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Kriseman talks the Rays, the marina, affordable housing and Israel

St. Petersburg’s mayor touched on a host of issues at his latest sit-down interview
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE   |   Times]
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]
Published May 29, 2019
Updated May 29, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Kriseman sat down with the Tampa Bay Times recently for a wide-ranging hourlong interview inside his City Hall office. He touched on affordable housing, the renovation of the city’s marina, the future of the Tampa Bay Rays and his recent trip to Israel.

Affordable housing

Of the seven proposals the city received for ways to redevelop the old police headquarters complex, none included any serious commitment to low-income housing — despite the city’s desire to see it in the proposals.

“It’s all up for discussion," Kriseman said. "I don’t think anything is in Sharpie.”

Most of the proposals, though, did include an aspect of middle-income, or workforce, housing.

The mayor said it’s important to understand what makes the most sense for that particular parcel.

“We do need low income, no question about it,” he said. “In some ways, it’s easier because of the tax breaks you can get to do low-income than it is middle. That’s why you hear about the missing middle all the time. So that’s needed, in some ways, even more so.”

Kriseman would not commit to only choosing a developer willing to include all three levels of housing — low-income, middle and market-rate units — into the project. He did say that since the city owns the land, it has leverage to demand what it wants on the property.

He also said residents have a role in fixing the affordable housing issue, too. The city tried to buy the 5-acre Grace Connection Church property, at 635 64th St. S, for $1.75 million, but church leadership pulled out after an uproar from the community.

“We need people to be a little bit more open-minded, and better understand when we’re talking about even low income, we’re not talking about crime, crack houses and meth labs right next to your house," he said.

Kriseman, who has in the past thrown his weight around on issues like Complete Streets and his storefront conservation plan, says he expects to bring to City Council within two months a comprehensive housing affordability plan.

“We all agree that there’s an issue, here’s how we think we can address it," he said of the presentation.

Marina

Those who dock their boats at the city’s marina know: it needs work. A complete renovation, the mayor said, could cost $50 million.

That sum would require the issuance of a bond, which would mean the price goes up as the city pays interest.

So when an unsolicited bid came in recently from Safe Harbor Marinas, the company that manages the city’s Harborage marina, it perked some ears in City Hall. Under Safe Harbor’s plan, the company would pay to renovate the marina, and then would manage it for a fee.

Legally, though, the city can’t consider an unsolicited proposal without seeking other bids. The period to submit alternative proposals ends June 7.

Whether the city decides to go at it alone or contract with a private entity, Kriseman said rates will have to go up.

“There’s no way we can maintain them at the current level and do the improvements,” he said. “Living on a boat in our marina is the best deal in all of downtown.”

Also, he assured residents no matter what happens, the marina isn’t for sale.

“We will never give up that asset,” he said.

Rays’ future

As far as Kriseman knows, Stu Sternberg is still on schedule to tell him by the end of the summer whether the Tampa Bay Rays will double down on St. Petersburg as the team’s future home, or go elsewhere.

The mayor expects that means by August. By September, he said, it’s already fall.

Kriseman maintains that St. Petersburg is the best place for the team. Development around the Tropicana Field property has exploded, and the Tampa Bay area is still one of the largest media markets in the country.

“You go to Portland, you’re not going to get the same media market. Which means you’re not going to get the same amount of dollars.”

What about the perpetually poor attendance? “It doesn’t appear to be stellar anywhere else in the country, either,” the mayor said.

He mentioned a recent game at Guaranteed Rate Field, when the Rays visited the Chicago White Sox.

“It looked empty in Chicago.”

Though, the Rays did just break a record on Tuesday for the team’s lowest attendance ever at the Trop: just 5,786 showed up to watch the Rays beat the Toronto Blue Jays.

Israel trip

Kriseman took a weeklong trip to Israel in May, joining mayors from Los Angeles; Albany, N.Y., Topeka, Kan.; and Gresham, Ore.

They toured Israel as well as Palestinian areas as part of the trip, which was funded by the American Jewish Committee.

Kriseman, perhaps a bit aspirationally, compared St. Pete to Tel Aviv, Israel’s second-largest city, and its economic and technological core.

Both cities, he said, are coastal, attractive to millenials, have vibrant culture and are health conscious.

The value of the trip, he said, was “having an opportunity to talk about our communities and share who we are and what makes us different.”

“Every opportunity you have to learn about other counties, other cities, states, how they’re doing things, and share with them about your community, makes you better than just staying home," he said. "I think when you cut yourself off from the world, you limit yourself at the same time.”

That, and learning the challenges faced by Israeli mayors as well as the other American mayors.

“Always knowing that I can pick the phone up now, and I can call Eric Garcetti (the L.A. mayor) and I can say, ‘Hey Eric, here’s what I’m facing, have you guys faced anything similar to this?’"

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.

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