The business partnership that St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker has recommended negotiating with to develop the Tropicana Field site may offer an attractive blend of retail and residential expertise. But City Council members, who are being asked today to authorize negotiations with Archstone-Madison, should be wary of basing their decision on fuzzy artist renderings and big numbers. By the developer's own admission, those are subject to change.
The problem is that Baker's staff chose Archstone Smith and Madison Marquette primarily because the companies propose to build 5.4-million square feet of retail, residential and office buildings. As city administrator Rick Mussett writes: "The Archstone-Madison proposal is a more intensive urban vision for the project that takes better advantage of the development opportunities."
Put the emphasis on vision. The rub is that no one can readily predict the economic environment that will drive a project expected to take at least a decade, and Archstone senior vice president Kenneth Miller was candid enough on Wednesday to acknowledge the plan could ultimately shrink in size.
"You at least want to start with shooting for the stars," he said.
Such words speak to ambition but not necessarily to reality, which is why the council will want to hear a fuller explanation of why Baker chose Archstone over Hines Interests of Houston. Hines, which has developed mixed-use and office projects for a half-century, says it proposed a comparatively smaller project — 3.1-million square feet — primarily out of caution over the current market. Is Hines being dismissed for being more realistic?
Price is the other factor in Baker's recommendation. On paper, Archstone, at $65-million, is offering more. But neither Archstone nor Hines has committed to paying the entire amount up front and neither has offered enough to pay off the debt on the Trop, which would be torn down if voters approve a new waterfront stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays. Also, in fairness to Hines, it was the only company to make a financial offer when the bids were first opened.
The development of the 86-acre Trop site is at least as important to St. Petersburg as the construction of a new baseball stadium. But because the two are linked together, it has received considerably less public scrutiny. That's why the council needs to ask plenty of questions today. It also needs to recognize that whether Archstone or Hines is chosen, the upcoming contract negotiations would end up determining whether the public's interest is adequately protected on the Trop site.
Agreeing to start negotiations with Archstone would be agreeing to a possible partner in an enormous project, not affirming support for a specific development plan — particularly one as conceptual and fluid as this one. Advancing from the broad strokes Archstone has painted to specifics by August would seem to be a formidable challenge, but the same can be said about the entire effort that is driven by the Rays' desire for a new stadium. There is always the chance everything will fall into place. In the end, taxpayers should not be asked to give up the publicly owned Tropicana Field site without assurances the price is fair and the land will be developed in a manner consistent with the overall goals for downtown St. Petersburg.