Friday roundup: What if a stadium tax break fell in the forest and there were no journalists around to hear?

Sorry if the posts were a bit light this week, but, one, it’s August (checks — yep, August, holy crap) and local governments are mostly out of session so it’s usually a slow month for stadium news even during what we used to call normal times, and two, I’ve been spending some time working on an FoS-related project that hopefully you will all enjoy the benefits of down the road a bit. (I also took a brief break to write about how Melbourne, Australia has declared a “state of disaster” and imposed strict new lockdown measures for virus rates that in the U.S. wouldn’t even get states to ban house parties.) If you were really missing me chiming in on the latest in baseball not shutting down just yet and instead adding a billion doubleheaders, maybe I’ll get around to a longer post on it next week.

For now, a quick tour through some of the news items that didn’t make the full-item cut this week:

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A’s owners declare selves to be toxic avengers, this has nothing to do with their stadium plans, heavens no

I wasn’t going to return to the Oakland A’s stadium squabbles quite so soon, but then, I didn’t expect A’s execs to respond to their current stalemate by suing the state of California to crack down on a steel recycling plant whose owners sued them over their stadium.

Let’s back up a bit, for those who haven’t been following. The A’s want to build a new stadium at Howard Terminal, a port facility near downtown Oakland, with stadium construction itself paid for by the team but possibly as much as $200 million in city funds going to “infrastructure” improvements like new bridges across a busy adjacent street. The port companies and unions don’t especially want to have to deal with a baseball stadium on their doorstep, so they’ve been fighting against the project; back in March, port interests, including Schnitzer — pictured here on fire next to the proposed stadium sitesued the state to block the A’s owners from being allowed to fast-track the environmental approval process for their stadium plans.

Now, the A’s owners have filed their own suit against the state over Schnitzer’s own exemption from state environmental laws, namely hazardous waste disposal regulations that a 2014 state law said would be enforced against the recycling plant if it didn’t shape up (such as by not catching on fire quite so often) by 2018. But just in case you see this as tit-for-tat lawyering up, A’s stadium czar Dave Kaval assures you that they are just in it on behalf of the people:

There’s a lot to unpack here, but let’s start with: Pollution is indeed bad! A metal recycling plant that catches on fire every couple of years — and, according to one local environmentalist, regularly sends “little tumbleweeds” of polyester fiber blowing through surrounding neighborhoods — is problematic for humans and other living things, even if, as newballpark.org points out, these are apparently common problems with metal recycling plants all over the nation.

As for “bigger than baseball,” though, it’s hard to imagine that the A’s owners would be pursuing this suit if the polluter in question weren’t standing between themselves and their stadium dreams. Throwing around terms like “environmental justice” and asserting that a baseball stadium will “clean the air and water” (presumably, if I’m reading Kaval’s Twitter thread right, because fans will be able to get there by public transit) seems transparently like greenwashing — especially when you add in the Schnitzer Watch website set up to promote the team’s lawsuit, with no information about who’s behind the site (the site owners paid to hide its registry info) but lots of big, beautiful pictures of those fires.

Leaving aside for the moment whether you’d rather root for a real estate baron looking for the city of Oakland to help clear the way for him to build a waterfront stadium during an era of sea level rise and then claiming this is a way to save the Earth, or for a toxic-waste-spewing plant that is trying to chase the A’s offa their lawn on the grounds that they filed their paperwork too late, this whole mess is a perfect example of what might be called the Snail Darter Principle of Inverse Proportionality.

The snail darter, as you may or may not recall, is a tiny fish that was discovered to be living in the Little Tennessee River in the 1970s, right when the Tennessee Valley Authority was set to start building a dam there. The resulting lawsuits over the Endangered Species Act held up the dam for years, though eventually the fish were relocated to another nearby river and the dam was completed. It was just one of many projects where a bigger controversy over a development project came to hinge on a single environmental-law technicality that emerged almost by chance — in New York City, the $2 billion Westway project to build a massive underground highway along the Hudson River waterfront fell apart in the 1980s largely because it would have required tearing down piers where endangered striped bass lived. (I thought about calling this the Striped Bass Principle, but “snail darter” is an undeniably funnier name.)

