack London Stadium, or—as A’s fans who’ve been following the three-decade-long drama call it—Pandora’s Box. It’s an appropriate name, and not just because the music-streaming company paid $300 million for the naming rights. At nearly every stage of the stadium’s creation, some unanticipated, ultraexpensive horror was let loose.

But still, here we are, Opening Day 2028, at the $1 billion jewel of a ballpark in brackish, seagull-squawking Howard Terminal. It’s taken a little longer to build than expected—the team once pegged 2023 as a target opening date—but the views here are worth the wait. You’ve got the iconic port crane restaurants looking out over Canseco Cove, where, off in the distance, the rotting husk of San Francisco’s AT&T Park can be seen. There’s the high-speed gondola line zipping people in from the 12th Street tramdock downtown, a project that many scoffed at when it was first proposed but that suddenly seemed doable once the Dodgers built their own at Chavez Ravine. Nearby, the revitalized Jack London Square is buzzing with activity; in addition to the massive video-game-arcade bar, there’s a laser-tag bar and a trampoline-park bar and a mini-golf bar and a go-kart bar.

Inside the park, the augmented-reality video screens in each seat back are a nice technological touch. Did we say amenities? Gone are the soggy Coliseum Dogs; now executive chef Tanya Holland is overseeing the in-stadium concessions. True, a bag of peanuts costs $25, but they’re dusted in a proprietary spice mix and taste like a steal at twice the price. (Just don’t try to pay in cash; the ballpark only accepts crypto.) Looking at all this wonderment, it’s easy to forget how close this project was to never getting off the ground. Back in 2017, after the A’s had swung and missed on their preferred site near Laney College (a debacle that ultimately led to the 2020 ouster of Dave Kaval as team president and the hiring of former A’s great Rickey Henderson), the team was faced with a choice: Rebuild at the Coliseum, which required no environmental impact report, boasted tons of parking and a BART stop, and offered acres of land on which to develop condos, shops, and a Warriors-style entertainment complex; or do like Khris Davis (before Billy Beane traded him to the Yankees in 2019) and swing for the fences with the Howard Terminal site.

Instead, the A’s blazed a third route: First, Henderson and company swiped the Coliseum from the City of Oakland (which itself had recently bought out Alameda County) for pennies on the dollar—the city being happy enough to wash its hands of the debt on the place. Then, after making some modest repairs, the team flipped the property to Elon Musk, who developed the site into his Tesla SolarShingle factory. Flush with cash, the team was able to turn its attentions again to Howard Terminal.

Good thing, too, because this stadium build-out got pricey, fast: An EIR uncovered hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup and wetlands-remediation costs. (The team was able to strike a deal with the California Coastal Commission to save tidelands farther down the coast in exchange for building out the port.) Then there were the pounds of flesh to be extracted by myriad third parties: the Bar Pilots, who claimed that a new ballpark’s lights would blind cargo ship pilots (they settled out of court); various citizens’ groups (whom the team assuaged by promising $50 million in youth ballparks in the flats); and, most memorably, Schnitzer Steel, the cranky scrap-metal-recycling plant. The A’s closest neighbors in the port threatened to run their deafening metal-pounding operation during ballgames, but ultimately backed off after being offered a 1 percent stake in the franchise, making them—and lobbyist Don Perata—very wealthy.

Then there was the city money. Back before she was a U.S. senator, Mayor Libby Schaaf refused to spend a dime on the ballpark. But she did take the $200 million the city had once offered the Raiders and roll that toward public infrastructure projects to accommodate the stadium: pedestrian bridges over the railroad tracks, a major sewage upgrade to the port (the team was terrified of a Coliseum-like raw sewage backup), a new off-ramp from 880, widened and repaved roads leading into the complex, and, of course, the Virgin Gondola—a public-private partnership between the team, BART, and Richard Branson. The aerial trams are capable of transporting 6,000 people per hour to and from the 12th Street BART station. Talk of a monorail from the West Oakland station is ongoing and pegged to the construction of a second transbay tube, which Governor Scott Wiener hopes to build by 2035. (Good luck!)

More than anything, the gondola underscores how Pandora’s Box has become America’s premier urbanist ballpark. Back in 2018, critics pointed to the lack of a nearby BART station as the biggest strike against Howard Terminal. Now such concerns seem laughable. There’s parking for 5,000 cars here, although almost no one ever drives themselves anymore, what with self-piloting Ubers and all. Bike parking and a massive electric scooter docking station account for nearly 10,000 fans per game; the gondola services 12,000 more. Bus shuttles and robot-driven rickshaws and ferries get everyone else here. And in fact, the walk from Downtown has become rather pleasant, with rising regional retail developer E-40 & Associates building up stores and restaurants all along the formerly derelict highway underpass.

Still, it took a lot of convincing for Oaklanders to see the light. And for that, the team can thank two people: Senator Schaaf (she of the 90 percent favorability rating) and her successor, Mayor Marshawn Lynch (100 percent favorability). Both used their incredible popularity to stamp out opposition on the city council, earning them giant golden statues outside the stadium. (Lynch’s is inscribed with the words “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.”)

That brings us to now, Opening Day. Ryan Coogler, recently named the richest man in Hollywood, just threw out the first pitch—it was his shot in Black Panther 3 of a high-tech waterfront A’s stadium built with Wakandan vibranium that turned public favor toward the project. The umpire has yelled out, “Play ball!” Team president Henderson, now 69 years old, has come out of retirement to man left field and hit leadoff (he’s still in great shape). The game is starting, and it’s finally a reality.

Now if only the A’s could do something about their starting pitching.

 

Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco 

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