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St. Petersburg’s Trop development won’t (and will) feel like Miami. Here’s why.

Midtown Development principal Alex Vadia explains how his developments in his hometown of Miami are blueprints.
Alex Vadia of Miami’s Midtown Development listens as then-Mayor Rick Kriseman announces he's picked Midtown to lead the redevelopment of the city's 86-acre Tropicana Field site on Dec. 2 in St. Petersburg.
Alex Vadia of Miami’s Midtown Development listens as then-Mayor Rick Kriseman announces he's picked Midtown to lead the redevelopment of the city's 86-acre Tropicana Field site on Dec. 2 in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Jan. 24

Alex Vadia was in his early teens the first time he came to St. Petersburg. His parents brought him from South Miami to a bed and breakfast downtown, where they rented bikes and visited the Dalí Museum.

What Vadia remembers even now was the grid. The city’s north-south, east-west street patterns that made everything feel just a short walk away.

“St. Pete’s got a lot of things going on that I think makes it very special,” said Vadia, 37. “One thing that it has that separates it from a city like Miami is the walkability. It’s just amazing. When you experience something walking, it’s a different experience.”

If there’s a guiding principle behind Vadia’s vision for downtown St. Petersburg — specifically, the 86-acre city-owned Tropicana Field site, the development of which his company, Midtown Development, was picked to lead last month by former Mayor Rick Kriseman — that may be it.

Related: Kriseman picks Miami's Midtown Development to redevelop Tropicana Field

Creekside, Midtown’s name for the project, would feature 36 acres of parks and walkways linking a redeveloped Booker Creek to Campbell Park, a revamped Pinellas Trail and St. Pete’s Deuces and Warehouse Arts districts. It would feature between 6,000 and 8,000 homes, up to 3.95 million square feet of office space, 400,000 square feet of retail, a 510-room hotel with a 50,000-square-foot conference center, and potentially a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium.

Creekside is, for now, still just a proposal. New Mayor Ken Welch has said he’ll take Kriseman’s preference under advisement, but wants to do his own research on the project first before committing to a developer. The Rays’ long-term future remains unsettled, especially after Major League Baseball shot down the team’s proposal to split the season between Tampa Bay and Montreal. As the team goes back to square one, so, too, might the city.

Related: MLB kills Rays' split-city plan with Montreal

For their part, Midtown officials have yet to meet with the team.

“How can we design a stadium without the team’s input?” Vadia said. “We look forward to working with them.”

But in his first extensive comments since Kriseman picked Midtown for the Trop site, Vadia expounded on what he thinks the site could become, and how he thinks it’ll differ from his projects in South Florida.

“How do you turn a project into a neighborhood? The key is that it doesn’t stop where the project or the property starts or ends,” Vadia said. “If you live nearby, what do you walk to? If you live upstairs, what do you come down to?

“When I started this business, the office market was all about the address on your business card. Now that’s not what people care about. Now people care about that sense of community where you come down and you can have lunch, grab a beer, walk your dog, and so on. And that’s easier said than done.”

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People first, cars second

Walking is a central theme in Vadia’s developments in Miami. He turned abandoned railroad tracks into Midtown Miami, a 5.5-acre mixed-use neighborhood 2½ miles north of downtown Miami.

“If you go to Midtown Miami,” he said, “you don’t feel like you’re in Miami.”

Vadia developed the east side of Midtown ― seven towers with office space, luxury residential units with retail and restaurants as anchors on the ground floor. The inner roads resemble narrow boulevards that favor pedestrians instead of cars.

“It was 100 percent designed for people first, cars second,” he said.

Midtown Development will utilize some of the lessons learned in creating its Midtown Miami project, shown here, as it aims to redevelop the 86-acre Tropicana Field site in St. Petersburg.
Midtown Development will utilize some of the lessons learned in creating its Midtown Miami project, shown here, as it aims to redevelop the 86-acre Tropicana Field site in St. Petersburg. [ Midtown Development ]

Midtown’s challenge is accommodating those who don’t live there and must commute by car, since public transportation is lacking in both cities. As a more walkable city, that might be St. Petersburg’s greatest advantage.

“At the end of the day, we deal with very similar parameters in the sense that the majority of people that live in Miami, unfortunately, feel that they have to own a car,” he said. “I think St. Pete might be less, but still, the majority of people feel that they have to own a car. I’m not comparing the two, but I think that’s unfortunately the case we’re trying to get away with by connecting as much neighborhoods as possible that it feels like one big walkable town or city.”

He wants to eliminate barriers, real and perceived, within and around the site. Midtown proposed connecting downtown to the south side of the city via walkways across a lowered Interstate 175, or via “a series of linear parks” stretching west from the site to 22nd Street. Vadia has seen developments flounder because of one big road, surface lot or dead patch that people find themselves unwilling to cross. They’ve experienced it in South Florida, and they’re experiencing it now in Orlando as they work on redeveloping an 18-acre former Orlando Sentinel property.