All of which is to say, if the A’s Howard Terminal project succeeds or fails not because of whether it’s a good place for a ballpark or whether it’s a good use of public infrastructure dollars to build bridges to get fans to a new stadium when there’s already an old stadium site right next to a public transit station, but based on whose lawyers and PR firms can make them look more on the side of green jobs, that would be extremely par for the course. Whether you find that hilarious or tragic — or both, there’s always both — is entirely up to you, because what is America if not a place where everyone is free to choose whether to laugh or cry over what’s become of democracy?

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New A’s stadium opening date: reply hazy, ask again later

Newballpark.org noticed last week that the Oakland A’s hadn’t updated its Howard Terminal stadium timeline in a while, and tweeted about it, and then by Saturday the old one with a 2023 opening date had been replaced by an entirely new one with … not:


As you can see, the due dates for the draft environmental impact review and city council vote have been pushed forward from last fall (which already didn’t happen) and the first half of 2020 (likewise) to “late 2020” and next summer. And also, there are now no projected dates at all for when the stadium will begin construction or be completed.

Now, this is in part totally reasonable in the middle of a pandemic that has upended the sports industry: With no one even sure when fans will be able to go back into stadiums again, it’s kind of silly to project when teams can start raising money to build new stadiums, or if new stadiums should even look like they did in the Before Times. But at the same time, the Howard Terminal project has been shaky from the start — that EIR has been overdue since way before Covid; the dock workers union is still loudly protesting against siting a stadium alongside a working port (look, more protests just this past weekend!) as is the Sierra Club; it’s still not entirely clear how fans would get from their cars to the stadium; the property-tax kickback district to fund around $200 million in Howard Terminal infrastructure has been approved by the state but not yet by the city and who knows how property tax collections will even look in the future; and lots of people still think it would be simpler and more cost-effective to just build a new stadium at the current Oakland Coliseum site.

In short, the Howard Terminal stadium appears to be entering the “reevaluating” phase, which is where most every plan for the future is right now, but it’s also where a long series of A’s stadium plans have gone to die, so we’ll see how this turns out. More time thinking about that $200 million in infrastructure definitely seems warranted, at least, and right now we all have nothing but time.

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Friday roundup: New Rangers stadium scam movie, Nevada arena petitions rejected over technicality, and many many dumb ideas for getting you (or cardboard cutouts of you) into stadiums this year

Welcome to the end of another crazy week, which seems redundant to say, since that’s all of them lately. I spent a bunch of it working on this article on what science (but not necessarily your local newspaper) can tell us about not just whether reopening after lockdowns is a good idea, but what kinds of reopening are safe enough to consider. And important enough to consider, since as one infectious disease expert told me, “It’s not ‘open’ or ‘shut’—there’s a whole spectrum in between. We need to be thinking about what are the high-priority things that we need to reopen from a functioning point of view, and not an enjoyment point of view.”

And with that cheery thought, on to other cheery thoughts:

