The Battle for Oakland

Photograph Source: Jay Galvin – CC BY 2.0

In a rare moment of candor in Washington, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois once admitted that “the banks . . . frankly they own this place.” He was referring to that uniquely undemocratic institution known as the Senate.

Here in the city of Oakland, we have our own way of describing the same problem.  We paraphrase, “the developers . . . frankly they own this place.”

The latest proof of this rule is the continuing onslaught of a monster private development on the Port of Oakland.  The stalking horse for this massive project is a new baseball stadium for the Oakland A’s whose piratical owner is blackmailing the City with that familiar-and-feared team owners’ ultimatum: “if you don’t give us a new stadium, we’re leaving town.”

Having lost the Warriors to San Francisco and the Raiders to Las Vegas in the last couple of years, City leadership is quaking and crumbling. The lame duck mayor– no stranger to campaign funding controversy and with ambitious eyes on higher office–is all in on the project. The City Council, in spite of a handful of self-professed progressives, has been mesmerized by other world visions. It’s like Doctor Mabuse has cast a diabolical spell from an ancient Fritz Lang film.

In this story, Doctor Mabuse is played by John Fisher, an American Oligarch from the Fisher Family. You’ll recognize them. They built their GAP fortune selling yuppie apparel manufactured in sweatshops overseas. Oh, they sort of cleaned up their act eventually–after their bank accounts were overflowing—and began doing things like spending $9 million to defeat Barack Obama in 2012, bashing the public school system and buying a baseball team on the cheap.

“On the cheap” is the operative phrase here. John Fisher’s tenure as owner of the A’s can be summed up as “dump good players before they become expensive.”  The A’s shed players faster than collies shed hair.  The rationale is always there same: they need a new stadium to keep the players.  Ann Killion, the savvy sports analyst of the San Francisco Chronicle, put it succinctly,

“The A’s have been using that same old trope for two decades while chasing unattainable stadium plans, pocketing their revenue-sharing money and getting rid of their best players.”

Matt Chapman, one of baseball’s premiere third baseman, was disappeared last month, joining a host of other sterling players from last season who were dumped before their contracts went up in price.  The kid across the street has been wearing a Chapman jersey since he started Little League. Now he wears a no-name jersey. Is there any wonder that A’s attendance is the second lowest in the major leagues?

So does Fisher really want a new stadium to finance and improve his team or is the stadium deal just a bargaining chip for his massive private development?  Again, Ann Killion answers the question:

“Virtually no one believes that billionaire Fisher will pour money into his roster, even with a new ball park. All evidence shows that he’s not willing to do anything but make himself richer.”

So don’t get bowled over by that take-me-out-to-the-ball game banana oil

Fisher’s flunkeys have been spreading all around the neighborhoods. The onslaught on the City is all about the rest of the plan.

We’re talking about the 3,000 private luxury condominiums and high rise office buildings Fisher wants to drop on the public port of Oakland.  It’s instant gentrification, the fabrication of a small wealthy enclave to be inseminated into a real city. That’s Fisher’s plan.  It’s the same A’s “baseball village” concept that the good people Fremont ran out of town several years ago. And now it’s even more expensive.

The official cost for the waterfront project is listed at $12 billion. That’s a lot of money for a private development. But wait, the City says it will pony up a whopping $800 million to help Mister Fisher out.  (For comparison, the City spent $338 million for Police Services in 2020.)  For Fisher’s project, there are also tax breaks, gimmies, takeaways and regulatory relaxations to consider. Who knows the final cost will be?  Remember the Bay Bridge retrofit? The original estimate was $250 million, the final cost $6.5 billion. Well, you know, stuff happens in construction, but at least everyone can drive on the bridge: it’s public.

In spite of all the ballyhoo out of City Hall, there is widespread opposition to “Fisher’s Folly.”  A recent poll found that 76% of Oakland voters want the project to be put on the ballot. Council member Carol Fife, who voted against certifying the project’s EIR, says that “the voters of Oakland should determine whether or not they want their tax dollars spent on a project like this.”

It’s still not clear where the City’s public funding for the project is coming from. The same poll found that 85% of respondents want a full, independent financial analysis of the project. Suspicions of financial sleight-of-hand abound.

At a Carol Fife-organized event at the Taylor Memorial Church, a member of the Oakland United Coalition noted that “our kids in West Oakland are growing up with asthma but there is no remediation plan. There is no local hire job policy.  There is no provision for living wage employment or 35% affordable housing.”  Derek Muhammad of ILWU Local 10 agreed. “For us there is nothing but displacement and gentrification, destruction of our community.”

The Oakland A’s don’t need a new stadium: they need a new owner who will upgrade the perfectly-sited Coliseum, replete with its own BART public transit station. Want to reduce climate-changing automobile traffic? Take BART to the ball game! Bay Area fans have done it for years.

The people of Oakland don’t need 3,000 private luxury condos underwritten by public funding; we need that funding for affordable housing, social services, care for the homeless, job training, street repair and keeping our public schools open and flourishing.

Unfortunately, we’re now in the late innings here in the Battle for Oakland. The visiting team has pulled ahead. The lame duck claims to have garnered the public funding that Fisher wants to green light the project. The mesmerized Council certified an inadequate EIR.  Dark clouds are gathering, and it looks like the game is almost over. If we were in LA, the fans would already be heading for the exits.

“It ain’t over til it’s over,” the immortal Yogi Berra quipped.

The home team—the people of Oakland—bat last.

Stay tuned.

Don Santina’s latest novel, “A Bullet for the Angel,” is a noir tale of murder and gentrification in 1959 San Francisco. He can be reached at