TAMPA — After years of haggling with St. Petersburg, the Tampa Bay Rays might soon get their chance to explore stadium sites in Tampa.
Major League Baseball prefers urban locations near office towers, restaurants, condos and parking garages — at least 10 acres in vibrant, walkable areas.
Unfortunately for the Rays, sites fitting that description are becoming hard to find in Tampa.
A much-ballyhooed area near Channelside Bay Plaza is already filling in without a stadium.
Mayor Bob Buckhorn wants to keep his city's riverfront parks intact.
Jefferson High School's 62-acre property in bustling West Shore has attracted speculation, but school officials, neighbors and powerful alumni are dead-set opposed.
"The options are diminishing," Buckhorn said recently.
"The downtown has really come alive and people are not waiting for other decisions to be made. They are moving forward."
Two large sites between the downtown core and Ybor City still hold promise, Buckhorn said, but land assembly and financing make any site "a very, very complicated deal.''
Tampa baseball stadium locations became a hot topic five years ago when a civic coalition concluded that St. Petersburg's Tropicana Field could not support baseball over the long run. The group pegged downtown Tampa, West Shore and Pinellas County's Gateway area as the best alternatives.
After years of stagnating attendance at the Trop, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman reportedly wants an agreement with the Rays by the end of the year that would allow a regionwide stadium search in exchange for compensation if the team moves before the city's lease expires in 2027.
Rays owner Stuart Sternberg, who declined to comment for this story, has promised to include Pinellas sites in his search.
Property owners will be eager to pitch their land once the Rays say what they want, Buckhorn said.
"It will be like blood in the water with sharks,'' he said. "There will be all kinds of ideas forthcoming.''
The trick is finding one that works.
Between the downtown core and Ybor City is Tampa Park Apartments, an aging complex that sprawls over 21 acres. Public property in the middle and on the fringes could expand that to 40 acres — a huge swath of urban land.
This is Buckhorn's favorite site, if only by default.
A Community Redevelopment Area designation for the Central Park area could figure in financing, presumably for infrastructure, Buckhorn said. Ybor parking garages are within blocks. Tampa's passenger rail terminus, Union Station, is next door and could be a factor in future transit plans.
"It would connect Ybor to downtown," Buckhorn said of building a stadium there. "It cleans up an area that has had its issues over the years.''
Florida Sentinel Bulletin publisher S. Kay Andrews, who leads the Tampa Park Apartments' nonprofit ownership group, declined to comment on what options, if any, she and fellow directors would consider. But Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan said he expects the apartments to be seriously considered.
"I've had discussions with Kay over the last few years,'' Hagan said, "and it's my understanding that she's at least interested in having that discussion."
More than half the apartments are occupied by low-income residents with federal housing vouchers. Encore, a new complex with some affordable housing across Nebraska Avenue, could accommodate at least some of them, but agreements between Tampa Park owners and federal housing authorities might prevent the apartments from being razed before late 2017, and that could delay stadium construction by a year.
Also, Booker T. Washington Elementary School probably would have to move, Buckhorn said. A new elementary school costs about $18 million. And communities have emotional ties to their schools.
"I think it would be a hard sell,'' said Hillsborough County School District spokesman Stephen Hegarty.
Tampa's Ybor Channel is a half-mile spur between the cruise port on the west and heavy industrial holdings on the east. International Ship Repair owns about 22 acres that wrap around the northern end of the channel.
It's a barbell of a property — two chunks of land connected by a sliver along its northern edge. A stadium could probably squeeze onto either the eastern or western half. Pedestrian bridges could also connect the two halves to each other and to cruise ship parking lots to the south. The waterfront would provide access by boat.
Buckhorn rated this property as his No. 2 prospect. It is under sole ownership and relatively close to downtown. He envisions a land swap to move International Ship's dry dock operations somewhere else in the port.
CEO George Lorton did not respond to requests for comment, but Buckhorn said Lorton has indicated in the past he would consider a deal.
The site could jump to 30 or 40 acres if the northern tip of the Ybor Channel were filled in, creating new taxable land. However, a fill project would also create huge complications, expenses and unforeseen delay.
"Probably two years ago, there was speculation about the ability to pull that piece together'' for a stadium, Buckhorn said. "It didn't include at the time the fill, but the technology is there."
James Lamar, spokesman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said any such fill would require time-consuming studies, permits and permission from multiple agencies. Though man-made, the channel might now hold valuable sea grass, oysters and sponges.
"It sounds like it is possible,'' Lamar said, "but we would need a lot more details.''