  • If you’re a fan of either sports stadium shenanigans or calamitous public-policy train wrecks in general — and I know you are, or why would you be reading this site — you should absolutely check out “Throw A Billion Dollars From The Helicopter,” a new documentary about the Texas Rangers‘ successful campaign to extract half a billion dollars from the city of Arlington so they could play in air-conditioning. It’s a story that has everything: a mayor who was elected as a stadium-subsidy critic then turned around to approve the biggest stadium subsidy in local history, George W. Bush grubbing for public money and failing to do basic math, grassroots anti-red-light camera activists getting dragged into stadium politics, a trip back to the Washington Senators’ final home game before moving to Texas which they had to forfeit because fans ran on the field and walked off with the bases, footage of that 1994 Canadian TV news story I always cite about how video-rental stores comedy clubs in Toronto were so happy with extra business during the baseball strike that they wished hockey would go on strike too, plus interviews with stadium experts like Roger Noll, Rod Fort, Victor Matheson, Allen Sanderson (the man whose line about more effective ways than building a stadium for boosting your city’s economy gave the documentary its title), and me. Rent it here on Vimeo if you want some substitute fireworks this weekend.
  • Opponents of the publicly funded minor-league hockey arena for the Henderson Silver Knights got enough signatures to put a recall on the November ballot, but have had their petitions invalidated for not including a detailed enough description of their objections on every page. This will almost certainly result in lawsuits, which is how pretty much every battle for public oversight of sports subsidy deals ends — that, and “in tears.”
  • The San Diego city council approved the $86.2 million sale of the site of the Chargers‘ former stadium to San Diego State University, which plans to build a new $310 million football stadium there. Whether this is a good deal for the public is especially tricky, because not only do you have to figure the land value of a 135-acre site in the middle of an economic meltdown, but also San Diego State is a public university, so really this is one public agency selling land to another. It’s all more than I can manage this morning, so instead let’s look at this rendering of a proposed park for the site that features bicyclists riding diagonally across a bike path to avoid a woman who stands in their way with arms akimbo, while birds with bizarre forked tails wheel overhead.
  • You know what would be a terrible idea in the middle of a pandemic that has closed stadiums to fans because gathering in one place is a great way to spread virus? An article telling fans what public spaces they can gather in to catch a glimpse of game action in closed stadiums, and Axios has you covered there! And so does the Associated Press!
  • Sure, hundreds of thousands of people have died and there could be hundreds of thousands more to go, but won’t anyone think of the impact on TV network profits if there’s no football to show in the fall?
  • And speaking of keeping an eye strictly on the bottom line, the NFL is considering requiring fans (if there are any) who attend NFL games this fall (if there are any) to sign a waiver promising not to sue if they contract Covid as a result. But can I still sue if someone goes to a football game, contracts Covid, and then infects me? I’m not actually sure how easily one could sue in either case — since you can never be sure where you were infected with the virus, it would be like suing over getting cancer from secondhand smoke — but I always like the idea of suing the NFL, so thanks for the idea, guys!
  • New York Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner says he wants to see fans at Yankee Stadium “in the 20-30 percent range,” a number and prediction he failed to indicate he pulled from anywhere other than his own butt. Meanwhile, the Chicago Cubs are reportedly planning to open rooftops around Wrigley Field at 25% capacity for watching games this year, something that might actually be legal since while would mean about 800 fans in attendance, they wouldn’t all be in attendance in the same place, so it could get around rules about large public gatherings.
  • If you want to spend $49 and up so a cardboard cutout of yourself can watch Oakland A’s games, you can now do that on the team’s website. If that sounds like a terrible deal, know that with each purchase you also get two free tickets to an exhibition game at the Coliseum in 2021 (if there are any), and if you pay $129 then you also get a foul ball mailed to you if it hits your cutout, all of which still sounds like a terrible deal but significantly more hilarious.
  • If you were hoping to make one last trip to Pawtucket’s 74-year-old McCoy Stadium to see Pawtucket Red Sox baseball before the team relocates to Worcester after this season — it was on my now-deleted summer calendar — you’ll have to settle for eating dinner on the field, because the PawSox season, along with the rest of the minor-league baseball season, has been officially called off. Also, the Boston Herald reports that the Lowell Spinners single-A team won’t be offering refunds to those who bought tickets for non-canceled games, only credits toward 2021 tickets — shouldn’t ticketholders be able to sue for not receiving the product they paid for? I want somebody to sue somebody, already! When will America’s true pastime be allowed to reopen?
  • Here’s a New York Times article on how new MLS stadiums are bucking past stadium trends by being “privately financed, with modest public support for modernizing infrastructure,” which is only true if you consider $98 million (Columbus) and $81 million and up (Cincinnati) to be “modest” figures.
  • I apologize for failing to report last week on the Anaheim Ducks‘ proposed development around their hockey arena, less because it’s super interesting or there is amusing vaportecture than because it’s supposed to be called “ocV!BE,” which is the best name ever, so long as you want to live in a freshly built condo in what sounds like either a randomly generated password or an Aughts rock band.
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Oakland reportedly ready to sell Coliseum site, remember when that was A’s owners’ biggest problem?

The Oakland city council is reportedly (according to “sources close to the talks” who spoke with the San Francisco Chronicle’s Phil Matier) now ready to sell the city’s half of the Oakland Coliseum property to the A’s owners, after the Covid economic crisis has left the city desperate for cash:

The decision came Thursday in a closed session and marks a stark change from last October when city leaders filed suit in an attempt to block Alameda County from selling its half-share of the 155-acre East Oakland site to the team…

Council members are barred from discussing what goes on in closed session, but sources close to the talks said the city’s deal would mirror the county deal and net about $85 million spread out over a yet-to-be determined number of years…

“For me it is about looking at how things have changed when it comes to money,” Oakland City Councilman Noel Gallo said before the meeting.

“After the coronavirus shutdown, we are looking at a very, very serious budget deficit, and they are saying it could cost us $6 million just to maintain the site,” Gallo said. “We don’t have that kind of money. This way we can get some badly needed help.”

