ST. PETERSBURG — Even with a $471 million overhaul, complete with a retractable roof, supersized concourse and upgraded seating, Tropicana Field would remain a subpar facility with substantial design flaws, according to a Tampa Bay Rays' consultant report released Monday.
"When we got done this would be a B-, B+ type of baseball facility as opposed to, obviously, if we do a brand new ballpark, it would be an A+," said Joe Spears, president of Populous, a design firm hired by the Rays.
The Rays' ownership group has long dismissed pleas to renovate and preserve Tropicana Field, citing the cost and difficulty of refurbishing the aging, multiuse stadium into a first-class ballpark. The report supports the team's assertion that a new stadium would compete as an entertainment venue and attract more fans.
"We believe the study leaves little doubt that a renovation of Tropicana Field would not be a prudent course of action going forward," wrote Michael Kalt, Rays vice president of development and business affairs, in a letter to A Baseball Community, the civic group that is studying the possibilities of a new ballpark.
Converting Tropicana Field into a first-class facility would require a sweeping redesign, the report says, so much so that the project would cost more than the Rays' abandoned plan to build a $450 million waterfront stadium.
But that doesn't necessarily mean a major renovation project is off the table.
A revamped Tropicana Field could still be in the community's best interest, said Jeff Lyash, chairman of the ABC coalition and president of Progress Energy Florida.
And the group has discussed hiring an independent consultant to take a second look at how much it would cost to remodel the downtown stadium, although Lyash stressed he did not think the Rays' commissioned report was biased.
So what's wrong with Tropicana Field?
The seats are too narrow, views of the field are obstructed throughout the stadium, and the closed stadium contains no natural light, the study says. The concourse is too narrow and dead-ends, confusing fans and eliminating opportunities for socializing. Some seats are poorly located, so fans must turn to follow action on the field.
The press box, nestled between pricey club suites, takes up too much prime real estate, according to the report. There aren't enough bathrooms or storage nooks, and the design makes cleanup too complicated. Roof catwalks obstruct some views of the field.
The report calls for removing several rows of seats in each lower deck section and at least five rows of seats in many upper deck sections to improve field visibility. That would eliminate nearly 2,000 lower deck seats, leaving a higher proportion of seats in the upper decks, where tickets are cheap and fans are far from the field.
Nearly 1,800 seats would also be removed in the outfield to create a continuous view of the field from the concourse.
The suite and club level would be replaced with larger suites. The press box would be relocated to the upper deck.
In all, the seating changes would remove at least 7,000 of Tropicana Field's 43,000 seats.
The costliest change would require removing the dome roof and replacing it with a retractable fabric roof, along with glass or transparent panes in the exterior wall to bring in more natural light. These features add up to at least $221 million, or almost half of the total renovation cost.
The redesign could be completed as soon as 2013, the report states.
Construction would likely force the team to move to a temporary location for some or all of one season.
The renovation estimates do not include the cost of a temporary move, which would likely add to the final price tag.
The report's findings were not unexpected.
Rick Mussett, the city's development administrator, said any comparison between a structure designed in the 1980s and a 21st century facility would favor the latter. The Rays' insistence on a new stadium is still a matter of opinion, he said.
"It's need vs. want."
The stadium has played a significant role in the forthcoming mayoral election, with many candidates calling for the team to keep Tropicana Field or build a new stadium near that site.
Mayoral hopeful Scott Wagman questioned Populous' projected price tag.
"That's a lot of money," he said. "That's more than what they said it would cost to build a waterfront stadium. That makes no sense to me."
The report did little to sway candidates who have rallied to keep the stadium or refurbish it.
"I still believe Tropicana Field is suitable for major league baseball and can make money for the team as long as they have a winning product," said Bill Foster, who supports giving voters the final say on whether a new stadium should be built.
Larry Williams said he was glad the ABC coalition will consider recommending a renovated Tropicana Field.
"It's still my first choice," he said.
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.