The flour mill
Tampa sports fans buzzed with excitement when Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and partners bought up 24 acres near Amalie Arena. Was a baseball-hockey consortium in the making?
A baseball stadium project would mean moving an adjacent flour mill at a cost estimated at $70 million or more. Downtown redevelopment funds could pay for infrastructure costs related to the project. Current owner Ardent Mills confirmed last week that it is open to discussion.
But a stadium probably cannot fit without a portion of Vinik's land, too, and he is about to unveil plans for a "billion-dollar" development of hotels, condos, retail and office space on his property. Any hopes that a baseball stadium could somehow land near the Channel District are about to be dashed.
The high school
Tampa's West Shore district, just across the bay from Pinellas, has popular restaurants, hotels, two malls and twice the office space of downtown Tampa.
What it lacks is any obvious stadium site. Federal aviation restrictions often prevent tall structures near Tampa International Airport's flight paths.
Business interests have occasionally salivated over Jefferson High School's land, which also holds Roland Park K-8 Magnet and Lavoy Exceptional Center. It could unlock huge development value next to a future transportation hub.
But moving those schools would cost $100 million and invite a community firestorm.
When the idea of a property swap surfaced last year, School Board members "made it very clear they are not interested,'' Hegarty said.
Jefferson High has already been moved once and "people are very sensitive to that,'' he said. "There is something comforting with having sons, daughters and grandchildren going to the same school you went to.''
"I don't think it will ever happen,'' said Tampa City Council Chairman Charlie Miranda, one of three council members who attended Jefferson High. The Carver City/Lincoln Gardens neighborhood already must cope with heavy traffic from West Shore, he said.
"I guarantee you there would be public opposition.''
The cruise port
Twelve acres west of the Ybor Channel could make for another waterfront site — government land with not much development. One problem: that's where the Tampa Port Authority's headquarters is located.
The four-story building is located along Channelside Drive. Across the parking lot is a cruise ship terminal. The future of Tampa's cruise industry is in flux. If Tampa's cruise market survives the future, then terminals will be needed. If the industry phases out the smaller ships that sail out of Tampa, the cruise terminal could be replaced and a stadium might barely squeeze in.
But even if the cruise facility goes, Buckhorn believes the parcel's future is in mixed-use development. Port officials declined comment.
Two large plots that flank the Hillsborough River have been mentioned in past stadium discussions but now seem out of the running.
Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park, just south of Interstate 275, could connect to downtown parking via a pedestrian bridge, but Buckhorn is already planning a $20 million upgrade for the park. Would he consider a stadium?
"No. No. No. God, no."
The Heights — 49 vacant acres north of the interstate — are slated for a huge mixed-use community, and developer Adam Harden said he is not interested in adding a ballpark.
Plans call for 1,900 apartments or condominiums, 100 boat slips, and 260,000 square feet of offices, stores and cafes.
Raymond James Stadium area
No stadium discussion is complete without looking at parcels around Raymond James Stadium, though they are too far from West Shore offices to claim urban density.
Any Rays stadium would require the consent of the rival New York Yankees, whose nearby Florida State League farm club games would conflict with Major League Baseball.
A bigger problem is the area's sea of empty land.
Federal Aviation Administration height restrictions limit buildings south of the football stadium. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers own development rights to large plots to the north and east, but have not put in restaurants, hotels or anything else. Adding in a baseball stadium is unlikely to create much density, Buckhorn said.
The Dale Mabry Highway area does not "bring the economic development that other sites would bring,'' he said, "as evidenced by the fact that nothing has developed around the existing Raymond James facility.''
The day it's announced that the Rays can look in Hillsborough, Hagan plans to call team president Brian Auld to set up a meeting.
"We don't have the luxury of letting another five years go by," Hagan said.
With the County Commission's okay, Hagan is organizing a Hills- borough group to lead that discussion. It includes himself, Buckhorn, Tampa Sports Authority president Eric Hart, Sykes Enterprises CEO Chuck Sykes and Fifth Third Bank Tampa Bay president Brian Lamb.
"I don't think any of us underestimate the magnitude of this task,'' Buckhorn said of securing a Tampa home for the Rays.
To find a site and negotiate financing will probably take 12 to 18 months, he estimated, with two to three years for construction.
"What we can't do is limit our imagination. Our first goal is to keep the Rays in the bay area. The second goal is to find a location that maximizes all the redevelopment potential that a stadium offers. If we can do that at a financially acceptable number, then it becomes a win-win for the whole bay area.''