Howard Terminal's Future Cloudy for Athletics in a Time of Pandemic

John Hickey

It’s not easy to see into the future, but it’s part of what has to be done in this age of COVID-19 coronavirus, and the future is not looking good for the Oakland A’s hopes to play in a new stadium in 2023.

While Sports Illustrated is out this week with suggestions on what are the five best baseball parks in the big leagues, it’s a good bet that the 55-year-old Oakland Coliseum isn’t on anyone’s list, not with its failing infrastructure.

The A’s have architectural plans and available land for a new baseball park at Oakland’s Howard Terminal, just north of Jack London Square. And they have a move-in date, too, April of 2023.

Things were moving along, albeit too slowly for the A’s wishes, until February. That’s when the COVID-19 pandemic began to come into play. Just days after Major League Baseball shut down the sport on March 12, a lawsuit was filed, challenging the A’s stadium plans.

The A’s had hoped the final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) needed to charge forward would be done by the end of 2019. Then they were hoping for a February final EIR. It’s mid-May, and it still has yet to materialize. Until an EIR is in place, the A’s, who struck a deal with the Port of Oakland for the Howard Terminal land contingent on a completed EIR, have seen the pause button pushed.

The lawsuit, filed March 16 in Alameda Superior Court, challenged the A’s submission to California’s Office of Planning and Research seeking Assembly Bill 734 to receive fast-track certification of the site’s environmental review. It was on March 19 that Gov. Gavin Newsom instituted his shelter-at-home order, slowing the process.

The lawsuit said that the state’s legal authority to continue with expedited reviews ended on Jan. 1, but Gov. Gavin Newsom continued to receive supplemental data after that time. The suit seeks a ruling that Newsom has no power to certify the Howard Terminal project under AB 734.

The bill, authored by assemblyman Rob Bonta and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown during the late stages of Brown’s final gubernatorial term in 2018, was designed to streamline the process for reviewing environmental lawsuits filed against the Howard Terminal project.

So, the A’s are going to have to go to court over this. Well, that’s even more of a problem than it would have been in normal circumstances. Alameda Superior Court shut down for a while after shelter-in-place orders went into place in March. Only in the last three weeks have the courts reopened on a limited basis, and audio of criminal issues has been available; audio of civil issues has not been.

However, beginning Thursday, the court will start to hear civil cases that have trial dates between May 4 and Aug. 31 and will resume reservations for certain new motions. It’s possible that the A’s will be able to make their case beginning then. A call to A’s president Dave Kaval, who is spearheading the push for Howard Terminal facility, requesting more information wasn’t immediately returned.

More than that, A’s majority owner John Fisher, who had a net worth of about $2.3 billion a few months ago, has seen that nest egg shrivel some. He’s the son of Gap founder Donald Fisher, and Gap stock, like the stock of most retailers, has fallen sharply. However, the company announced last week that it hoped to open about 800 shuttered stores by the end of May.

Fisher and Kaval are attempting to built a privately financed stadium at Howard Terminal, but getting loans finalized – which was expected to be relatively routine when the year began given Fisher’s net worth and the state of the economy – will be much more difficult with the American economy thrown into a state of flux due to the pandemic and state and local shutdowns.

Ultimately, that may mean the A’s might have to scrap the Howard Terminal plan altogether and instead build a new facility in either the north or south parking lots at the Coliseum, although the A’s are far from going down that path.

Getting a stadium ready to go by April, 2023, would take about 28 months, experts say. That would mean construction would need to start no sooner than January, and construction in Northern California has slowed by the shelter-at-home directive.

That may change as the California economy beginning to reopen, but it’s another issue that combines with the legal problems and the lending problems that argue against the Howard Terminal facility being ready by April, 2023.

And A’s executive vice president Billy Beane and general manager David Forst have made it clear repeatedly in the last few years that they would shy away from offering big contacts until they knew the new ballpark, and the new revenue it would be expected to generate, were locked in.

Closer Liam Hendriks, probable opening day starter Mike Fiers and shortstop Marcus Semien, who finished third in the American League MVP voting last season, all are eligible to be free agents at season’s end. And key players like starter Sean Manaea (2023) and infielders Matt Chapman and Matt Olson (both 2024), would be more difficult to retain without a new stadium and its revenue in place.

Follow Athletics insider John Hickey on Twitter: @JHickey3

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