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Would tearing down Inter­state 175 help revive St. Peters­burg's Midtown? Opinions vary

ST. PETERSBURG — HKS Architects spent the summer holding public meetings across the city, gathering input on how to best redevelop the 85 acres surrounding Tropicana Field for a new ballpark for the Tampa Bay Rays.

Some bold ideas have emerged. The biggest, perhaps, is eliminating Interstate 175 to the south of the Trop and turning it into a tree-lined boulevard.

That idea has stoked debate between those who love it and those who don't, many of whom drive the 40,000 vehicles that traverse the mile-long paved spur each day.

On Sept. 8, HKS presented its latest iteration of the master plan to City Council.

While much of the conversation centered on the practicality of removing I-175 (Short version: federal and state approval would be required at several levels and would take years to obtain), the larger question of why the Trop site needs to be reconnected to the neighborhoods to the south received plenty of attention.

One possible solution: Creating a 6-acre park-like overpass over the interstate to integrate the poor and predominantly black Campbell Park neighborhood with the Trop.

Does the plan work if that doesn't happen, asked council chairwoman Amy Foster?

It works, said HKS architect Randy Morton, but at sizeable cost.

"They will not come," Morton said, referring to the chance that Midtown residents will become patrons of a new baseball stadium and surrounding entertainment district.

The destruction of the African-American Gas Plant community to build the original Florida Suncoast Dome — now known as the Trop — left cultural and physical scars on the black community, he said.

If the political will isn't summoned to break down the concrete wall of I-175, Morton said, then divisions created by the old baseball stadium will continue if a new one is built.

"Doing nothing means nothing will happen," Morton said.

City Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman said one way to incorporate Midtown into the new stadium project is to make sure affordable entertainment and dining options exist there. Creating an upmarket oasis just to the north of impoverished Midtown, she said, won't make that neighborhood's resident feel welcome at a rejuvenated Trop.

A movie theater, parks and, most importantly, jobs are essential for winning Midtown's trust, she said.

Local NAACP chapter president Maria Scruggs is skeptical that the Trop's redevelopment will deliver any economic hopes to struggling neighborhoods south of the stadium.

The city has shown no interest in redrawing the boundaries of the new South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area to include the bounty of tax revenue that could be generated by the Trop's redevelopment, she said, so getting rid of I-175 or building a park-like overpass is just a "feel-good" project that won't extend meaningful development into Midtown neighborhoods.

"It sounds nice," Scruggs said, "but in 20 years we won't see anything substantive for economic development in South St. Petersburg."

Coy LaSister, president of the Campbell Park Neighborhood Association, said the interstate has created a "physical, psychological and cultural barrier between south and north St. Petersburg neighborhoods ... and has separated residents along race, culture and heritage lines."

He applauds efforts to reshape the space currently occupied by the interstate, noting that New Orleans is now considering whether to tear down an extension of I-10 that divides Treme, a predominantly black community, from other neighborhoods.

Mayor Rick Kriseman is still reserving his judgment on the idea, said his spokesman, Ben Kirby.

A final plan will be delivered to the city by the end of October or early November. HKS is being paid $420,000 to develop the plan by the city and the Rays.

HKS has also been tasked with creating a redevelopment plan for the Trop's 85 acres if the team leaves St. Petersburg. But that won't happen until after the team decides where it wants its new ballpark.

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

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