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Get rid of Interstate 175? Trop makeover plan says yes

A conceptual model for redeveloping the 85-acre Tropicana Field site. The HKS model has what appears to be an open-air stadium, but no plans call for that. The model introduces the idea of eliminating I-175 to connect Midtown with the jobs, restaurants and other amenities proposed.
A conceptual model for redeveloping the 85-acre Tropicana Field site. The HKS model has what appears to be an open-air stadium, but no plans call for that. The model introduces the idea of eliminating I-175 to connect Midtown with the jobs, restaurants and other amenities proposed.
Published Aug. 28, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — Take a gander at the conceptual model of what the area around a new downtown baseball stadium might look like. Two things jump out:

First, there's no more Interstate 175.

Second, the model shows an open-air stadium.

Let's dispense with that first: The open-air stadium is just clip art. Ignore it.

HKS Inc., the global architecture firm that came up with the model, does design sports stadiums. But it is being paid $420,000 by the city and the Tampa Bay Rays to develop a master plan for the 85-acre Tropicana Field site — not a new stadium for the team.

But getting rid of I-175? That would be a monumental. A feat of political will.

Case in point: the Florida Department of Transportation, when queried about the idea, said it had no plans to get rid of the massive concrete spur that peels off I-275 to the south of the Trop on its short trek downtown.

HKS recently held its third community forum to update its progress and brought along the model. It was first shown to a city selection committee in April. It has since been modified to highlight a swath of revitalized green space along Booker Creek, placing the stadium at the northeast corner, nearest to the waterfront.

HKS won the job, in large part, by its concept of linking — through street improvements and transit — the Trop and the waters of Tampa Bay.

But last week the firm unveiled a new wrinkle, one that was first pitched by a rival design firm: getting rid of I-175.

The idea is to integrate Midtown into the jobs, restaurants and nightlife expected to sprout up on the Trop site. Eventually, the site will be redeveloped whether the Rays build a new stadium there or not. At a July meeting, Midtown residents had urged city leaders and HKS planners to remember the legacy of the predominantly black Gas Plant neighborhood that had been razed in the 1980s to build what was first known as the Florida Suncoast Dome.

The city and HKS heard that message, said Dave Goodwin, the city's planning and development director.

"At the end of the day, we want a plan that will be accepted by the community and honors the legacy of the Gas Plant neighborhood," Goodwin said.

Getting rid of I-175 wouldn't happen quickly, Goodwin said. In the interim, a "park overpass" — a wider swath of green space than a typical pedestrian overpass — would be built over the interstate to connect Campbell Park to the Trop.

Seattle has successfully built such overpasses, he said.

Eliminating the interstate would require federal and state approval, a process that would likely take years. Then it would take more time to secure funding.

And there's this: No interstate in Florida has ever been decommissioned or removed, at least as far as anyone at FDOT knows.

About 40,000 vehicles a day use the short interstate, which travels east to Fourth Street S.

The plan would be to shorten the ramp to road grade by 16th Street S, Goodwin said and make the rest into a tree-lined, pedestrian and bike-friendly boulevard.

When it was shown last week to a crowd of about 150 people attending a Trop briefing at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, they liked the idea.

"Everyone liked the concept of removing this looming physical barrier," said HKS vice president Julie Hiromoto. "Slowing down traffic will also allow more opportunities for businesses in the area. Implementing a change like this will require a considerable amount of public will.

"This could be an opportunity for real leadership from Florida's elected leaders at the highest levels."

In Tampa, a similar idea has been suggested for N Ashley Drive, a busy six-lane state road that acts as a freeway for I-275 traffic entering downtown Tampa. Reducing those lanes — known as a "road diet" — and making Ashley more of a city street would make it more pedestrian and bike friendly. However, Ashley is a state road, so the FDOT controls it as well.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said he didn't want to weigh in just yet on killing off I-175. The benefit of public input to a master plan, he said, is the brainstorming and exciting ideas that bubble up.

"This is one concept out of a myriad of different concepts that are out there," Kriseman said Friday.

HKS is set to update the St. Petersburg City Council next month and deliver a final plan by late October or early November.

As for open-air stadiums? Neither the Rays nor their fans have clamored for the nightly bug-fests and storm-drenchings of Tampa Bay during the summer.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.