Why the waterfront — why not somewhere else? That question, largely unaddressed publicly by the Tampa Bay Rays, continues to flavor public debate over a new baseball stadium for St. Petersburg. Teams are pushing for modern stadiums in tight urban settings, ringed with shops, restaurants and off-site parking. Rays officials say they need a new home before their Trop lease expires in 2027. That said, much of the reaction to the Rays' waterfront concept has been chillier than Fenway in April. Two-thirds of respondents in a recent St. Petersburg Times-Bay News 9 poll opposed the idea. Public officials keep asking why other sites won't suffice. Okay, where else?
Even if the Rays have to rename themselves the Seagulls, Pinellas County's dormant landfill is an intriguing possibility.
"Paralleling it on the north and south are bridges running to Hillsborough County. It's truly centrally located north and south,'' says Pinellas County Commission Chairman Bob Stewart. "I don't know how you could get a more preferred location in terms of access.''
At first glance, the 300-acre site offers several advantages.
Next month, the county is expected to award development rights to a consortium that specializes in putting new buildings atop old landfills.
Capping, construction and monitoring is expensive, but the company would get free land smack dab in the metropolitan center. If the project fulfills its $1-billion promise, gobs of utility and property taxes will spring from coffee grinds, sofas and Pampers.
Schematics call for an upscale mall, townhomes, offices and — lo and behold — a 70-acre "sports complex.''
Preliminary talks envisioned soccer fields, dog parks and swimming pools. But a stadium with amenities could easily substitute "if that's what the city and county ask us to do,'' says Greg Scheper, acquisitions director of Bear Creek Capital of Cincinnati, one of the partners.
"Anything that would brand the site and give the site identity and bring people to the site is good for any development.''
In landfill construction, buildings supported by pilings — such as baseball stadiums — are sometimes more suitable than slabs that can shift, Scheper says. Pilings at Toytown would traverse 30 to 50 feet of garbage before hitting clay.
The current plan calls for 2-million square feet of office space, which translates to about 8,000 parking spaces, largely empty at night. Retail shops would create thousands more.
The developers have a year to conduct engineering studies, soil borings and design work that will show what, if anything, can actually be built.
Complex water, traffic and environmental permitting would take an additional two to three years, Scheper estimates.
Meanwhile, the Rays and any governments contributing to a new stadium likely would be watching China and India drive up the cost of concrete and steel.
Traffic is also problematic.
Developers hope their "Parks of Pinellas County'' would land a stop on any Tampa-St. Petersburg mass transit line. A bike and bus bridge might span I-275, connecting to 28th Street.
But for cars, current access comes only via 102 Avenue N and 16th Street, both two-lane roads.
"It would be really awkward,'' coming from Tampa on I-275, says Mike Meidel, county economic development director. "You would have to get off Ninth (Martin Luther King Jr.) Street, then get on Roosevelt, and then 16th Street,'' he says. "There's not an easy way to get there.''
How about a new I-275 interchange between Roosevelt and Gandy boulevards?
The Florida DOT discourages it, Meidel says. "There are too many interacting, merging lanes,'' already in the area.
County Commissioner Ken Welch likes Toytown for baseball, even though it would compete directly against retail development at the Trop.
The Trop could house high-end manufacturing, research and financial offices, along with workforce housing, he says.
"I think that's probably a better fit than International Mall at the Trop.''
City officials had high hopes years ago that their new domed stadium would attract a bevy of hotels, restaurants and shops.
That fell flat. But the Council of Neighborhood Associations wouldn't mind giving it another go: Keep the stadium at the Trop, expand parking, glitz up the surroundings with urban amenities.
"The Trop site is still malleable,'' says CONA vice president Will Michaels. "Hopefully we can get it right this time.''
Staying at the Trop would cost way more than moving to the waterfront, the Rays say.
"We worked the numbers,'' says Rays senior vice president Michael Kalt. "I don't know how to make it work.''
Take air conditioning.
A ballpark topped by a sail is not the Rays' first choice. If they rebuilt at the Trop, Kalt says, they would opt for a retractable roof, a la Houston and Phoenix.
Play open-air ball in April and May, then snuggle up with AC during the saunas of July and August. Add $50-million or so more to construction costs.
"The waterfront site is not big enough for a retractable roof,'' Kalt says. "We think the breeze off the water is going to enable you'' to use the sail design, "but you don't get that breeze 10 blocks inland.''
Keeping a stadium at the Trop site would reduce acreage available for development and, consequently, shrink revenue streams for building a new ballpark.
Under the waterfront deal, as outlined by the Rays, pledging the entire Trop site for commercial and residential redevelopment would generate about $145-million toward stadium construction.
That figure is not guaranteed and certainly open to debate. But clearly, reserving part of the Trop site for a stadium would generate tens of millions of dollars less.
Splitting the Trop site between development and a stadium also raises parking costs. Take 20 of the 85 acres for a stadium and 45 for commerce, then only 20 would remain for parking. That would hold only a third of the current 7,000-car configuration.
The Rays would need expensive parking garages, Kalt says. Add $100-million or so.
