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A black and white image of the Oakland Coliseum from above, filled with people. The parking lot in the upper half of the image shows a parking lot filled with cars.

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A plea to save the Oakland Coliseum

Don’t build a BIG mistake

Aerial view of the Oakland Coliseum in 1988 before its renovation.
| Photo by Digital First Media via Getty Images

In November 2018, the Oakland Athletics revealed the latest chapter in its saga to build a new stadium: a waterfront ballpark at Howard Terminal, a Port of Oakland site adjacent to Jack London Square. The proposal—designed by the Bjarke Ingels Group (aka BIG), Gensler, and landscape firm James Corner Field Operations—features a stadium surrounded by a promenade, residential and commercial high-rises, and parks. While it looks flashy, it’s also a big mistake—and I say this as an East Bay native, an A’s fan, and an advocate for good urbanism.

Architecturally, the Howard Terminal proposal, which, in February of this year, was updated with a rounder appearance, looks neither exciting nor innovative. It’s as if BIG slapped together all of its old ideas. With its pixelated facade, sloping silhouette, and rooftop park, the stadium is a derivative of the firm’s 2013 Copenhagen waste-to-energy plant. I’m not exactly sure what to make of the the strange Hobbit domes erupting on the “rooftop park,” which slopes down to the waterfront at center outfield. (Wonder how they’ll negotiate the necessary batter’s eye with that view.) The high-rises choking the stadium are truncated versions of the firm’s New York City tetrahedral W57 luxury condos, which San Francisco Chronicle urban design critic John King called a “shameless knockoff.”

Inaccessibility and inconvenience should have been a non-starter for the Howard Terminal site. It’s a 20-minute walk (through industrial areas) from the West Oakland BART station and a 30-minute trek from the Lake Merritt station. A new gondola that will supposedly take 6,000 fans an hour from Downtown Oakland to the stadium is part of the proposal, but that capacity doesn’t match BART; a single 10-car train can transport as many as 1,400 people during peak commutes. On a typical Saturday night, 12 trains pass through the station every hour—that’s a capacity of almost 17,000 people. On event nights, BART dispatches even more trains to accommodate the extra 3,000 to 3,500 trips that games usually contribute. Upon reading the gondola part of the proposal, a friend of mine called it “Oakland’s very own Vail.”

The Athletics’ site says the new design “returns the baseball experience to the root of the sport,” but it essentially erases the space where the team had its famed World Series wins (in 1972, 1973, 1974, and 1989), saw dozens of Bash Brothers homers, and established Sabermetrics as standard practice in baseball. The old stadium ought to be hallowed ground for the sport. The proposal includes an idea to turn the Coliseum site into a tech campus and concert destination, which includes a baseball diamond to commemorate the A’s. A field shouldn’t be a headstone for what was; it should be in active use as a living monument.

The A’s organization describes BIG’s Howard Terminal proposal as “a jewel box.” But why be a box when you can be a gem? The current stadium is literally sunken into the landscape like a diamond nestled into its setting. Just like championship rings need to be polished to maintain their shine, the area around the stadium needs some work.

Batter at home plate waiting to swing a ball from the pitcher.
The World Series on October 1972 at Oakland Coliseum.
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The Oakland–Alameda County Coliseum, commonly referred to as the Oakland Coliseum, is itself a rarity: It’s symmetrical, and it hosts the largest foul territory of any major league field, which gives an advantage to the home team to catch outs. It also contributed to the team’s reputation for minting top-tier third basemen.

And in case you forgot, the stadium was beautiful when it was built in 1966—before the 1995 addition of seating for Raiders games (aka Mount Davis) disrupted the Coliseum’s architectural nuance and ruined its panorama of Oakland.

Designed by SOM—one of the country’s largest and most historic architecture firms—the current stadium is harmoniously round. From above, it looks vaguely Apple Park-esque. It’s built from concrete, a democratic, modern, and strong material. Looking at the exposed piers on the exterior, I see a cadence akin to the Roman Colosseum’s arches. The architects and engineers sheltered the stadium into the earth, thereby making its scale less domineering and more in line with the neighboring indoor arena.

“The relationship between the architecture, the land, and the climate has a real California vibe to it,” SOM architect Craig Hartman told a KPIX reporter in 2016 about the stadium’s significance. “It was part of the American ethos at the time of making places that were flexible, transformable, and could serve multiple uses.”

