Conventional wisdom states that it makes more sense for a city to pursue a professional baseball team than a football franchise. The reason is that Major League Baseball (MLB) clubs play 81 home games a year, compared to just 10 for football teams. As such, baseball attracts more people to a city — people who also tend to patronize other businesses, especially bars and restaurants. Baseball, in short, provides a bigger boost to a city’s financial well-being. Oakland, however, may have to ignore that conventional wisdom, because, unfortunately, the Oakland A’s have perhaps the most recalcitrant owner in all of sports: Lew Wolff.
Indeed, Wolff is nearly impossible to deal with — primarily because he’s made it clear over the past decade that he doesn’t want to be in Oakland. MLB and the courts have repeatedly told him that he essentially has no choice but to keep his team here. But he remains as obstinate as ever — and is giving Oakland officials almost no choice but to prioritize the needs of the Raiders over those of the A’s. And perhaps that’s exactly what he wants.
Wolff’s latest contrarian move came late last week in an interview with the Oakland Tribune in which he declared that he had no interest in Oakland’s Coliseum City project. Coliseum City is a proposed privately financed mega-development on the current Coliseum property that would include new stadiums for the A’s and Raiders, along with hotels, apartments and condos, bars and restaurants, and retail.
Wolff knows full well that Oakland officials have proposed Coliseum City because the city has no money of its own to help build new sports stadiums. In fact, it’s pretty clear that no city in California has the extra cash to spend on professional sports complexes. But the Coliseum City plan doesn’t require taxpayer money; instead, the revenues generated by so-called ancillary development — the hotels, condos, etc. — would help finance the construction of the new stadiums.
But Wolff told the Tribune last week that he just wants a new ballpark and acres and acres of surface parking — with no ancillary development. Mega projects like Coliseum City require that most of the parking be located in multi-story garages because surface parking takes up too much space, thereby leaving not enough land for the revenue-generating ancillary development. That’s especially true for the 120-acre Coliseum site.
Now, one might think that Wolff is just a stubborn owner who wants what he wants. But if history is any guide, Wolff’s latest announcement is no more than just another case of him throwing a wrench into a plan to build a new ballpark in Oakland.
Why? Because Wolff himself has said repeatedly in the past that sports stadiums in Oakland and other places can’t be financed without projects like Coliseum City. In fact, in 2005, Wolff proposed his own Coliseum City (he called it an “urban ballpark village”) for 100 acres of land just north of the Coliseum, between 66th Avenue and High Street. Wolff’s proposal was remarkably similar to Coliseum City: It featured a 35,000-seat ballpark, a hotel, housing, retail, bars and restaurants, and parking garages. I remember attending the presentation of his plan to Coliseum Authority officials in August 2005. “Gee whiz,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle that year, “we can … go north of our park and do what we call an urban ballpark village.”
Less than a year later, Wolff abandoned that plan because it would have required the city to force about seventy blue-collar businesses off their properties through eminent domain. It was an untenable proposal. In fact, many A’s fans believe to this day that Wolff was never serious about the ballpark village and only proposed it because he knew Oakland officials would never displace that many businesses — and thus he could tell MLB that he had “tried” to build a new facility in Oakland, but it didn’t work out, and so the league should let him move his club.
But that’s not all. In 2006, Wolff proposed a similar ballpark village plan for Fremont. He even went so far as to buy about 150 acres of land himself for his proposal. But he then gave up on it because of vocal opposition from Fremont residents who feared traffic from the proposed new condos surrounding the stadium. In a July 2010 public letter to fans, Wolff explained the importance of a ballpark village to financing a new facility. “In Oakland or Fremont, a privately financed stadium would have required ‘residential entitlements’ — or as they’re better known, development rights to build condos,” he wrote.
So why is Wolff now against a ballpark village, when he was still touting them less than five years ago? Perhaps it’s because he knows all too well that a new stadium on the Coliseum site can’t be financed without one. And so if he blocks it, then no new stadiums will get built, and he’ll once again be able to revive his true desire — leaving the East Bay.
For her part, Mayor Libby Schaaf appears to be not taking the bait. She told me that she’s going to keep moving forward with the Coliseum City proposal, including new stadiums for both the Raiders and the A’s. “My plan is to work very hard to keep both teams at the table,” she said.
However, at some point, that table might have to only include the Raiders.