Maybe not so much.
A 1,400-space private garage just to the east could ease pressure, said Michaels of CONA. Surface parking could probably expand to the west for less money than parking garages would cost.
Plus, the city wants the Rays to build parking garages for 3,500 cars near the waterfront site. The Rays say that's unnecessary. But if the city sticks to those guns, the team faces substantial parking garage costs at either site.
Baseball and Derby Lane go way back. That's where Babe Ruth and buddies bet and boozed away spring training nights.
Despite competition from the Florida Lottery and Indian gaming, Derby Lane still makes money, says Richard Winning, whose family owns the track.
There have been no discussions about selling out, he says, but "I guess we would consider anything.''
Winning declined to place a value on the 123-acre complex. Tax rolls list it at $12-million.
Access is tight. Gandy is the only major route in and out. Even with Derby Lane's 4,000 parking spaces, large crowds sometimes back up traffic, Winning says. A sellout baseball game would triple that flow.
"Gandy would be a challenge,'' says DOT official Bob Clifford. "We would have to look at the intersections of Fourth and Ninth (Martin Luther King Jr.) Streets and how to move people through there.''
The Rays have studiously avoided the "build it or we will move'' card, but no discussion of Pinellas stadiums is complete without some mention of the cross-bay competition.
The Rays must play baseball in St. Petersburg for 19 more years, says city attorney John Wolfe. It's not a lease breakable by buckets of money, he says. It's a contractual promise enforceable by injunction.
Furthermore, the climate in Hillsborough has changed since the two communities vied for baseball in the 1980s.
"I have not heard anybody, anybody talking about'' the Rays moving to Hillsborough, says Tampa's former mayor, Dick Greco.
Local governments are scrambling to cut services. The bed tax is divvied up among the Buccaneers, Lightning and Legends Field. And civic leaders are now committed to regional unity.
"Years ago, people resented each other,'' Greco says. "But people who come here from somewhere else consider this one area. We locals are the only ones who have been so parochial, saying 'This is yours' and 'This is mine.' That has got to stop.''
Dale Mabry, once slotted as a possible stadium site, has filled up with Legends Field, Hillsborough Community College and Bucs parking.
The Florida State Fairgrounds is about 355 acres, big enough for a stadium, parking and even a few nifty amenities.
But fair chairman Sandy MacKinnon, a mover and shaker, was reluctant to even discuss the Hillsborough scenario.
"My first concern would be not to fragment relationships between the communities,'' MacKinnon says. "(Baseball) is a trophy for St. Petersburg and that would break their hearts.''
Patrick Manteiga, plugged-in editor of La Gaceta, says politicians are in no mood to finance a half-billion dollar sports venue.
That became clear three years ago when the Orlando Magic, seeking a new arena, discussed a move to the St. Pete Times Forum.
The city or county would have had to pony up about $40-million to buy out the Lightning's first dibs on playing dates.
"There was no political will in Tampa to do it,'' Manteiga says. "A basketball team for $40-million was a bargain-basement price, and back then, the tax position was certainly better than it is now.
"There is no chance for baseball.''
St. Petersburg-Clearwater Airport
In a perfect world, commission Chairman Stewart would prefer a mid-county location, closer to Tampa and Clearwater.
While musing on potential sites this month, an idea popped into his head:
Commercial aviation is tanking at St. Petersburg-Clearwater Airport and "at some point we are going to have to take a serious look at its future.''
The airport property is vast, about 2,000 acres. It was a training base for fighter and bomber pilots until World War II ended, when the feds deeded the property to the county.
Maybe the Coast Guard and general aviation could stay, Stewart hypothesized, but getting rid of commercial flights could free up land. Even the overflow parking lots across Roosevelt could house a stadium.
Height restrictions won't allow it, says airport director Noah Lagos. "You can't build anything that tall on airport land.''
Also, airport acreage must command fair market value. That's part of the old deal with the feds. Even the county funnels $1-million a year toward airport operations because the jail and criminal courts occupy old airport land.
Another airport also has drawn online buzz.
Commentators on the Times' "Ballpark Frankness'' blog recently have pitched an Albert Whitted option.
Airport land "looks five or six times the size of Al Lang,'' says St. Petersburg computer consultant Mike Aguis — plenty big for a stadium, parking and green space.
FAA officials blanch at the notion of tinkering with either airport. They have poured almost $50-million into improvements in recent years.
You can't just pay that back, says FAA official Rusty Chapman. Each grant obligates the city or the county to another 20 years of airport operations.
Albert Whitted is home for 193 private planes, with 93,000 takeoffs and landings a year.
Mess with either airport and "we would sue,'' Chapman says.
That wouldn't stop everybody.
Five years ago, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley created a waterfront park by bulldozing Meigs Field in the dead of the night.
Later that year, St. Petersburg settled things in a more genteel fashion. Citizens resoundingly voted to preserve Albert Whitted. It was a heated campaign, laced with suspicions of back-room deals.
Asked about the Albert Whitted idea, the Rays' Kalt chuckles.
"We won't even touch that,'' he says. "We may be crazy, but we aren't that crazy.''