As waters rise, so do concerns for sports teams along coast

One franchise’s challenge: Amid rising sea levels, build a stadium to last 100 years.
A number of American pro sports venues could be vulnerable to rising waters brought on by climate change, including Citi Field in New York (home of MLB's Mets); Oracle Park in San Francisco (MLB's Giants); American Airlines Arena in Miami (NBA's Heat); Petco Park in San Diego (MLB's Padres); TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Fla. (NFL's Jaguars); and MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. (NFL's Giants and Jets).

OAKLAND, Calif. — The infield is made of asphalt right now. So are the dugouts, the outfield and the stands. Someday this might be home to a baseball stadium, but today Howard Terminal is little more than a parking lot for 16-wheelers, populated by far more sea gulls than baseball fans.

Dave Kaval, the Oakland Athletics’ team president, walks from the gigantic cranes on the water’s edge to what soon might be the site of home plate. It smells like diesel fuel, not peanuts or Cracker Jacks. He no longer sees this 55-acre plot of land as a desolate storage space along the San Francisco Bay. He can’t afford to focus on what he sees here today or dwell on what the ballpark might look like when it opens its doors. He has to figure out how a stadium still might be serviceable decades down the road.

Game Changer
This series will examine the impact climate change is having on the world of sports, from elite competitors to recreational athletes.

“We’re hopeful we’re going to build a ballpark that’s like a Fenway or Wrigley,” he said, “that will last 100 years.”

To do that, the A’s are having to confront a growing list of challenges, many that might not fully present themselves for years to come. The team is determined to build on the water, which on the surface might seem ill-advised. After all, the water surrounding the proposed construction site is expected to rise in the coming decades. That means Kaval faces a cascading series of problems that many teams and leagues operating in coastal cities are just starting to confront:

How do you maintain operations in areas vulnerable to climate change? How do you sustain facilities and retain fans? How do you make it all economically viable when threats such as sea level rise are inevitable?

Economists warn that climate change will have a major financial impact around the globe, and one working paper published last month stated that the United States could lose up to 10.5 percent of its gross domestic product by 2100 if emissions of greenhouse gases are not significantly cut. The economic impact similarly will be felt across the sports universe, one that could measure in the billions of dollars.

There has been no formal study done, but Allen Hershkowitz, an environment scientist who helped found Sport and Sustainability International, notes that teams and leagues will have to account for the physical impact on the venues but also losses from the disruption of business. Some locations will be prone to flooding, some to drought and still others to extreme heat, he says, and many will have to make serious adjustments in the years to come.

It’s a global issue, of course, and cities from Shanghai to Mumbai are bracing for rising sea levels. While the sports world might represent only a fraction of the industry and culture endangered by climate change, the games people love to play and watch are also among the most visible, not to mention vulnerable — touching cities and venues that have hosted some of the world’s biggest sporting events.

Many of this country’s favorite sports are contested near water. If sea levels someday were to rise five or six feet — regarded by many in the scientific community as an extreme projection that might be more likely next century — consider just some of the areas and sports facilities in the United States that probably would experience flooding: TD Garden in Boston, Citi Field in New York, MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, Petco Park in San Diego, Del Mar Racetrack in California, Oracle Park in San Francisco, plus numerous college facilities, high school fields and golf courses that dot the nation’s coastline — not to mention much of South Florida.

The Athletics’ ambitious stadium proposal highlights many of the problems posed by rising sea levels and some of the creative solutions teams and leagues might consider to address them. In targeting a site that the city of Oakland says sits six feet above sea level, Kaval said the team had no choice but to acknowledge the potential impacts of climate change.

A rendering of the proposed ballpark at Jack London Square in Oakland. (Bjarke Ingels Group)

“For us, it was just the reality of the situation,” he said. “Living in the Bay Area on the water — the only areas with open land where you can build — this just became a key criteria and something we had to deal with head-on.”

It won’t be easy. Even without climate change considerations, building a stadium is a tricky maze of regulations, politics and legal challenges — one that got more complicated for the A’s this month when Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred waded into the process and warned local government officials that relocating the team isn’t out of the picture.

But if the A’s get the go-ahead to begin construction next year on their 34,000-seat dream stadium, a privately financed ballpark that probably will cost north of $500 million, the team will have to dig down and build up. It will have to confront the site’s industrial past to plan for an uncertain future, the unpredictable realities of climate change dictating much of the project.

“It’s obviously expensive,” Kaval said during a recent tour. “But these are investments that need to be made or these areas will not be usable both in the medium term and the long term.”

‘It’s not a long-term option’

Coastal cities across the country face a variety of threats, but no area is as vulnerable as South Florida, which is expected to see more storms, rising sea levels, increased flooding and storm surges. While that puts communities around Florida in serious jeopardy, it’s also a major threat to a bustling sports economy.