As discussed before, this isn’t a terrible idea: $85 million spread out over a few years seems pretty close to fair market value, and if it would get the A’s to start paying property taxes on the Coliseum property, all the better. Yes, there are still state laws requiring that public land for sale be used at least in part for affordable housing, and there’s still the whole issue of whether the Coliseum site would be used for development that would then help fund a new A’s stadium at Howard Terminal, or if a stadium would be built instead on the Coliseum site, or how exactly land value and demand for new development will even work in a post-Covid world. Many, many devils in the details in other words, all of which will presumably be haggled over by the two parties in the middle of a rapidly shifting health and economic disaster — watch out for information asymmetries, that the only advice I can give.

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Friday roundup: Gotta get down to it, soldiers are cutting us down (plus: stadiums still gonna stadium)

A bunch of news items this week, but none of it is as important a read as this series of incredible tweets by my reporter friend Jake Offenhartz about New York City police luring peaceful protestors in the Bronx into an ambush and then trapping them so they could beat them with batons, just one of many horrific reports about the police riots that are currently spreading across the U.S.

There’s a growing move among elected officials in New York and elsewhere to defund the police — $1 billion in cuts is the number being thrown around in New York City, which would still leave the NYPD with $5 billion — and use the savings for other programs  like education and housing that are facing massive cuts amid the pandemic economic crash; I could probably try to draw some parallel between the sports-industrial complex and the police-industrial complex and their parallel drives to make public policy all about meeting their monetary demands, but honestly I’m kind of exhausted by the entirety of everything right now, so hopefully “Americans are being taxed to buy tens of billions of dollars of military equipment for police department to use against them” is sufficient to get the point across.

Anyway, for those of you not in jail or under sedation for your injuries, here’s some news about sports stadium ripoffs:

  • Here’s an article by the desiccated husk of Sports Illustrated about the Oakland A’s potentially stalled Howard Terminal stadium plans that sheds a little more light on owner John Fisher’s problems: He’s having a hard time getting any banks to loan him money in the middle of an economic collapse and with no clear sign of when and if normal sports attendance will resume, and also lots of his family’s Gap stores had to close temporarily, and now he might have to trade his team’s young stars because he only has his net worth of $2 billion to fall back on.
  • The pandemic has Worcester worrying that it won’t be able to cash in on a tax windfall from building a new stadium to lure the Pawtucket Red Sox to town. The good news: There was never going to be a cash windfall in the first place! The bad news: That isn’t very good, as news goes.
  • Here’s an article by a Forbes “contributor” speculating that Tottenham Hotspur‘s new stadium will be the last of the big-money sports venues now that selling lots of tickets to sporting events is at least temporarily a thing of the past, which, I really wouldn’t hold your breath on that.
  • Speaking of which, the Los Angeles city planning commission recently approved a plan for a new 7,500-seat stadium or arena (developers aren’t sure which yet) because, in the words of one developer, “We’re tired of transporting over the hill to see events.”
  • New trailer for Michael Bertin’s documentary “Throw A Billion Dollars From The Helicopter” on the Texas Rangers‘ extraction of public funds for their new stadium to replace their old one because it wasn’t air-conditioned, coming soon to a streaming video site near you!
  • A stadium-sized asteroid is headed toward Earth (well, our general vicinity), and Twitter has already made the obvious joke, good job, Twitter.
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Friday roundup: Ohio could cut stadium funds, A’s could delay stadium plans, sports could return, world could end, anything’s possible

A little distracted this morning with a new work project and the usual pandemic stuff and the not-so-usual riots on TV, but there’s a passel of stadium and arena news I didn’t get to, so let’s get to ’em:

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Billionaire Oakland A’s owner wants a coronavirus rent holiday, but only for him

Times are undoubtedly tough for pro sports team owners, who are looking collectively at billions of dollars in lost revenue thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, though the exact amount will depend on whether they can still play enough games to collect on TV contracts, how much they’ll save on reduced player salaries, and a bunch of other as-yet-indeterminable factors. It helps that the big four North American sports leagues normally bring in almost $40 billion a year in revenue and earn around $6 billion a year in profits (the latter estimated from eyeballing Forbes’ operating income figures, so don’t take that number as gospel), but still the current crisis has team owners looking for ways to pinch pennies, whether it’s telling players they won’t be allowed to play games unless they take huge pay cuts or laying off stadium workers even after they promised they wouldn’t.

