St. Pete leaders stress community input in choosing Tropicana Field future

Visions for a redeveloped Trop site are due Jan. 15. Meanwhile, the future of the Tampa Bay Rays remains uncertain.
The deadline for developers to submit their visions for the 86-acre Tropicana Field site is Jan. 15.
The deadline for developers to submit their visions for the 86-acre Tropicana Field site is Jan. 15. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Dec. 4, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — As the six-month window closes in January for developers to submit ideas for the future of the Tropicana Field site, the discussion at Thursday’s City Council meeting focused on community engagement.

Alan DeLisle, the city’s development administrator, outlined a three-step process for choosing the developer who will ultimately transform the 86-acre site. Mayor Rick Kriseman and council members have described the Trop project as “generational”, both because of the development’s scope and to make good on unfulfilled promises of prosperity made to Black residents who were displaced for the stadium’s construction nearly 40 years ago.

The proposals are due by Jan. 15. City officials will then put together a “strengths and weaknesses” document for the mayor, who will compile a shortlist. Then, the selected developers will meet with community leaders, where they can explain their designs and get input. The developers would then present to the community at large in an open forum setting.

Before the land was leveled for the Trop and its vast parking lot, it was an historically Black neighborhood called the Gas Plant District, at the center of which was a natural gas production facility.

More than 285 buildings were demolished, nine churches and more than 500 families were relocated and 30 businesses were moved or closed. Now, as Mayor Rick Kriseman’s administration forges ahead with plans for a second redevelopment of the property, officials are wary of repeating past mistakes.

“I want to make sure that as we move forward, everyone who needs to be involved is involved, and more importantly, including the community which transitioned with the building of the dome many years ago,” said Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders, who was baptized in one of those relocated churches.

Some community outreach has already begun, explained Nikki Gaskin-Capehart, the city’s director of urban affairs. The city organized a collective of neighborhood, youth, housing and business groups to participate in an initiative run by the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative that is focused on ensuring the new Trop development is equitable.

At Figgs-Sanders’ urging, the city also produced a five minute video that discusses what was lost when the district was demolished, and also what parameters the city set for developers. The purpose was to make it easier for citizens to understand the gravity and elements of a re-envisioned Trop site.

“I can’t stress how important this initiative is to a group of people who have historically suffered a loss,” Figgs-Sanders said.

It’s difficult to discuss the future of the Trop site without addressing the uncertainty regarding the future of the stadium’s main tenant, the Tampa Bay Rays. The team — which last year unveiled an unprecedented concept to split its home games between two new stadiums, one in the Tampa Bay area and one in Montreal — is locked into a contract at the Trop through the 2027 season, and the Rays have certain rights to the property during the lease term.

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Team leaders have previously said they could prevent development on the site until the contract expires if the city does not cooperate with their desire to explore the split-season arrangement for before the 2028 season. Meanwhile, Kriseman wants development to start sooner, and has thus far said St. Petersburg is not interested in a split-season deal.

Related: St. Petersburg's future lies beneath Tropicana Field. Do the Rays stand in the way?

Council member Gina Driscoll pushed DeLisle for any details on conversations between the mayor and the team. The last time the council received a formal update on the team’s status was January.

“We’re coming up on a year and I’d really hate to get to February 2021 and have us all sit around the table and have the same conversation,” Driscoll said. “I’d really hope there’s something to report by then.”

Related: What’s up with the Rays and St. Pete? Rick Kriseman won’t say ‘publicly’

Some council members during the meeting raised questions about the timing of the proposal process.

Council Chair Ed Montanari asked if today’s momentum would be wasted if development on the site must wait until 2027. DeLisle said the request for proposals makes clear to developers that it’s possible the land could remain locked up until then.

“We don’t expect that to happen, we expect that the Rays are going to want to do what’s in the best interest of the city, and vice versa,” he said. “That is not the goal, but we made it clear in the RFP that that could be the case.”

And Darden Rice, a likely mayoral candidate next year, raised concerns about the plan coming together in the final year of the Kriseman administration:

“My fear is that the admin will drop down a plan on its way out the door and hamper future leaders from being able to do our job.”