“The important thing is to connect the dots,” he said.

Related: How St. Petersburg's four Trop site pitches stack up on housing, history

Keeping retail local

Vadia is working on redeveloping Sunset Place, an enclosed but open-air mall that was once an all-ages destination in the quaint suburb of South Miami, next to Coral Gables, in the 2000s. High rents led to empty storefronts, and mallgoers found alternatives. Vadia described Sunset Place as a fort.

“You drive by and you don’t see people having fun,” he said. “We’re de-malling the property.”

The Trop site, Vadia said, is “the complete opposite” of Sunset Place. St. Petersburg is a city built for local shops, not big-box retailers, which have sprung up around Midtown Miami. He sees the potential for a neighborhood not unlike the South Miami he grew up in, where there were smaller boutiques that thrived before larger malls drew customers away.

This rendering shows the Booker Creek area in St. Petersburg, envisioned by Miami's Midtown Development as part of its proposed redevelopment of the city's 86-acre Tropicana Field site. Then-Mayor Rick Kriseman on Dec. 2 officially endorsed Midtown's proposal.
This rendering shows the Booker Creek area in St. Petersburg, envisioned by Miami's Midtown Development as part of its proposed redevelopment of the city's 86-acre Tropicana Field site. Then-Mayor Rick Kriseman on Dec. 2 officially endorsed Midtown's proposal. [ Midtown Development ]

The Creekside team, he said, will try to keep retail as local as possible. They’ll recruit local shops and anchors by developing ground-level space from the jump — something that would invite pedestrians as Midtown fills out the upper floors.

Asked if he thought St. Petersburg officials and residents would resist a big-box store at the Trop site, Vadia replied: “We would have some resistance.”

He pointed to Midtown Miami’s fight with Walmart, which bought a 200,000-square-foot parcel in 2011 but was met with opposition from residents. Vadia ended up buying out the Walmart property seven years later.

Like Walmart, a 40,000-square-foot national retailer might be a steady tenant, he said, “but if you create a 40,000-square-foot local retail (space), a place where you can get a local experience, I think in the long run, that will bring you more people. ... If we bring a national tenant, which there will be very few, the only reason why we would do it is because it’s a marketing anchor toward the local retailers.”

One thing he learned from Midtown Miami is that even undeveloped parcels can contribute to a district’s sense of place. On one lot there that sat vacant for a while, Midtown partnered with a company that built temporary, gallery-like structures for art exhibitions and other events. He’s already had talks about doing that in St. Petersburg.

“Nothing of it yells temporary,” he said. “You don’t walk there and say, ‘Oh, one day they’re going to do that there.’ No, it feels finished.”

With or without a stadium

For now, Vadia and Midtown are waiting. Vadia said he congratulated Welch after his victory and looks forward to working with him in the new year.

As for Welch’s position that he wants to do more research before committing to a pick, Vadia said: “We’re going to work with him hopefully for the next eight years. So I would expect him to do his own homework, and I hope at the end of the day, he sees what Kriseman saw in us.”

Midtown will keep meeting with project and community stakeholders, and following developments like the discovery of possible graves at the site. Vadia said a project manager has already started working on the gravesite issue, though he declined to share specifics.

Midtown Development's proposal, dubbed Creekside, makes Booker Creek one of the key components of the development.
Midtown Development's proposal, dubbed Creekside, makes Booker Creek one of the key components of the development. [ Midtown Development ]

Vadia demurred on the Rays debate, and where he thought the Rays would play come 2027, except to say that he believed “within the next couple months, there will be a lot more clarity.” He’d like Midtown “to understand and be involved in what happens, the experience of getting to the stadium, what happens outside the stadium,” should Creekside break ground in the next couple of years.

“Everyone talks about a new stadium in St. Pete, a new stadium in Tampa,” he said. “I’m not saying this is what’s most likely going to happen, but you’ve got to assume it’s a possibility that they stay exactly where they are.”

Related: Tampa Bay leaders react to news that MLB has dashed Rays' sister-city dream

Vadia is a baseball fan himself. He attended the first Florida (now Miami) Marlins home game, and still goes to games with his father. He lived for a while in Boston, close to Fenway Park, and was there when the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004.

But if Midtown’s proposal becomes the city’s adopted plan, Vadia said, it won’t hinge on a stadium.

“The ultimate success of a project is when people grab what you’re doing and run with it,” he said. “Meaning, you don’t own the property on the corner, but they’re just like, ‘Oh, they opened a park that has all these people.’ Now a restaurant wants to be there. And they just keep going.”

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