ST. PETERSBURG — The city reached another milestone Friday on its path to redeveloping the Tropicana Field site, an 86-acre project that has the potential to alter the fabric of downtown St. Petersburg. Eight companies vying to be the “master developer” of the site, who would oversee all work toward one cohesive vision, submitted their proposals.
Friday’s deadline closes out a five month bidding window, and represents the first time city development officials within Mayor Rick Kriseman’s administration get a glimpse of what construction and planning experts in the private sector believe can be built upon that site, and at what cost.
Now, Mayor Rick Kriseman’s administration will sift through the documents in a winnowing period likely to take months, where the city will negotiate with finalists over dollars and project priorities. One of Kriseman’s last significant acts as mayor before he leaves office in January 2022 could be selecting a project.
For now, most of the proposals remain with the city, out of public view, while they’re reviewed by city lawyers and development officials. They could be released next week.
One proposal comes from Orlando’s Unicorp National Developments, whose Orlando-area projects include: ICON Park, anchored by the 400-foot-tall Ferris wheel dubbed the Wheel; O-Town West, an upcoming $1 billion mixed-use project situated between Walt Disney World and SeaWorld; and a planned $1 billion open-air redevelopment of the Orlando Fashion Square mall.
Unicorp’s proposal features a network of parks and greenspaces built around an expanded Booker Creek and the Pinellas Trail, as well as a 400-room hotel, 70,000-square-foot conference center, 155,000 square feet of office space and around 6,000 parking spaces. The proposal also says Unicorp has “reached out to several colleges and universities that have shown interest in establishing satellite campuses” on the site.”
Unicorp president Chuck Whittall said a good comparison to what his company has proposed is the popular River Walk area in San Antonio, Texas.
“I think we have presented something completely special,” Whittall said. “If the city is looking for something completely dense, we are not the right developer. We are really trying to design a community. I urged my team the whole way through this, ‘Do not think of this as a development project. Think of this as building a community.’”
While the fate of the Trop’s main tenant, the Tampa Bay Rays, remains uncertain, the city asked developers to envision the project with and without a baseball stadium. Unicorp’s plan would cost $643 million without a stadium, Whittall said, and well over $1 billion with one. The company has requested $100 million in tax incremental funding from the city to be spent on parks, the arts and other public uses. With or without a stadium, the company said development could wrap by 2029.
That timeline will only be possible if the city can get cooperation from the Rays, whose future is inextricably tied to that of the development project.
The team’s lease of the stadium runs through the 2027 season, during which time the team is prohibited from playing home games anywhere else. In exchange for that exclusivity, the Rays are entitled to half the revenue generated by the property through the lease term, and they have a say over what construction can occur.
But the Rays want to fully and freely explore their novel idea of splitting their season between home stadiums in the Tampa Bay area and Montreal for prior to the 2028 season. Kriseman has said he will not waive the exclusivity clause in the Trop lease. In response, the team has said it can hold up development in court.
Rays President Brian Auld on Friday issued a one sentence statement on the proposals being due: “We are curious to see how this process progresses.”
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the parcel for St. Petersburg. City and community leaders speak of the Trop project in “transformational” terms: a flat, publicly-owned contiguous parcel that spans more than 21 square blocks on the edge of an active and growing downtown. Development officials say there are few, if any, urban parcels like it in the country.
But in addition to the complications involving the Rays, whomever wins the bid to shepherd the project through will have to navigate a thicket of other challenges.
While the stadium’s vast blacktop parking lot will keep demolition and site clearing costs low, it also represents what some consider to be a grave injustice to the city’s Black community.
The Gas Plant District, a working class and predominantly Black neighborhood that surrounded a natural gas production facility, was razed in the 1980s to make way for what was then called the Florida Suncoast Dome. The city offered fair market value to property owners, displacing families, businesses, churches and schools that had underpinned that neighborhood for decades. For those who refused to sell, the city claimed their land through eminent domain.
The justification was always that a new baseball stadium would attract a big league ball club, and around it would sprout economic growth that would benefit the residents it displaced. Part of that dream materialized when, in 1998, the then-named Tampa Bay Devil Rays debuted. But prosperity never came, and the new development bears the responsibility of delivering on that promise and honoring the Gas Plant’s history and sacrifice.
“Quite frankly, the area around it, the neighbors felt like they got taken advantage of,” Whittall said. “We thought the best way to give back to the community was to give something the entire community could use. That’s why we designed our entire proposal around the park and gathering spaces, and things that we felt would benefit the community.”
City officials have discussed creating a community benefit agreement, whereby tax revenue generated on the new Trop site development could be funneled into the city’s poorest community to fight poverty. The idea is similar to a community redevelopment area, except that instead of tax revenue being raised and reinvested in the same area, it would be raised in one area and invested in another.
The winning developer will also have to contend with environmental concerns surrounding Booker Creek and address a potential forgotten cemetery on a corner of the site.
Envisioning the project is an exercise in balancing many competing interests. The solicitation for proposals, which the city released in July, stressed the inclusion of abundant affordable or workforce housing so that the site doesn’t become an enclave for the well off. Other priorities include large swaths of park and greenspace; university, research or medical space; a convention center; hotel rooms; dining and retail; a revived Booker Creek; exhibition, museum or art space; parking; and office space that could house the headquarters of a major company.
Friday’s deadline comes just as the campaign to replace Kriseman begins to heat up. Ken Welch, a former five-term Pinellas County Commissioner, announcing his bid for mayor the same day. Earlier in the week, City Council member Darden Rice filed her paperwork to run.
The next mayor will be responsible for seeing Kriseman’s selection through, or he or she could seek to pivot the project entirely. Rice and Welch both said earlier in the week that they would keep an open mind about the submissions.
“I’m hopeful that this process will yield good proposals. I think it will become quickly apparent if it will not,” Rice said. “But I’m not going to settle for anything less than this city deserves, which is the best.”