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Trop bids need work

Tuesday's three bids to redevelop the Tropicana Field site from companies with national development credentials are an encouraging signal of interest in St. Petersburg's thriving downtown. But the next step toward a new waterfront baseball stadium will take exacting analysis, sober reflection and some more money on the table. That point is no better illustrated than by the fact that two of the bidders didn't even offer a purchase price for the existing Trop site.

The promise of the Tampa Bay Rays' vision is that it would create iconic bookends downtown: an open-air $450-million waterfront stadium at the eastern edge and a retail, office and residential anchor on the existing 86-acre Trop site to the west — with no extra burden on taxpayers. Whether that is realistic depends as much on the details and characteristics of the Trop redevelopment as it does on the amount of money it could produce for a new baseball stadium.

All three bidders offer various forms of urban-scale development, with office buildings, shops, hotels and apartments. And all three offer at least a nod to sentiments voiced in recent public hearings, in which residents called for architecture and green space that blend with the community surroundings. But the scales are demonstrably different, ranging from 3.1-million square feet on the low end to 5.4-million square feet on the high end. The city will want to assure not only that the design and scale are appropriate but that the future business and retail occupants would create the necessary draw for the development.

The bid documents do little to brighten the financial picture. Rays officials, who had worked previously with Houston-based Hines Interest, said they were unsurprised by Hines' formal $50-million offer to purchase the land. The other two bidders were less definitive. Washington developer Archstone-Madison is asking for a formula-driven long-term lease with a base rent of $1-million. Williams Quarter, a group that includes Tampa's DeBartolo Holdings, writes only that it "looks forward to the opportunity to negotiate."

Given that the Rays have committed to pay only a third of the new stadium's $450-million cost, these preliminary land purchase numbers suggest a sizeable gap. The team is also counting on the new property taxes that would result from the development at the Tropicana site, which now pays no property taxes. But financial projections the Rays made last year estimated that potential tax increment at $108-million. Add that to the Hines bid and the team contribution, and the gap appears to be more than $140-million. To be kind, there seems to be ample room for negotiation.

The bid opening Tuesday is just another step in the Rays' uphill journey toward a new ballpark. The next step is for city administrators and the City Council to begin reviewing the documents, scrutinizing the numbers and assessing the scale and fit of the development downtown. The Rays, meanwhile, may have to redouble their efforts to craft a financial plan that is feasible and consistent with their pledge not to seek new taxes.

That three developers are showing interest is encouraging. But the city and the Rays have their work cut out for them if the team's vision is to advance beyond artist renderings.

Trop bids need work 03/18/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 25, 2008 1:28pm]
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