Rays unveil dramatic ballpark vision
ST. PETERSBURG — The Tampa Bay Rays this afternoon revealed a bold plan for a new waterfront baseball stadium at one end of a dramatically transformed St. Petersburg downtown.
The Rays’ plans call for a $450-million, open-air, 34,000-seat stadium to open in 2012 at the current site of Al Lang Field. On the other end of downtown at Tropicana Field, the team proposes a massive retail and residential development.
"We’re talking about a major-league downtown," Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said during a meeting with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board, where he previewed the concept.
"My goodness, it's beautiful," said Gov. Charlie Crist, after a rendering of the stadium was unveiled.
The break in the team’s silence comes after nearly three weeks of speculation. Rays officials said they spent 1 1/2 years working on the plan, which was first reported Nov. 9 by the St. Petersburg Times’ Web site, www.tampabay.com.
The team formally unveiled its plans at a 2:15 p.m. announcement that included Crist, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and Major League Baseball president Bob DuPuy.
Several significant questions remain about financing, parking and the Florida heat.
Rays officials insist the project will not require new tax money. But the plan does call for $60-million in state tax money and property tax revenue from the redeveloped Tropicana Field site, as well as proceeds from the sale of that land.
The team says it believes it can stay within its $450-million stadium budget and, if not, would be responsible for any cost overruns.
"No new taxes," Sternberg said.
The stadium would require approval of St. Petersburg voters, because it involves a long-term lease of waterfront property. The team is asking for a November 2008 city referendum.
The stadium would include a sail-like cover, anchored to a 320-foot-tall mast, that could be used when it rains. It would be constructed in a way to maximize views of the waterfront and the city skyline in what Sternberg termed a "sweeping, open, inviting" design.
"We want to create something iconic … that will become the postcard shot of St. Pete," Rays vice president Michael Kalt said.
The Rays plan for the stadium to open for the 2012 season, which would allow the team to play host to the Major League Baseball All-Star Game within a few years. The team believes the stadium would become a destination, with fans spending hours before and after games in the area.
"We have the ability to make such an impact on the community, and we embrace our responsibility," said Rays president Matt Silverman.
Among the key points to the project:
The Rays are working with one of the world’s largest private real estate developers to turn Tropicana Field and its adjacent parking lots into a mixed-use development worth up to $700-million.
Hines Interests in Houston has developed a plan to turn the 85-acre Trop site into a sprawling retail and residential community, anchored by a major outdoor merchandise chain. Rays officials declined to name the retailer.
The development would include 900 residential units and 1-million square feet of retail space, team officials said. Fourteen new acres of public parks would be created and centered around an enhanced Booker Creek.
If the Rays keep to their timetable, work on the site would begin in 2009, and a first phase would be complete by 2011.
"It’s a blank canvas for a developer," said Rays president Matt Silverman.
Combined with a new stadium on the waterfront, team officials said the development could finally push the growth of downtown beyond the waterfront while fulfilling the promise of economic development that never materialized at the Tropicana site.
In order for any of it to happen, though, the city first would have to request proposals for the site from developers — a requirement because the land is publicly owned.
The city would get to set the ground rules — how many residential units, how much retail — but the developers would set the asking price.
Rays officials said Hines is interested in developing the site, but recognize that other developers would be, too. Kalt said the team would ask the city to begin the development process within months.
Sternberg pledged that the stadium would be built with no new city taxes. The money, $450-million, largely would come from the Rays and the redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site.
The cost includes a contingency, Kalt said, as well as money for improvements to a park to the north of the stadium. Any cost overruns would be the team’s responsibility, Kalt said.
Here’s how the financing would work:
The Rays, who now pay about $1-million a year in rent to the city, would increase their yearly payments to close to $10-million. The city would then issue bonds, with the rent as the pledged revenue, to pay approximately $150-million of the construction costs.
The Rays also would benefit from the sale and redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site. The team said the site could be worth between $250-million and $300-million to the Rays. Part of that money would come from the future property taxes created by the Tropicana redevelopment. Called tax increment financing, the program funnels city and county property taxes toward downtown capital projects.
The tax program has been in place in downtown St. Petersburg since 1982 and runs through 2035.
The two revenue streams, Kalt said, are "sufficient to form a financing plan."
Sternberg said the team also would pursue $60-million in state funding in the form of a sales tax subsidy.
"It is a significant amount of money that would cause us to make changes in our design" if the legislature rejects the funding, Sternberg said. But, "it wouldn’t be a show stopper."
Though the stadium would be open air, a sail-like roof that could be deployed in about eight minutes would provide cover in the event of rain, resulting in postponements or delays only in extreme conditions.
The Rays would play mostly night games in the stadium and would plan to keep the cover on during the afternoons to keep the temperature in the seating area down. Fans or misters would provide cooling, and some stadium areas — possibly the concourses — would be air-conditioned.
Team officials said with that technology and the breeze coming off Tampa Bay, the stadium would be relatively comfortable even without full air conditioning. The team has hired a climatologist who estimates it would be about 4 degrees cooler than the average temperature for a game in Atlanta, and on par with summer conditions in Kansas City and St. Louis.
Rather than the retro look that has been popularized in Baltimore, Cleveland, Arlington, Texas, and San Diego, the proposed stadium would have an open, modernistic “21st century design” without a brick in the building.
Though the 34,000-seat stadium would be a snug fit when oriented on the Al Lang site, the field dimensions will not be compromised, with somewhat standard measurements, including 320 feet down the rightfield line, with balls that go over the wall and splash into the water.
The roof would be attached to the top of the stadium and anchored to a 320-foot mast in left-centerfield. The cables for the roof would be strung permanently over the playing field but high enough that they would only come into play in the most extreme circumstances. (Architects said the same thing about the catwalks at Tropicana Field, but they are hit regularly.)
"Essentially it’s a glorified umbrella," Kalt said.
"I like to think of it as a convertible top," Silverman said.
The seating areas would be constructed to maximize views of the water and St. Petersburg’s skyline, with what would be the smallest upper deck seating area (about 10,000 seats) in Major League Baseball. There would be no seats from the rightfield foul pole across to left-centerfield.
Although the stadium will be designed for baseball, it will be able to accommodate other events, including football, which could lead to a college football bowl game.
To accommodate the stadium, the Rays say they would need to fill in a small area of the waterfront to shift a section of Bayshore Drive east. The road would be closed to vehicles on game days.
At today's announcement, Rays' first-baseman Carlos Pena hit balls from what would be the spot of home plate in the new ballpark. After several attempts, he hit a ball into the Tampa Bay.
There would be minimal parking on the site, provided by a small garage. The Rays say there are enough existing spots in lots and garages in the area. They say there are 12,000 spots within a 15-minute walk of the stadium and that many could be used for game parking, that more could be available, and there will also be parking at the Tropicana Field site, with some type of shuttle service.
-- By Aaron Sharockman and Marc Topkin, Times staff writers