The bid to redevelop St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Field site sounded promising: Hundreds of residences and hotel rooms, park space along Booker Creek, and hundreds of thousands of feet of office and retail space.
The Rays were out to build a new stadium, and the development firm they’d partnered with on the Trop site was a Houston company called Hines. Everyone knew the Rays-Hines pitch was coming, and some thought the city’s choice was a foregone conclusion.
Except it wasn’t. The mayor and City Council went with another bid, one that promised more homes, more hotels and more jobs. Hines was out of the Tropicana Field redevelopment business.
That was 2008.
Now Hines is back, working alongside the Rays to lead a monumental 20-year, $6.5 billion plan for a stadium and mixed-use development on the Trop site. The plan is moving forward with support from city and county leaders, putting Hines at the forefront of the biggest redevelopment deal in Pinellas County history.
“Our primary goal is to create a transformative, community-focused project that will become St. Petersburg’s next great place to live, work and play for everyone, as well as one of the most exciting mixed-use projects in the world,” chairperson and co-CEO Jeff Hines said when the deal was announced Sept. 19 at Tropicana Field.
It’s the real estate investment and development company’s biggest project underway, he said. And those who have worked with Hines say few firms are better equipped for the task.
“They’ve just been at city-building for a long time,” said Scott Selig, associate vice president for corporate assets at Duke University, which has worked and consulted with Hines on different projects throughout the years. “They’ve learned lessons and made mistakes and watched others do it. They’re just the adults in the room, as far as developers.”
Hines and the Rays
The formal relationship started at a basketball game 15 years ago.
The Rays wanted a new ballpark. Hines had recently finished developing the Toyota Center in Houston. The two parties met at the arena to talk business and watch the Rockets play. A partnership was formed.
But the team was aware of Hines well before that, Rays co-president Matt Silverman said. Before he became a baseball executive, while still working in finance, Silverman worked with a real estate startup with ties to Hines and met some of their key leaders. And long before that, as a kid growing up in Texas, he used to go to Hines retail developments in Dallas and Houston.
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“They were the first call that we made when we started our 2007 exploration down at Al Lang,” Silverman said.
Hines stood by the team through all its myriad attempts to find a new home — from the original 2008 Trop redevelopment bid up to the controversial “split stadium” idea that would’ve sent the Rays to Canada for half the season. If the Rays explored a new site, Hines was involved, if only as a consultant.
“Whenever there was a question about real estate, they’d be the first one we’d contact,” Silverman said.
Founded in 1957, the company is still a family business. Founder Gerald Hines passed the reins to his son Jeff in 1990; Jeff is co-CEO with his daughter Laura Hines-Pierce. The company has nearly 5,000 employees and a presence in 30 countries, but that core stability is important, Silverman said, as the team has been working with some of the same Hines leaders since the early days.
Throughout its time working with the Rays, Hines has been tasked not just with building a ballpark but creating a city within a city.
“We think of the buildings as the hardware and the space between the buildings and the activation of that space as the software,” said Michael Harrison, a senior managing director for Hines.
Whether that approach will attract and retain larger crowds is the million-dollar question.
Harrison admits he’s not a baseball expert. “I’ll leave that to the Rays,” he said.
Hines has developed a handful of stadiums but none as ambitious as what they’ve envisioned for the Rays. Most of the sports venues it has worked on — including the University of Minnesota’s football stadium and Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres — were standalone, not part of a larger mixed-use development.
Any new ballpark will bring more fans, Silverman said. That’s basically a given.
“What you want is staying power,” he said. “You want something that can sustain that level of attendance and build off of it. To do that, it has to be a great environment outside the gates of the ballpark. And that’s where Hines comes in, in partnering with us to create an incredible backdrop to the ballpark, but more importantly, an incredible neighborhood for St. Petersburg that people will want to live in, they’ll want to work in, and they’ll want to visit many, many times a year.”
Harrison said that’s exactly what Hines has done with Petco Park.
“That’s an example of a project that really spurred the neighborhood to gentrify and to develop around it,” he said.
The art of placemaking
Hines has taken on several large projects around the world: Porta Nuova, a 1.5 billion euro, 72-acre district built around an abandoned rail yard in Milan, Italy; Cherrywood, a suburb in Dublin, Ireland, that will span 300 acres; The Parks at Walter Reed, a 66-acre $1 billion community on the site of a former military base in Washington, D.C.
But anyone can build a mixed-use development with housing, office and retail. What sets Hines apart is the company’s ability to breathe life into neighborhoods.
