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Tropicana Field finalists make their pitches to St. Petersburg residents

The developers jockeyed to appear the most committed to working with the community.
The four shortlisted development companies made their pitch to the public during a virtual listening session on Monday.
The four shortlisted development companies made their pitch to the public during a virtual listening session on Monday. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Apr. 6
Updated Apr. 6

ST. PETERSBURG — The four development companies on the shortlist to redevelop the Tropicana Field site each attempted to differentiate themselves in front of the public on Monday.

The session, which took place over Zoom, touched on a host of issues the developers will have to address should they be chosen by Mayor Rick Kriseman to lead construction of the project.

But the developers seemed most concerned with convincing those watching that they, more than any other team, want to hear from them and cared about the success of the project. Those with local ties pushed them, while two groups emphasized that members of their teams have been working on the Trop site’s future since 2016, when the city undertook a master planning effort for the 86-acre parcel. All did their best to quantify the number of conversations they’ve had with residents, business owners and community leaders.

Related: How St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Field pitches stack up on parks, homes, history

“When I get up in the morning and I get in my car, and I drive across the bridge — this is my hometown. I live in Tampa Bay,” said Ken Jones, the head of Tampa investment firm Third Lake Partners, which partnered on a proposal with Atlanta’s Portman Holdings. “If we screw this up ... it’s going to hurt deeply for us as people who live here and have lived here our whole lives.”

Chuck Whittall, president of Orlando-based Unicorp National Development, said his team doesn’t have investors: “It’s us.”

“We’ve done business all throughout Central Florida,” he said. “We deliver what we say we will.”

Another team, Sugar Hill Community Partners, which is led by San Francisco’s JMA Ventures, said that to show they’re listening to the community on a regular basis, they’ll hold weekly “developer hours” for residents every Thursday, from 2 to 4 p.m. Residents must sign up on the company’s website.

Kriseman last month shortlisted the proposals from Unicorp, Portman and Third Lake, Sugar Hill and Miami’s Midtown Development after the city received seven qualified submissions in January.

Monday’s public comment meeting was the first of three, with two more in-person sessions planned at the Coliseum on Wednesday and Thursday nights. The week’s rapid-fire engagement process is the latest step in Kriseman’s bid to make his final selection as early as next month.

More than 300 people logged onto Monday’s Zoom call, where in opening remarks Kriseman drove home familiar talking points about the timing of the development process and the Tampa Bay Rays. He too stressed the importance of community engagement and, to dispel concerns that the input process is being truncated, argued that engagement began years ago for the city’s master plan. He also addressed the uncertainty surrounding the fate of the Rays, who have yet to commit to building a new stadium on the Trop site.

Related: Watch: Tropicana Field development bidders share video visions of St. Petersburg

“Given that this is a generational endeavor, it could take 10 or 20 years for this site to be redeveloped. The uncertainty related to the Rays is not an obstacle,” Kriseman said. “Many mayors, many City Council members will come and go before redevelopment is complete. And we must start somewhere. And I don’t know about you all, but I’m tired of looking at a desert of concrete in our downtown.”

From there, the developers each had a chance to summarize their proposals. While each project is unique, they share certain major similarities: All pitch a mixed-use and mixed-income community, with a transformed Booker Creek as its centerpiece, that reconnects the Trop land with the surrounding neighborhoods and prioritizes parks, art and history — all while leaving room for a new stadium should the Rays want to build a new ballpark.

During the presentations, those watching submitted more than 60 questions and comments that a city official summarized into seven topics: affordability, public financing, working with the Rays, community engagement, parking and transportation, sustainability and equity.

Related: In Tropicana Field debate, St. Petersburg City Council asks: Where are the Rays?

All four developers acknowledged the Rays brought considerable uncertainty to the project. And while a baseball stadium can be an economic engine, said David Carlock, Sugar Hill’s development manager, the other elements that attract people to the site must be enough to stand on their own. The “peakiness” of a stadium means thousands of people will come and go on game nights, all more or less at the same time, and then on days without games, the stadium will sit empty.

“The stadium can’t be the sun, and the mixed use and residential revolves around it,” he said. “Because the sun is dark too often.”

Meanwhile, Whittall, of Unicorp, dismissed the Rays’ split-season idea entirely.

“It’s not functional to build a billion-dollar stadium up north somewhere and a billion-dollar stadium in Tampa,” he said. “They’re going to have to pick a home.”

On the issue of affordability, the four development teams committed to building housing that’s attainable for multiple income levels and several talked about subsidizing commercial rent for local small businesses. When discussing parking and transportation, all four said by the time this project is completed, they envision a future in which car-dependent Floridians might ditch their automobiles in favor of other modes of transportation — including, according to Ben Siwinski of the Midtown team, “air mobility.” In other words, aircraft.

Related: St. Petersburg tossed these two Tropicana Field site proposals. Why?

To ensure there’s equity in the project, the developers plan to incorporate historical elements in their projects, and some have job training programs built in. One speaker, Walter Hood, founder of Hood Design Studio, which is part of Midtown team, said the design of a place can set the tone by making people feel “like they belong.” Hood also said inclusion goes beyond just race to other groups as well.

“I can walk into some spaces where I do not feel comfortable ... and it’s because of the way they’re designed,” he said. “When we think of equity with gender, with other types of groups, we have to go beyond the norm and make people comfortable.”

While the competition between the developers continues, they all said they endeavor to create a place with broad appeal to the St. Petersburg community, where people will look forward to spending their time and feel a deep-rooted sense of place.

“I think the highlight of my career was when a random person, someone I met on the street, said ‘Oh, you’re Alex Vadia?’ I met my wife at your dog park,” said Vadia, the managing principal at Midtown Development. “That’s what we’re trying to accomplish.”