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Perspective: In Pinellas' Gateway, look at the Sod Farm, Toytown together — and find the Rays?

Even though Pinellas is Florida's most densely populated county, huge swaths of open land flank I-275 near the Howard Frankland Bridge. They are once and future landfills and, viewed together offer a surprising, untapped opportunity for major development.

To the east of the interstate is Toytown, which recently attracted an offer from SportsPark Partners to convert that closed relic of a dump into a trendy tourist magnet. The idea is to cover unstable, methane-leaking ground with playing fields and parking lots, attract the Atlanta Braves for spring training, create the biggest amateur sports venue this side of Disney, all while Johns Hopkins researchers make cutting-edge discoveries about collisions and broken bones.

The SportsPark concept — provocative as it is indefinite — typifies the big thinking that Tampa Bay has come to expect from developer Darryl LeClair and his Echelon team. But given the choice, why build on an old landfill when good land is just across the highway?

On the west side of the interstate is more Pinellas-owned land called the Sod Farm, a rare parcel of centrally located, unspoiled acreage in a county that is largely built out. But right now, this untouched land is slated for a modest future. It has been set aside as a future landfill when the current landfill site runs out of capacity.

Yet, at more than twice the size of Tropicana Field, the Sod Farm could produce jobs and tax revenue as a high-rise development, manufacturing complex or research park, given the chance. With a master plan, it could be one of the region's best shots at keeping the Tampa Bay Rays.

Development permutations for Toytown have been discussed for years. But the Sod Farm has drawn little attention because the solid waste department has claimed it as future landfill. However, design changes have greatly extended the current landfill's shelf life. Reductions of its main component — ash — may delay the shift to a new landfill for additional decades. These changes raise the intriguing possibility of flip-flopping the Toytown and Sod Farm roles in the county's Gateway vision: Develop the Sod Farm while preserving Toytown for long-term landfill needs.

Such a tradeoff would be complicated, costly and require careful study. And it might not work. But economic payoffs at the Sod Farm could dwarf those at Toytown, which is bigger but riddled with uncertainty. The two parcels are intrinsically intertwined. Take in the view from 10,000 feet up, and it's clear the county should examine how they work together before sealing their fates separately.

Landfills

Toytown was the county's dump until three decades ago, when a resource recovery plant and new landfill opened west of 28th Street. The complex is an ingenious, self-contained 740-acre operation that produces electricity by burning garbage. Ash from the plant, and other solid waste, is buried in the site's landfill carefully, unlike Toytown's old technique of throwing everything in a big hole.

Until about five years ago, the landfill was running low on permitted capacity, and county officials figured they would have to start burying stuff on the Sod Farm within a decade. That timetable changed dramatically when a state-approved redesign raised the landfill's maximum height from 90 feet to 150 feet and extended its projected life to 2052.

Ash is the landfill's primary component, and alternate disposable methods are coming into play. Pasco County has secured state permission to divert ash from its generating plant to roadbed construction. Builders have inquired about buying ash for insulation material. These possibilities for extending the landfill's life are far from certain, but diverting ash for construction "is a game changer,'' says Pinellas solid waste director Kelsi Oswald.

Of course, taking the Sod Farm off the table for solid waste needs would be irresponsible without an alternative. At some point, the current landfill will top out at 150 feet and close down. Some waste cannot be burned. Some ash cannot be sold. Shipping Pinellas garbage to other counties would be expensive.

But since the county already has an old dump across the interstate, only 30 feet to 40 feet high — couldn't that be the landfill in waiting? If the best minds have not jumped at a solution, then it is not an easy one.

Nobody knows what is buried in Toytown, which goes down a few dozen feet as well as up. Records don't exist. We do know those decaying mounds are unstable and contain toxic material. The state probably would prohibit Pinellas from just piling more ash and garbage on top. A possible solution is to dig everything up, burn what can be burned, ship out the toxic stuff, compact the rest and then start building back up. A recent estimate put the price tag at $200 million, and even then, state regulators might balk. There are no simple choices. A Toytown cleanup creates an ambitious risk, but rejecting it out of hand means letting the Sod Farm lie fallow into the indefinite future, sacrificing creative opportunity.

