Working Waterfronts Are No Place for a Stadium

February 20th 2020

By MM&P Coast Agent Jeremy Hope

In the last few decades there have been efforts to take waterfront property that has been used for industry and transform it into places of amusement, recreation and high end housing. The most recent iteration of this phenomena is the attempt to build a baseball stadium for the Oakland Athletics on the site of a deep water container terminal at the Port of Oakland. Previous efforts by real estate tycoons have targeted disused waterfront property, but this attempt strikes right at the heart of the Port, its limited deep water facilities and the future of all workers whose livelihoods depend on a working waterfront as opposed to waterfront amusement and recreation.

The idea that the waterfront can be a place of recreation and amusement is a relatively new one. The waterfronts of the great cities of the world used to be the domain of longshoremen and sailors. Pedestrians would not dare seek leisure and enjoyment among the rats and detritus of a city, where garbage and sewage would be carried away without further human effort. Waterfronts were an interface between the land and the sea where commerce and trade developed and thrived, Waterfronts were never a place for recreation or health. Housing was built away from the water. In fact the further away from the water housing was built, the more desirable it was.

Beginning with grass roots movements in the early 1960’s with groups such as Save the San Francisco Bay and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and growing to a broader public awareness and legislation at the Federal and State level in the late ‘60’s and early 70’s, including Nixon’s Environmental Protection Agency and Clean Water Act, there came a new awareness of the value of clean water for both commercial and recreational purposes. Waterfronts were becoming host to growing marinas, not just places for working boats but, with the fiberglass boat revolution and more affordable fishing and sailboats, recreational vessels. Cleaner water and space for leisure and amusement were bringing people to the waterfront. Developers began to take note of the potential that waterfront property held.

Those of us who “go down to the sea in ships” have seen the works of developers around the world: container ports springing up far from the old waterfront docks where for centuries cargo was loaded and unloaded and the old break-bulk piers and wharves turned into places of recreation, residence and repast. In the San Francisco Bay, for example, seeing the writing on the wall, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union agreed in 1960 to a mechanization contract which saw the transfer of most cargo operations from the Embarcadero in San Francisco to the new container terminals being constructed across the bay in Oakland. Container operations created a tremendous increase in volume of cargo and therefore truck and rail traffic in out of the port areas. The proximity of these new terminals closer to highways and rail lines and away from the congestion of the center of cities that, ironically, owe their original development to the ports, allowed for a much more efficient movement of cargo to and from the origins and destinations of cargo inland.

One of the first examples of waterfront redevelopment was the Inner Harbor complex in Baltimore, designed and built by the Rouse Company in an effort to revitalize and draw tourists to Baltimore. A new container terminal was built in nearby Dundalk and the ship traffic venturing into the Inner Harbor only consists of Naval vessels and tall ships visiting the port.

In the San Francisco Bay area, since the movement of most cargo operations to Oakland, the San Francisco waterfront has been used for other purposes and with the demolition of the Embarcadero freeway, has enjoyed a renaissance of economic activity, some of it maritime related. While the world famous Fisherman’s Wharf has long been a tourist attraction and is in fact still a working area for fishing and crabbing boats, the old piers along the Embarcadero originally built in the early to mid 1900’s for break bulk cargo now serve a variety of functions such as Ferry service, museums and rental property for businesses as well as two terminals for passenger ships. A stadium for the San Francisco Giants was completed on the waterfront south of the Bay Bridge at the site of an unused terminal.

Across the Bay in Oakland, other than the working terminals, a small shallow draft section of the waterfront was redeveloped and named Jack London Square in celebration of the local author. The area is now home to many restaurants and shops as well as new high end condo developments. As stated earlier, the example of Oakland is particularly prescient at this time as the billionaire owner of the Oakland A’s baseball team is attempting to affect a real estate transaction including the A’s current home at the nearby Coliseum site which would result in a new baseball stadium and numerous condos and shops to be built along the working waterfront of Oakland at the Charles P. Howard Terminal.

Howard Terminal consists of two deep water berths with container cranes and a roughly 55 acre container yard. Matson used the Terminal until 2013 when the Company moved further down the estuary to a larger terminal commensurate with their growth and since that time Howard Terminal has been used as a container staging facility for the Port of Oakland, the location of the ILWU training facility and the berth has been used for layup vessels. The plan to build a 35,000 seat stadium at this location is ill conceived and an attack on the workers at the Port of Oakland and the hundreds of thousands of people in the wider region whose livelihoods depend on a viable port. Howard Terminal is located between a major rail line, an overweight truck and rail corridor, and the turning basin in the estuary where all of the container ship traffic docking at the Inner Harbor turns either before or after their port stay. The A’s have presented no realistic plan for transporting fans to and from the 81 home games a year. For a reasonable person, a look at the map of the area shows the grave concerns for “shoe-horning” of a stadium/condo/shopping complex into the industrial heart of the port.

If the stadium were built, the threat to the rest of the port will have only begun. The container cranes of Oakland have become a treasured symbol of the city. In a most tone deaf statement the CEO of the A’s baseball team has said the stadium construction plan would keep the two container cranes at Howard Terminal as an homage to the port. What it sounded like to many of us listening were that the two cranes, rather than an homage, would be tombstones for the Port. Once people have settled into their million dollar condos at Howard Terminal with great views of the port and San Francisco beyond, it will only take one night to recognize that a port works 24 hours a day and the bright lights and noise associated with nearby container operations are not as romantic as they had imagined. Soon the port would face political pressure to limit hours and eventually to shut down and sell the land to real estate developers to build more condos.

Similar attacks on the existence of the working waterfront have occurred and are ongoing in Seattle and Portland. In Seattle, the City Council fought back against the greed of developers and voted against an effort to clear the way for a waterfront basketball arena. Portland continues to court Major League Baseball with promises of a waterfront Baseball Stadium.

The proposal from the A’s comes packaged with a false dilemma: “If we don’t let them build a stadium where they want, we will lose the team.” Those testifying before the Oakland City Council regarding the A’s proposed stadium do not highlight the benefits of a waterfront stadium but mostly show the symptoms of extortion victims: Give them what they want; we must not lose our team.

In our fight to maintain the viability of the Port of Oakland into the future, we also stand with our communities of East and West Oakland, where gentrification and decades of enforcement of eminent domain laws have permanently crippled these majority African American communities. Projects such as the BART transit system which was conceived to serve the financial center of San Francisco along with a new Postal distribution center destroyed the historic and vibrant 7th Street that was once known as the “Harlem of the West.” In East Oakland with the Oakland Athletic’s move from Kansas City in 1968, a community was uprooted to create new and wider streets to service the Coliseum, the Oakland A’s current home. If the team leaves East Oakland, they are divesting from a community to which they give lip service with their slogan of “Rooted in Oakland.” With the construction of Candlestick Park in San Francisco in 1960, the African American communities were leveled with the promise of jobs for the local community which never materialized to the extent promised, and the community remains scarred while the baseball team has moved on.

Stability and progress in our ever changing industry requires vigilance and solidarity. We seek not just to survive but to grow and thrive for the economic interest of not only our members but of our communities and of this great country. Many of our modern struggles and efforts are in the halls of the Congressional Office buildings, State and local governments and at the negotiating table with our employers. Often these struggles are for the very survival of our workplaces, like with the fight to maintain a viable Merchant Marine and the very vessels we operate. This time we rise in solidarity to prevent the transformation of the working waterfront into a playground and condos for the wealthy. We will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with our brothers and sisters down at the docks and keep up this fight, insuring that the next generation will be able to carry on the proud legacy of waterfront work.