"After a difficult struggle between those who want the city's downtown waterfront reserved for parkland, and those who desire commercial uses, the parkland backers prevail, and the city's image as a beautiful destination grows."
- Mangroves to Major League by Rick Baker, page 58
In his fascinating history of St. Petersburg, Mayor Rick Baker's book describes our city's early battle over our downtown waterfront. Developers wanted to build right on the water. City leaders, lead by St. Petersburg Times editor William Straub, felt the downtown waterfront should be preserved as a public park.
Happily for us, the progressives won and we now have one of the largest public waterfronts in America. That's what makes our city unique. We love our public waterfront. It's our pride, and we don't want anyone messing with it.
For years, various Major League Baseball teams played spring training games at Al Lang Field, which sits on city-owned waterfront land. The Tampa Bay Rays have played their spring training games at Al Lang. Beginning next year, however, the Rays are abandoning Al Lang and moving their spring training to Port Charlotte. Spring training at Al Lang will end.
This presents a rare opportunity for our city. We could turn Al Lang into a lovely public waterfront park, thereby continuing and expanding Straub's dream. Unfortunately, the Rays owners have another idea. They want to tear down Al Lang Field and build a new waterfront stadium. In addition, they want to alter Bayshore Drive and presumably dredge part of the basin.
The taxpayers already have spent several hundred million dollars to build Tropicana Field for baseball. I believe Tropicana Field is more than adequate. Consider the dome's merits:
Access: If you're coming to the stadium from Interstate 275, nothing could be easier. You just roll off the highway and you're in the parking lot. Grade: A+.
Parking: A dream. It's close, safe and free. People can tailgate in the parking lot and walk a few feet into the stadium. Grade: A+.
Comfort: Tropicana is fully air conditioned. Grade: A+.
Ambience: This is subjective. I like the atmosphere at the Trop. (It would be nice if the home team won a few more games, but changing the stadium won't affect that.) Grade: B+.
Neighborhood: Since most people park in the free Tropicana lot and tailgate outside or purchase food inside, the neighborhood is irrelevant. As long as the parking is safe and easy, people couldn't care less about the neighborhood. Grade: Not applicable.
Now let's give the same test to the Rays' proposed waterfront stadium:
Access: Unless you live in Bayfront Tower, getting to the stadium is going to be a challenge. If you're driving from outside St. Petersburg, you're probably going to be confused and intimidated by the labyrinth of one-way streets downtown. And can you imagine the traffic jams before and after the game? Grade: D.
Parking: Parking is a problem now. Add thousands of additional cars and the problem is only going to get worse. I doubt if the owners and patrons of existing downtown businesses are going to appreciate it. And how about the people who want to park near USF St. Petersburg, the Mahaffey Theater, the Dali Museum or the Museum of Fine Arts? Grade: D-.
Comfort. The Rays owners say they'll build an open-air stadium with lots of ventilation fans. I know Floridians are a hardy lot, but attending an outdoor baseball game in August sounds like self- abuse to me. Given a choice, people will choose air conditioning any day. The Rays owners shouldn't subject their long-suffering fans to additional discomfort. Grade: F.
Ambience: Who knows? I don't see how being on the water adds much to the game of baseball. If the Rays are losing and I can't wait for the seventh-inning stretch, I might gaze out at the sailboats. But if it rains or it's a night game, we won't even be able to see the bay. So what's the point of being on the water? Grade: B.
Neighborhood: The Rays owners say if we just let them build a stadium on our waterfront, all kinds of pubs, bars and restaurants will spring up and this will improve the surrounding neighborhood. Really? Didn't we hear this before at Tropicana? The Rays say this time it would be different because there wouldn't be parking at the stadium and the fans would have to walk 10 or 15 minutes to the stadium. Along the way people could stop in at their favorite (newly created) pub. Don't count on it. It didn't happen at Tropicana. Fans rarely patronized surrounding businesses. Besides, I think downtown is getting along just fine without a waterfront stadium. Please don't mess it up. Grade: C-.
Once again, it seems history repeats itself. Once again, we ask: What kind of waterfront do we really want? One that promotes commercial interests or one that preserves our waterfront as public parkland?
Since Al Lang Field really belongs to the people, I say let them decide how theland should be used. Voters should be given a choice:
Proposition 1: Should the owners of the Tampa Bay Rays be allowed to build a stadium on our public waterfront?
Proposition 2: If Proposition 1 fails, should Al Lang Field be converted into a public waterfront park?
Which one would you choose?
Thomas Churchill Dunn is a St. Petersburg lawyer.