Land and stadiums

The development potential of large land parcels is always open to grand speculation. A recent bidder on Toytown proposed a $1 billion residential, retail, recreational and office complex that was supposed to create 12,000 jobs and bring in $22 million a year in new county property taxes. Of course that developer was only willing to pay the county $1 million for Toytown's 240 acres because they carry so much environmental uncertainty.

The Sod Farm sits on 217 acres but carries some developmental disadvantages as well, including the current, neighboring landfill that already could qualify as Mount Pinellas and eventually will hit 150 feet. Access in and out of the Sod Farm is limited, and it's no coincidence that equal-sized land to the south contains a printing plant, bottling plant and empty acreage rather than Seagull Lakes Town Center and Condos at $300,000 a unit.

Still, county development director Mike Meidel, administrator Mark Woodard and others see opportunity at the Sod Farm as well as challenges. Huge tracts of developable land are rare. By building on the Sod Farm rather than dumping ash there, St. Petersburg and the county could set up a taxing district that could help underwrite infrastructure improvements and the cost of cleaning up Toytown.

Express toll lanes on I-275 planned by the Florida Department of Transportation will bring high-speed buses and car traffic between Hillsborough and Gateway. Any logical light rail line from St. Petersburg to Carillon would go right by the Sod Farm. The failed Greenlight Pinellas initiative contained a $90 million right-of-way purchase for the transit system's maintenance yard, which could be folded into a Sod Farm plan for free.

Deeper into blue sky territory are the Tampa Bay Rays and their search for a new stadium site. They have long expressed preference for a dense urban environment, but Hillsborough possibilities have dwindled and the team harbors grave doubts about Tropicana Field's distance from the region's population and corporate center. The Sod Farm's vast, firm ground offers the prospect of creating density from scratch.

Suburban stadiums require large surface parking lots that destroy the economic power of density, as witnessed by Tropicana Field's drag on St. Petersburg's Edge District. The Atlanta Braves addressed that conundrum by surrounding their new Cobb County stadium with an entertainment and retail district while building a bridge across an interstate to a mall that provides much of the ballpark's surface parking.

That model could apply to the Sod Farm as well, with a bridge to Toytown across I-275 at 102nd Avenue. Surface parking is a perfect use for unstable Toytown. The bridge would improve access in and out of the Sod Farm neighborhood, raising value to all surrounding property. A bridge could also support a modified SportsPark concept, with the heavy spring training stadium, arena and hotels located on hard ground west of the interstate and the low-lying research center, playing fields and surface parking on the east side's squishy ground.

By 2052, 2062 or whenever the county might need more landfill space, those playing fields and parking lots could shift elsewhere, maybe even to Mount Pinellas. County resort taxes now coveted by competing factions could support a single, synergistic sports complex for the Rays, Braves, Toronto Blue Jays and amateur sports.

Timing

The notion of developing the Sod Farm instead of Toytown injects new moving parts into an already tense muddle facing public officials and the Rays. Decisions would have to occur quickly and simultaneously.

Say St. Petersburg shifted gears and gave the Rays a year or two to find a new stadium location and financing. That would offer breathing space for Toytown testing, to see if cleanup makes economic sense and whether state regulators would even allow it. The Rays, Braves, Blue Jays, Echelon and public officials could explore Sod Farm acreage along with other options, while Tampa Bay legislators could lobby for state aid with stadium building and transportation infrastructure, whether in Pinellas or Hillsborough.

It's an incredibly tall bill, and the best use of either Toytown or the Sod Farm ultimately may have nothing to do with baseball stadiums. But the Gateway's future needs answers, not inertia.

Stephen Nohlgren is a member of the Times editorial board.

Perspective: In Pinellas' Gateway, look at the Sod Farm, Toytown together — and find the Rays? 10/16/15 [Last modified: Friday, October 16, 2015 5:52pm]
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