Oakland A’s waterfront ballpark plan reaches a milestone as council certifies environmental report
It has other hurdles to clear, but the Oakland A’s proposal to build a waterfront ballpark and mixed-use development hit a major milestone Thursday after the City Council approved a 3,500-page report that signals the project passes environmental muster.
The council voted after an hours-long discussion Thursday evening in a 6-2 vote to certify the environmental impact report, a requirement under California law to establish that the city is sufficiently mitigating any impacts to things like air quality, pollution, traffic and noise.
Since its release as a draft last year, the report had drawn hundreds of comments or questions from various government agencies, community organizations and individuals about the project’s potential impact on traffic, air quality, infrastructure and other environmental elements.
Many of those who participated in five hours of public comment during Thursday’s council meeting continued to raise questions about the report, questioning whether it adequately addressed the many areas expected to be impacted by the major development. Some urged postponement of a decision pending further analysis of the project’s impact, while supporters of the project contended that the project would transform the waterfront in a positive way, bringing jobs and economic development to the city by way of the 3,000 housing units, 1.5 million square feet of office space and 270,000 square feet of retail space, as well as hotel rooms and parks that are part of the proposal.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf is one of the project’s supporters, noting Thursday in a written statement immediately after the vote, “Tonight’s action is more than a milestone — it’s a giant leap forward in our shared mission to create a regional destination that gives back our waterfront to the public connects a new vibrant neighborhood to our downtown, and provides tens of thousands of good union jobs for our residents — and it does it all while keeping our beloved A’s rooted in Oakland.”
The A’s, who continue to scope out potential ballpark sites in southern Nevada, have repeatedly threatened to leave Oakland for good if the Howard Terminal ballpark proposal does not come to fruition quickly enough.
A’s Team President Dave Kaval celebrated the vote in a social media post that described it as a “big step closer to a new waterfront ballpark at Howard Terminal”.
But the pace of the project is part of why Councilmember Carroll Fife, who represents the district where the ballpark would land, voted against certifying the report, noting that she is “really concerned about how fast this is moving” and worried that residents in West Oakland, Chinatown and the other areas surrounding the site are not having their voices heard. The other councilmember who opposed it, District 5 Councilmember Noel Gallo, has long expressed opposition to the A’s moving from the Coliseum to the waterfront. The A’s have insisted they need a more urban environment in a downtown corridor to play baseball.
In addition to concerns over the potential for the project to indirectly displace residents through gentrification’s affect on rising home prices, many expressed concerns about the impacts from the project on traffic in surrounding neighborhoods. City consultants will conduct further studies on traffic management, including in Chinatown, but said during the meeting Thursday the study could begin only after the environmental impact report was certified.
The vote by the council comes weeks after planning commissioners gave it their stamp of approval. At the time, some of them said the environmental impact report was one of the most comprehensive they’d ever seen and easily complies with the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. City staff recommended that the council approve it, too, after they spent months addressing the questions and concerns submitted as part of the review process, and they concluded the proposal doesn’t present any environmental obstacles that can’t be mitigated under the plan.
The certification by the council of the report clears the way to analyze those mitigation plans, and for other agencies, including the Department of Toxic Substances Control, the State Lands Commission and the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, to conduct their own analyses of the proposed project.
But the project is far away from a done deal.
The city and the A’s still must reach an agreement over who will pay for the project’s infrastructure, affordable housing and community benefits, something that could take several more months of negotiating before a plan comes back to the City Council for approval.
City leaders had wanted the A’s to designate at least 15% of the 3,000 proposed housing units as affordable and shell out at least $50 million to build affordable housing elsewhere in Oakland as well, although community groups and residents are calling for there to be a higher percentage of affordable housing.
There is also the question of who will fund $400 million worth of infrastructure work such as improvements to roads and sidewalks, sewer, water and electrical lines and construction of pedestrian bridges to get people to and from the ballpark. The Alameda County Board of Supervisors has tentatively signaled its intent to join the city in forming a special financing district to help pay for the improvements, but its support was lukewarm and nonbinding. The supervisors indicated they would do their own financial analysis before fully jumping in. And city staff are working on securing state and federal infrastructure grants to cover as many of the costs as they can.
The City Council on Thursday reaffirmed their commitment to ensuring the project have adequate benefits for the community. They passed a resolution Thursday ensuring the community benefits package — including a commitment to hiring locally, building affordable housing, mitigating traffic congestion and ensuring air quality protections, among other things– are approved before or at the same time that the council approves any development agreement for the project.
It was with that commitment that some councilmembers said they felt comfortable voting to approve the environmental impact report.
“I think the staff heard the message and needs to understand the message that there’s a lot of wok to be done,” said District 1 Councilmember Dan Kalb. “We need to hold ourselves to a high standard to make sure we don’t add to emissions and that people who live nearby — West Oakland and downtown — remain a priority.”
The council will have to sign off on all the future approvals that will come after, Council President and District 2 representative Nikki Fortunato Bas reminded her colleagues and the public during the meeting.
“For me to approve the final project when it comes to us, I have to see it deliver the community benefits .. and that it makes fiscal sense,” Fortunato Bas said. “We need adequate levels of affordable housing units. … we need meaningful and enforceable community benefits.”