Harrison pointed to Atlantic Station, a 523,511-square-foot project that Hines manages in Atlanta. In the past year, they’ve scheduled more than 350 programs and events at the property — from yoga in the park, to wine tastings to movie nights.
Could this strategy fill seats at Rays games? Sure. But Harrison said the hope is to make the Gas Plant District a magnet even during the offseason.
Coincidentally, Hines is working on a project next to the Rays’ Triple-A affiliate team in Durham, North Carolina.
The company will lead an 11-acre expansion of the American Tobacco Campus, which sits by Durham Athletic Park and the Durham Performing Arts Center, featuring 353,000 square feet of creative office space, a 19-story, 343-unit residential building and 104,000 square feet of grocery, restaurant and retail space.
Duke, which has administrative offices there, subleases space to Meta, parent company to Facebook. Selig said Duke also considered leasing space at another Hines project down the road in Cary, North Carolina, called Fenton, before turning elsewhere.
“Fenton has really become a destination location,” Selig said. “It’s the right tenant mix, it’s the right quality, it’s a very high demographic.”
Hines, he said, has a knack for getting the feel of a place just right. At Fenton, home to an array of higher-end shops and restaurants, “they have out of whole cloth created a place that people want to be,” he said. And with American Tobacco, they will lean into the community characteristics that led companies like Facebook, Google and Apple to move to North Carolina’s Research Triangle.
“Hines is more about the placemaking and the longevity of the view,” Selig said.
Downtown St. Petersburg needs more Class A office space to attract top corporate tenants, said Jason Mathis, CEO of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, and Hines has a track record of building it. The Gas Plant project gives them an opportunity to develop a build-to-fit space for a corporate relocation. And like other new office projects, it’ll be fully designed and constructed in a post-COVID world, with freedom to get creative with designs based on evolving corporate real estate trends.
“As it moves forward, Hines is certainly going to avail themselves of the latest thinking in terms of, how do you build offices for the future?” Mathis said. “My sense is they’ll be very innovative and nimble spaces that will benefit all the companies that come.”
Paying homage to the Gas Plant neighborhood
In its first pitch for the Trop site in 2008, Hines sought inspiration from local history.
Back then, the request for proposal made no mention of the Historic Gas Plant District, a largely Black neighborhood that the city razed in the late 1970s and early ’80s to make way for new homes and offices. The plan to bring Major League Baseball to the site came later, after much of the area had been cleared.
The two other proposals, including the eventual winner, didn’t mention this recent history. Hines, on the other hand, counted up the buildings that had been demolished, households that had been relocated and businesses that had closed. Their proposal said that the history “should be honored and reflected in appropriate ways through the planning, design, construction, marketing and operations of any redevelopment activity on the site.” They proposed meeting with community historians, activists and the public to better inform the project.
“We cannot and should not be making these decisions alone,” Hines wrote.
“It is emblematic of their approach, which is to come in and really understand the local character of the place that they’re looking to develop, and understand how to create something that is authentic for a particular city or a particular design,” Silverman said. “It is not a one-size approach, and even back then they were trying to figure out how to build something that would fit in context to, and in a relationship with, the history of the site.”
In 2020, when former Mayor Rick Kriseman set out to redevelop the site, incorporating the history of the Gas Plant District was a key part of the city’s vision. But Hines didn’t bid on it.
Following Kriseman’s announcement, Harrison immediately called Melanie Lenz, the Rays’ chief development officer. She made it clear that the city had not consulted with the team and that the request for proposal didn’t mention any land set aside for a new stadium.
“If the Rays are not involved, it’s a waste of our time,” Harrison told Hines colleagues.
“We knew eventually the right opportunity would come along,” he said recently.
When Welch reopened the city’s request in 2022, that gamble paid off.
This time, Hines and the Rays submitted a plan that included space for a new Woodson African American Museum, a Black heritage and cultural loop in the Booker Creek park area, and a $50 million “intentional equity commitment” targeting minority communities on the city’s south side.
Ray Tampa, former president of the St. Petersburg NAACP, penned a letter of support for Hines and the Rays during the bid process.
Though he said he’s still on the fence about certain aspects of the final deal — including the proposed $600 million contribution from the city and county — he believes that Hines will follow through on its promise to create a development that benefits everyone.
“It’s my hope that the stadium will start generating the kind of economic incentives that can be spread throughout the community,” he said, “I felt like these guys are serious and they have the wherewithal, resources and expertise to make it happen.”
Harrison said he considers the complex history of the Trop site as an asset, not an obstacle. Painting on a blank canvas with no limitations would be too easy.
“The best architects like projects that have constraints because that pushes them to think more creatively and solve a puzzle,” he said.