The Coliseum complex has earned a number of architecture and civil engineering awards over the years. Most notably, in 1993, the California Council of the American Institute of Architects bestowed the prestigious 25-year award to the Oakland Coliseum complex. Landmarks like the Eames House, Sea Ranch, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Marin Civic Center and VC Morris Gift Shop, Ghirardelli Square, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium have all received the same reward.

While the Coliseum is peerless, it’s in good company. The stadium should assume its rightful place in architectural history and be ranked—alongside the Oakland Museum, St. Mary’s Cathedral, and the Transamerica Building—as one of best Brutalist structures in the Bay Area.

Modern day aerial view of baseball stadium and basketball arena.
How it looks today: Oracle Arena, left, and the Coliseum seen in this aerial view.
Photo by Digital First Media Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images

While baseball is considered America’s pastime, much of its architectural history has been lost. Even though it dates from the midcentury, the Coliseum is one of the sport’s elder statesmen, structurally speaking. Only Fenway Park (c. 1912), Wrigley Field (c. 1914), and Dodger Stadium (c. 1962) predate it. (Angels Stadium in Anaheim, California, opened a few months before the Coliseum.)

The Coliseum represents a time when governments viewed infrastructure as a point of civic pride. Its design and its symbolism for Oakland’s progressive attitude toward construction impressed the owner of the Kansas City Athletics and was a major reason why he relocated his team to Oakland in 1968.

I admit my arguments for—and attachment to—the Coliseum lean nostalgic. It was the first place I ever saw a baseball game in person. I have fond memories of sitting in the stands on sunny afternoons, sneaking away from the cheap seats to field level, tailgating so long that I almost missed entire games, and lying on the field for fireworks. I know memories can be made anywhere, and if the A’s build a new stadium, it will be to someone else what the Coliseum is to me. But what’s most consequential has nothing to do with wistfulness. It’s about practicality.

Why move farther from mass transit?

With the Coliseum, Oakland and the Athletics already have an accessible location and a signature work of architecture—of course, the Brutalist masterpiece is in urgent need of TLC—and a blank slate around it. Their best opportunity for the city to build and create a good stadium experience is right there.

Yes, there are leaks, outdated infrastructure, plumbing problems, and a bad reputation. It’s been called a “big concrete toilet.” This is fixable. And, with a little imagination, the Coliseum could become an example of the power of adaptive reuse and urban infill. The opportunities to turn the area into a thriving neighborhood and destination are endless.

Earlier this year, Chris De Benedetti of the East Bay Express suggested “[T]hose who run the Coliseum need to change the conversation about the East Oakland property, transforming its negative image into a positive one.”

First, the Coliseum is in a good location and can only get better with redevelopment investment. It’s adjacent to a local and regional transit hub. It’s a 15-minute shuttle ride to an international airport, 30 minutes by train to downtown San Francisco, and near major freeways. Rip out the acres of parking lot and add pedestrian-friendly streets, affordable housing, schools, a grocery store, restaurants, retail, artists studios, and offices. Build open space that will also help buffer the site from sea level rise. Make it a good transit-oriented neighborhood, and people will come.

Renovations would also make the experience of going to a game more enticing. Restoring the stadium to its original configuration—like obliterating Mount Davis—would bring intimacy to the field and once again offer spectators views of the Oakland Hills. Install better seats. Bring in more options from the city’s booming food scene. Enliven the concessions areas with artwork. The drab concrete-and-chain-link concourse from BART to the stadium could be widened and turned into a triumphant High Line-like elevated park.

But since the stadium redesign process wasn’t competitive, we’ll never know the possibilities. Shortly after the BIG proposal was announced, outgoing Oakland City Councilmember Desley Brooks commented that “Oakland never got the opportunity to see all the opportunities on the Coliseum site because we’ve got groupies instead of leaders making decisions for us.”

As the San Francisco Chronicle points out about the Howard Terminal proposal: “No agreements are in place between the team and public agencies that are part of the negotiations. The parties have not reached any economic deal, and there will be a months-long process to hammer out community benefits, infrastructure spending, transportation plans and other issues.”

That’s a lot of issues. Meanwhile, the city is betting the stadium will invigorate Jack London Square. A Brookings Institute analysis of new stadiums concluded that new sports facilities have “an extremely small (perhaps even negative) effect on overall economic activity and employment.”

The Howard Terminal proposal is based on the myth of stadiums as economic drivers and represents a dying era of Starchitecture that’s preoccupied with authored objects. The renderings released are just marketing hype. Oakland deserves better.

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