The Florida Sports Foundation estimated in 2017 that the economic footprint of the sports industry in the state tops $57.4 billion and accounts for 580,000 jobs. Florida is home to 10 top-level professional sports teams, two international tennis tournaments and two NASCAR tracks. It hosts 15 baseball teams for spring training and is home to 26 minor league teams. Plus, there are 60 colleges and universities that field at least one sports program and some of the top high school athletic teams in the country.

Nearly all of it could be in jeopardy.

“It’s just a wonderful place to live,” said Harold Wanless, chair of the University of Miami’s department of geological sciences, “but we’ll be moving on some time this century. … We’re going to enjoy this place as long as we can. But it’s not a long-term option.”

While most scientists agree that sea levels are rising, many climatologists — with a better understanding of how quickly ice sheets are melting in Greenland and Antarctica — now think earlier projections might have been too conservative.

“I always feel like I’m the doctor who’s giving bad news to a patient,” said Marco Tedesco, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “But we are starting to understand the reasons and the processes more, and there is a much larger consensus that many of the previous estimates were underestimated.”

Last month, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report noting that sea level rise is accelerating, that waters across the planet could rise by 3.6 feet by the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase and that “beyond 2100, sea level will continue to rise for centuries.” The report also outlined the increased risks facing low-lying areas, noting that extreme flooding events that have historically struck once every 100 years could be an annual occurrence in some places by 2050.

Because of the evolving science and uncertainty looming down the road, the scientists behind the report said they could not rule out sea rise hitting two meters — more than 6½ feet — by the end of the century. Some of those immersed in the field say they’re fearful of something much more pronounced, perhaps even 10 feet or more.

“It could be 20 or 30,” Wanless said matter-of-factly. “But I don’t push the 30 too much because that just drives people to go have a drink and forget about it.”

In Florida, if the levels someday reach five feet, the playing field at the Jacksonville Jaguars’ TIAA Bank Field would be underwater, Trump National Doral golf course will be flooded and water could be seeping through the front door at American Airlines Arena in downtown Miami. If it reaches six feet, the area around Marlins Park could be submerged, along with Gulfstream Park and Homestead-Miami Speedway. As the water levels inch higher, more structures, more teams and more mainstays of the Florida sports landscape become imperiled and waterlogged.

According to some estimates, up to $15 billion in coastal property in Florida could be inundated by sea-level rise by 2030 and $23 billion by 2050. And yet they keep building — condos and high-rises and shopping centers and yes, sports stadiums. Marlins Park opened in 2012 with a price tag of $634 million. The Dolphins are paying $350 million for a renovation of what’s now called Hard Rock Stadium. Inter Miami FC, a Major League Soccer expansion team that begins play in 2020, is hoping to build a 25,000-seat stadium near the airport.

Henry Briceño, a research professor at Florida International University’s Center for Aquatic Chemistry and Environment, called the continued growth in the region “craziness.”

“Do these people know that they’re building on the future Atlantis?” he said.

Howard Terminal in Oakland, Calif. (Bjarke Ingels Group)

‘A lot of unknowns’

While Florida is considered a ground zero of sorts for dangers posed by rising waters, across the country, Oakland Athletics officials are plenty familiar with flooding issues. Since 1966, they have played at RingCentral Coliseum, where team officials say the playing field is located 22 feet below sea level and workers routinely have to pump water out of the dugouts.

The stadium has seen better days, and when the Raiders couldn’t land a new stadium deal, they decided to relocate to Las Vegas. The Golden State Warriors also have moved, across the bay to San Francisco this fall, which leaves the A’s as the last pro team in Oakland.

The storied baseball franchise had been exploring new stadium options for most of the past two decades, but when John J. Fisher bought the franchise in 2016, the team affirmed its plans to remain in Oakland. It was a decision that limited its stadium options and meant the team almost certainly would have to contend with the effects of climate change.

“Any of the sites that we’re choosing from had sea level rise challenges that we’d have to confront,” said Kaval, who’s in his third year as team president.

They settled on a former shipping terminal located adjacent to Jack London Square along an estuary, 55 acres of waterfront property in a neighborhood the team hopes it can help transform, with the ballpark serving as a cornerstone for new housing and businesses.

Howard Terminal had the benefit of sitting six feet above sea level, but the A’s knew they needed to plan for something bigger. The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, a state planning and regulatory agency, requires developers to consider climate change for any new construction along the water. Its “Bay Plan” notes that the California Climate Action Team projects as much as 17 inches of sea rise by 2050 and perhaps as much as six feet by the end of the century.

If sea level rise is complicated by evolving variables, solving the myriad problems can be just as vexing.

“There is a lot of unknowns around the data, unknowns around the challenges, unknowns around the risks,” said Richard Kennedy, a landscape architect with James Corner Field Operations.

