ST. PETERSBURG — It's been called the opportunity of a generation. The solution to the city's challenges. The Water Street Tampa of St. Petersburg.
The 86-acres surrounding Tropicana Field are poised for redevelopment in the coming decade. The way people talk about its potential sounds almost too good to be true.
The Trop site is perhaps the most valuable property in the Tampa Bay area. There may be no parcel like it in the state, if not the nation.
What the $3 billion, 55-acre Water Street Tampa project is to that downtown, the Trop could be to the future of St. Petersburg.
It is a blank slate within a rising city in the densest county in Florida. It could transform a downtown of leisure into a center of business. It could cement the city's reputation as an entertainment destination. It could finally spark the long-awaited urban retail boom that BayWalk (now Sundial St. Pete) failed to ignite 18 years ago.
It could add much-needed affordable housing, or fulfill decades-old promises to the African-American community, or even jump start downtown the way the Trop was supposed to three decades ago.
It could even keep the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg. Mayor Rick Kriseman hopes to convince the team to stay in a new stadium built there. But whether the Rays stay or go to Tampa, St. Pete is eager to transform the area.
The Trop site "presents incredible opportunities for the city, county and region," said J.P. DuBuque, president of the city's Economic Development Corp. "When you have a parcel that size that is controlled by the city and is primed for development, it almost seems like the opportunities are endless."
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For years, the Tampa Bay region chased after a Major League Baseball team. In 1986, the St. Petersburg City Council voted 6-3 to build what would become the Florida Suncoast Dome on 86 acres near downtown.
It opened in March 1990 but without a baseball team. It actually got a hockey team first in 1993, when the Tampa Bay Lightning moved into the renamed ThunderDome and played three seasons. Baseball finally arrived in 1998 and Tropicana Products bought the naming rights to the dome.
Fast forward two decades, one World Series and several disappointing seasons of attendance later: The city and team seem ready to move on.
St. Petersburg finished paying off the dome's construction bonds in 2015. The team's agreement to play at the Trop expires in 2027. The Rays want to move to a site in Tampa's Ybor City, but that issue is far from a resolution.
The team can also block any attempts to redevelop the Trop before 2027 (although the lucrative redevelopment rights are one of the carrots St. Petersburg is dangling in front of the Rays to get the team to stay.)
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So whether the Rays stay in St. Petersburg, leave peacefully, or depart in the midst of a massive court battle remains to be seen.
The destiny of Tropicana Field, though, is set in stone.
Once the Rays' fate is settled, the dome will come down.
All that needs to be decided is what to replace it with.
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Exactly what kind of development that could be remains to be seen, but nearly everyone agrees the site must carry a mix.
Many wonder if it could provide the tonic to ongoing city issues such as the shortage of high-end office space or the lack of affordable housing options.
Once those areas are addressed — commercial and entertainment, residential and retail — the focus will turn to more specific requests.
Maybe this project could house a convention center, mused the city's development administrator, Alan DeLisle. Both the city and county desperately lack such a space, whereas downtown Tampa has a convention center.
Or perhaps there's a way to weave in new arts and music options so the new growth matches the existing vibe, suggested Paula Clair Smith, managing director for commercial services for Colliers International.
"There's a risk in dealing with a blank canvas," Clair Smith said. "To create something new and shiny amongst everything else, you could lose the palatableness as far as the softness and different dimensions we have elsewhere."
Others see the Trop redevelopment as a way for the city to finally come through on promises made decades ago. Though the property borders St. Petersburg's thriving downtown district to the north, the southern end sits along the edge of the city's poorest neighborhoods.
The Trop itself was built on top of the African-American Gas Plant community, which officials decades ago deemed worthy of sacrificing to build the dome. Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch said his family used to run a business in the old Gas Plant neighborhood.
"While the churches and a lot of the residential folks relocated," Welch said, "that jobs base, that entrepreneurial base there has never really recovered."
To Welch, this new redevelopment would also give the city a chance to make good on commitments made decades ago to provide African-American residents with economic opportunities that were never quite fulfilled.
"Most of the Rays' impact has been within in the dome," Welch said. "People drive to the dome, walk in, spend their money, get in their cars and go home."
The challenge for the Trop redevelopment, he said, will be making sure the benefits are more egalitarian: "How do we get the best, most equitable use out of those 85 acres that will pay back dividends for decades to come."
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Should the Rays choose to stay in St. Petersburg, the city has a master plan for the Trop site ready to go. Composed by Dallas-based firm HKS Architects for $420,000, the plan links the site to the waterfront, the city's best asset. It also allocates space for retail, entertainment and affordable housing. The stadium would take up about 15 acres, leaving 71 for redevelopment.
City Council approved the next step on Thursday, approving another contract with HKS to design a redevelopment plan without a baseball stadium, for the full 86 acres. The $178,000 plan should take 3 months to draft and will include at least one major public meeting.
One issue in trying to image what the new Trop site could look like is that local officials say there's nothing quite like it anywhere else in the country. There's nothing with the comparable potential of this project.
Even Tampa's experience across the bay with Water Street Tampa isn't quite analogous. The 55 acres that Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik spent years meticulously piecing together — and is now developing in a partnership with Cascade Investment — is being built with one vision, on privately owned land, with one master developer.
The Trop site is publicly owned, but St. Petersburg has yet to decide whether it will go that route. Will the city hand all 86 acres over to a single developer with one cohesive vision in mind? Or could it instead parcel out pieces of the project to different entities?
That crucial decision is long away from being made. But it will have far reaching impacts on the project.
Water Street Tampa is a good example of the cohesive approach. While it was initially contemplated that a select group of developers would work jointly to create the neighborhood, the decision was made early on to create one management company to oversee the project: Strategic Property Partners.
"It allows us to ensure that our vision is fully carried through — from big picture to the smallest details," Strategic Property Partners spokeswoman Ali Glisson said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. "We also have the complete ability to create and balance a diverse mix of land uses, so our individual buildings complement one another and build a greater whole."
Not everyone is convinced that's the way to go.
Making room for multiple developers could allow more local firms and entrepreneurs to have buy in, Clair Smith suggested.
"They know the city best," she said. "As opposed to handing it to one master developer and saying, 'Here, solve all of our problems.'"
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DuBuque thinks both approaches have their upsides, and potential concerns. The risk of using a master developer is that there may be complex areas of development outside the company's expertise, DuBuque said.
Then again, separate developers could jeopardize the potential for building a development that has a consistent brand and vibe.
Neither of those risks is a huge deterrent in DuBuque's mind, and ultimately the decision of how to approach the project falls to city leaders.
Still, those decisions are a long way off, DeLisle said.
"Right now we're still in the idea stage," he said. "The next step would be to finish the master plan without the stadium and then we hope the next step is the step toward the selection of a developer or developers and the outcomes that the city wants."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.