ST. PETERSBURG — The Tampa Bay Rays' newfound success and popularity have created a parking nightmare around Tropicana Field, city officials say.
Fans park anywhere they can, and often illegally: on private property, in front of fire hydrants, in handicap spaces. Property owners are getting in on the action and charging fans to park on their land, sometimes illegally.
"It's a free-for-all," said City Council member Leslie Curran, who owns an art gallery near the stadium.
Fans also are filling up the two-hour street spaces near Tropicana Field on game nights, despite risking a $17.50 parking ticket.
"We give out hundreds of tickets per game, but it really hasn't had any effect on people," said Joe Kubicki, the city's transportation director.
On a recent Saturday night, fans packed the dome to see the Rays beat the Toronto Blue Jays. A postgame concert by '90s rap star MC Hammer helped draw hordes of people.
The city wrote 297 tickets that night. Of those, 233 involved expired meters, with 55 on Central Avenue alone.
In comparison, the city doled out only 124 tickets for a Rays-Red Sox matchup on a Saturday in July last year. About 100 involved expired meters.
"It's horrible," said Erica Adkins, manager of Cafe Bohemia on Central Avenue, who now rides her bicycle to work on game nights to avoid the frenzy. "All the street parking on Central will be full, but it will be dead in here all night long because there is nowhere for our customers to park."
Tropicana Field boasts 7,000 parking spaces. The city has issued permits for at least 2,000 other spaces on private property near the stadium.
But with more than 30,000 fans turning out for Rays games against the Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs this season, parking within easy walking distance of the stadium is at a premium.
The city is considering increasing code enforcement and police patrols in the area on game nights. The city has even created a baseball parking page on its Web site reminding fans to "only park in legal spaces."
Property owners who want to rent out parking spaces must apply for a $200 permit. The city has issued 28 permits for temporary parking lots near Tropicana Field, up from 18 last year.
"On some nights, I've got people offering me $50 to park," said Jim Anson, owner of Food Wholesalers on 19th Street S who legally rents out his company's parking lot on a sliding scale. "I have to tell them, 'No, I don't have any more spaces.'"
Illegal parking lots are shut down immediately, said Gary Bush, the city's code compliance operations manager.
Jason Sanchez charges drivers $5 to $20, depending on the demand to park at his vacant lot along Central. Before the real estate bust, his family planned to build a condominium there. This month, they applied for a temporary parking permit. Now the lot produces up to $1,260 a night during popular games.
"It helps with our property taxes," Sanchez said.
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or [email protected]