The A’s chose to plan for the most extreme models and publicly unveiled their designs for the Howard Terminal site last November. They plan to raise the foundation at Howard Terminal four feet in some areas, building the new ballpark atop a citadel and positioning the new stadium 10 or so feet above sea level. The stadium would be located at least 100 feet from the water, which gives designers a malleable band of land with which to work. The A’s envision a waterfront park that probably will adapt over time. As waters rise, that land can be molded to include berms, terraces, steps and even sea walls that can divert or block water and protect the surrounding area.

“It’s much easier to adapt landscape than it is to adapt ballparks and buildings and infrastructure,” Kennedy said.

That’s among the many design elements the A’s feel make the proposed ballpark unusual and forward-thinking, including a giant rooftop park that is accessible year-round and a gondola service that would transport people from downtown.

The architectural renderings depict excited fans strolling through lush green spaces. The real impact of climate change is not visually represented in the drawings, of course. The biggest risks are unseen. If waters start hitting dangerous levels here, it won’t look like something from an end-of-days Hollywood blockbuster, but it could be disastrous nonetheless.

‘We’re trying to be a part of the solution’

As the planet continues to warm, scientists say waters won’t rise evenly. It’s not like filling a bathtub, and some areas will see more drastic sea rise than others, with storm surge and high tides also wreaking more havoc in certain places.

But around the Oakland waterfront, the biggest danger might lurk below the ground, where rising saltwater could push fresh water upward. That water could be catastrophic in low-lying areas, inundating underground infrastructure.

“Most people think of groundwater as a scarcity in California,” said Kristina Hill, a professor at the University of California Berkeley who specializes in environmental planning and urban design. “But, in fact … we’re going to have too much. It’s going to come up higher, and it’s actually going to emerge as flooding in a lot of our coastal sediment.”

The water table is located just a couple of feet below the surface of Howard Terminal, which presents several challenges for engineers, who will have to contend with whatever that water pushes out of the ground. A former industrial site, Howard Terminal is considered a “brownfield” property by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which means any development is complicated by long-buried pollutants and contaminants. The San Francisco Chronicle this year reviewed regulatory documents that found the soil and groundwater there contains hazardous and cancer-causing chemicals.

“As that groundwater comes up, it’s going to remobilize things that we’ve believed were buried and isolated in the soil,” Hill said.

This is a major issue for developing in former industrial sites along the water. In Miami, for example, the new soccer team, backed by David Beckham, has struggled to get its stadium off the ground. The elevation of the land is only about 7½ feet, and an environmental report released last month found that soil is contaminated with toxic levels of arsenic, barium and lead. Some of it is as shallow as a half-foot and would pose a major health risk should it be carried out of the ground by rising water levels. The Miami mayor told the Miami Herald, which first reported on the environmental study, that cleanup costs could total $50 million.

The San Francisco Bay area has an added complication: earthquake risks. Much of the Howard Terminal site has been created by using fill materials, which was not necessarily intended to support a giant building or thousands of daily visitors. In addition to being less stable, that fill could be more porous than a typical foundation, which makes the area especially vulnerable to rising water.

The Athletics say they know they might have to clean or replace the soil — a complicated and costly process. Kaval likes to point out the alternative to erecting a new ballpark on the site: The area remains vulnerable to sea level rise, never sees redevelopment and remains an unused, contaminated brownfield property.

“We’re trying to be a part of the solution,” he says.

American Airlines Arena in Miami is one facility that could be vulnerable to the flooding that likely will affect the city in the coming years. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

‘You got to look long-term’

Around the coastline of just about every country, the future involves coping with water, developing strategies to make cities sustainable and safe, bolstering infrastructure to help residents. Building a stadium fortified against rising waters might give a baseball team a nice place to play, but it doesn’t necessarily solve water issues for surrounding neighborhoods.

“It’s not just about the stadium itself,” said Jesse Keenan, a Harvard professor who teaches courses on climate adaptation. “It’s about the ancillary transportation and infrastructure that services it. Especially for Miami — you have to have a way to get there. Surface flooding or street flooding will be problematic.”

Kaval wants to keep professional sports in Oakland and is hopeful the city can adapt in a way that sustains baseball, a bustling populous and a thriving community. The city council must give the project a final approval, which could happen as early as March, after a full review of the environmental report. If it can survive potential legal challenges, the team could break ground as early as late 2020 with hopes of hosting baseball games along San Francisco Bay in 2023.

And if that happens, Kaval is hopeful fans will be filing into a stadium that’s built for decades to come, able to withstand anything Mother Nature has in store. The project, he says, could someday serve as a model for other sports teams, other builders and other cities.

“You got to look long term on these things,” he said. “If you’re going to make a huge, hundreds of millions of dollars of investment, you want to make sure it has longevity.”

Story by Rick Maese, design by Cece Pascual, photo editing by Thomas Simonetti

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