Or, if you’re Oakland A’s owner and billionaire Gap heir John Fisher, you decide to simply stop paying rent because their stadium is being considered for use as an emergency medical treatment site while baseball is shut down:

In a March 31 letter, A’s general counsel D’Lonra Ellis cited the stadium authority being “unable to make the Coliseum available for our use” in light of shelter-in-place orders and restrictions on large gatherings enacted by Alameda County and the state.

The A’s had also learned the Coliseum complex was being evaluated as a potential “surge site” for treating COVID-19 patients, the letter stated, and would defer the payment “until we have a better understanding of when the Coliseum will be available for our use.”

Coliseum Authority head Henry Gardner was a little unclear on what justification A’s officials used for withholding this year’s $1.2 million rent payment, telling the Bay Area News Group that “they said because they haven’t used it, they were not able to generate revenue and they have no ability to pay,” then turning around and telling the San Francisco Chronicle that “the A’s never said they didn’t have the money.” There are also mixed reports on whether the ballclub is seeking to defer its rent payment or skip it altogether; BANG has apparently seen the letter, but has chosen not to share it with readers.

Now, there are legitimate arguments for a rent holiday during the pandemic: Some state lawmakers have proposed suspending all rent and mortgage payments for the time being so people don’t lose their homes and businesses for inability to pay, and some nations like Portugal are allowing low-income renters and small business owners to defer rent payments until after the economy has recovered. None of this, needless to say, is what Fisher has in mind, especially since his family investment holdings are thought to include tons of valuable Bay Area real estate — he just wants to be able to skip his own personal stadium rent payment, presumably while all of his tenants go on sending him checks. (It’s worth noting that The Gap has also stopped paying rent on its closed stores, saving an estimated $115 million in April alone.)

Fisher could still be forced to pay up — Coliseum authority member Ignacio De La Fuente responded to the A’s owner’s move by calling his justification “bull” and saying he was “full of it” — but it’s yet another stark reminder of how certain people have the power to simply stop paying rent, while others face eviction proceedings. If you’re Portugal, you try to draw this line based on ability to pay; if you’re the U.S., apparently, you draw it based on the ability to pay high-priced lawyers.

 

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Friday roundup: If you’re watching TV sports in empty stadiums by summer, count yourself lucky

Michael Sorkin, who died yesterday of COVID-19, was a prolific architecture critic (and architect) and observer of the politics of public space, and so not a little influential in the development of my own writing. I’m sure I read some of Sorkin’s architecture criticism in the Village Voice, but he first came on my radar with his 1992 anthology “Variations on a Theme Park,” a terrific collection of essays discussing the ways that architects, urban planners, and major corporations were redesigning the world we live in to become a simulacrum of what people think they want from their environment, but packaged in a way to better make them safely saleable commodities. (I wish I’d gotten a chance to ask him what he thought of the Atlanta Braves‘ new stadium, with its prefab walkable urban neighborhood with no real city attached to it.) In his “Variations on a Theme Park” essay on Disneyland and Disney World, he laid out the history of imagineered cities starting with the earliest World’s Fairs, up to the present day with Disney’s pioneering of “copyrighted urban environments” where photos cannot even be taken and published without prior approval of the Mouse — a restriction he got around by running as an illustration a photo of some clouds, and labeling it, “The sky above Disney World.”

I really hope this isn’t the beginning of a weekly feature on great people we’ve lost to this pandemic, though it seems pretty inevitable at this point. For now, on with the other stadium and arena news, though if you’re looking for a break from incessant coronavirus coverage, you won’t find it here:

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Friday roundup: Pandemic could delay Rams and Chargers stadium, drain hotel tax base for Raiders stadium (and kill millions of people, oh yeah)

And so we come to the close of Week 2 of Coronavirusworld, with still little way of knowing what Week 3 will bring, let alone Week 8 and beyond. (I just now started to write about this far less grim response to Tuesday’s London study, until I noticed none of the authors are infectious disease specialists and the claim that contact tracing can keep infections under control was cited to a single Chinese news story that said nothing of the sort, so maybe stay grim for the moment?) With pretty much all of the sports world now shut down, though — except for Australian Rules Football for some reason — sports journalists have begun looking down the road at longer-term effects of the pandemic, resulting in some useful and some not-so-useful reporting:

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