There has been little public conversation about an almost billion-dollar development project proposed on the closed Pinellas County landfill called Toytown — a project that County Commissioner Ken Welch recently referred to as "recycling on a biblical scale." But there has been talk behind the scenes for more than a year, ever since a private development group showed up and suggested perching homes, corporate offices, stores, hotels — maybe even a convention center and movie theater — on a mountain of garbage in an area of the county already teeming with traffic.
The potential for nightmarish traffic jams is only one of the issues that must be considered by government and the public if this proposal advances. Consider the engineering required to safely construct millions of square feet of buildings on a garbage dump that could settle over time. Consider the environmental challenges, including how to properly cap the old landfill, disperse the methane gas produced inside a capped landfill, and keep water from leaching into nearby lakes and Tampa Bay. Consider whether Pinellas needs more homes, more stores, more offices, and whether local governments can provide the services to support them.
That said, there are several potential public benefits that make the proposal interesting.
A team composed of Bear Creek Capital of Ohio, Industrial Realty Group of California and International Risk Group of Colorado quietly approached Pinellas economic development officials about building on 240-acre Toytown, which sits behind a high grass berm on the east side of Interstate 275 just south of Roosevelt Boulevard.
Representatives of the team said that in exchange for the county giving them the 240 acres free of charge, they would cap the landfill and assume all liability for it. They also said they would purchase a 60-acre private landfill that adjoins Toytown on the south and construct a complex of baseball fields, soccer fields and tennis courts there for the public. On the Toytown land, they are interested in building up to 1,500 multifamily housing units — a portion of it much-needed work force housing — plus offices, a small convention center with onsite hotels, and 1.5-million square feet of retail.
In a public meeting early last year, county commissioners said they were "intrigued" by the proposal, particularly after hearing that the Bear Creek group has built on contaminated land elsewhere. The county quickly put out a request for negotiations to developers interested in developing Toytown, and an evaluation committee ranked Bear Creek's offer No. 1 among four proposals received. That opened a six-month due diligence period that will end in June with Bear Creek submitting either a formal proposal or a "no thank you" to the county. The county is using the time to scope out the developer's history.
Bear Creek representatives have acknowledged that dealing with traffic is their biggest hurdle, although they say that building housing on a landfill also can be "dicey." The traffic issue ought to be giving county officials a cold sweat. Roosevelt Boulevard to the north and Gandy Boulevard to the south are heavily used. I-275 is a D-rated highway because of congestion. And just across I-275 from Toytown, developer Grady Pridgen is building a 133-acre project with condominiums, offices and manufacturing facilities.
If the county and Bear Creek reach a deal on the land, a virtual army of government officials will review the developer's plan. Toytown is in a Development of Regional Impact area defined by the city of St. Petersburg, so city officials will have an important role in vetting the project, but so will county, regional and state officials and agencies. Considering all the impacts the Bear Creek project would have on Pinellas residents, roadways and the environment, the intense scrutiny will be warranted.