If the Rays replace Tropicana Field, where will fans park?

Right now, most fans drive to games in St. Petersburg. A new stadium could change that.
The acres of surface parking lot surrounding Tropicana Field will disappear in a new development. Stadium parking could be reduced.
The acres of surface parking lot surrounding Tropicana Field will disappear in a new development. Stadium parking could be reduced. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published April 23, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — In the cornfields of Iowa, the refrain goes, “If you build it, he will come.”

On the asphalt of the Tropicana Field parking lot in St. Petersburg, the question could be: “If you build it, how will they get there?”

Right now, for fans who don’t live downtown, driving is the main way people get to Tampa Bay Rays games. With a massive parking lot on site and a paltry public transit system in place, there’s really only one option.

The city’s lease agreement with the Tampa Bay Rays, which runs through the 2027 season, guarantees the team at least 7,000 parking spots to accommodate driving fans — meaning any spots displaced by early construction would have to be replaced.

If the Rays decide to construct a new stadium there, that’s likely to change. Two of the four redevelopment plans for the site’s 86 acres contemplate reducing parking levels. A third predicts the team’s parking needs will change drastically in the coming decades.

But this is the Tampa Bay area. The place where transportation initiatives have died on the vine, where the state is spending billions on road improvements, and where attendance at Rays games has held steady near the cellar of Major League Baseball. Does it make sense to make it harder to park at games?

It may depend how far into the future one looks.

“We’re going to have to deal with the reality of people getting around by car for the foreseeable future,” said Whit Blanton, executive director of Forward Pinellas, the county’s metropolitan planning organization. “On the other hand, it makes no sense to make it so easy to park at the Trop that it’s the easiest, default option.”

Related: With Rays’ fate uncertain, St. Petersburg City Council vies to halt Trop project

Spaced-out spots, mobility hubs

When the city issued a request for proposals on the site, it did not outline specific parking needs for a new stadium, other than to say it must be addressed, and may not have to be located on-site. In general, parking garages are to replace large lots, with ample spaces and access for bicycles.

“People aren’t coming to a vibrant urban core to walk past parking,” said Karen Kress, director of transportation and planning for the Tampa Downtown Partnership, which has studied downtown parking there since 2017. “What’s the best and highest use of the land? I would say a building or a park or something other than a black, asphalt heat island.”

Said Blanton: “If you’re building a site for long-term sustainability, and you want to maximize the return on investment, why is God’s name would you put a lot of parking there, to accommodate the suburb visitor who may go there once every three weeks?”

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

Both the request for proposal and some of the submitted plans acknowledge that the current need for parking spaces may change. One proposal, from shortlisted Midtown Developments, would align parking floors with the rest of the building’s general structure, allowing for the eventual transformation of those spaces into “light wells and courtyards.”

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Chuck Whittall, the president of shortlisted Unicorp National Developments, said parking structures that can more easily be repurposed are a newer trend in urban development, but one he believes will become more common if people become less reliant on cars.

“Everybody realizes 10 years from now, people are going to get around differently than they do today,” he said. “When I travel now, I almost always use Uber and don’t rent cars. When I go out drinking, I use Uber a lot. So it’s changing.”

Related: St. Petersburg residents weigh in on finalist Trop proposals

Here’s how the four proposals pitched their parking plans:

  • Unicorp outlined 6,044 spots, including 1,311 dedicated to the stadium and another 887 shared with commercial and office spaces. Both garages would sit about a block from the stadium.
  • Midtown didn’t outline a specific number of spaces in its plan, but it did feature a “mobility hub” aimed at future-proofing the city’s transportation needs. Located northeast of the stadium, it would include ride-sharing pick-up and drop-off spots, a bus and rapid transit stop, electric vehicle charging stations and parking for bikes and scooters. It would allow for the addition of rail transit and even include a “vertiport” for “urban air mobility” — in other words, the ability, one day, to fly to the stadium.
  • The proposal from Atlanta’s Portman Holdings and Portman Residential and St. Petersburg’s Third Lake Partners maintains plenty of space for Rays parking: 12,466 spots west of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, including 7,134 west of Booker Creek, near the stadium. Of these, 1,882 are in a garage connected to the stadium, 2,173 are in two garages one block away, and 590 are beneath Interstate 275 for VIP parking and tailgating. On game days, though, Third Avenue S would become “entirely pedestrianized,” drawing “the collective energy and excitement of game day crowds through the streets and open spaces of this reinvigorated community.”
  • Sugar Hill Community Partners’ proposal encourages more last-mile walking, cycling and autonomous vehicle usage around the ballpark. Analysis from their primary transportation partner, the urban planning and engineering firm Stantec, suggests parking and auto use in downtown St. Petersburg could decrease by up to 25 percent in the next few years, with Millennials and Gen Z “rapidly migrating toward a future where the idea of owning a personal vehicle is increasingly viewed as needlessly complex and expensive.”

“Already, not everybody is driving to all the things they want to go to,” said Ralph DeNisco, a senior principal and mobility planner with Stantec. The goal is to build “an ecosystem of alternative transportation” that can get people to a game however they want to go.

DeNisco is based in Boston, but has traveled all over the country for Major League Baseball games, taking note of the atmosphere surrounding each park. Encouraging more pedestrian activity around a park, he said, always makes a difference.

“I’ve been to the current Rays stadium,” he said. “You drive there, you park, you go to the game, then you leave, and that’s the end of it. The thing that is really memorable when you go to other stadiums is the whole game-day experience, which is all the other things that are around it.”

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

Reality vs. the future

Blanton, of Forward Pinellas, said the proposals are meant to demonstrate the developers’ creativity as they vie for the job and that the winning concept will be modified to meet the reality of getting something built there.

Things like rail lines will be a challenge. Pinellas and Hillsborough transportation advocates have faced repeated failure as they’ve tried to implement long-term transportation plans. The most recent setback was Feb. 25, when the Florida Supreme Court struck down Hillsborough County’s one-cent transportation sales tax, which was approved by 57 percent of voters in 2018.

Meanwhile the Florida Department of Transportation will spend a combined nearly $2 billion on road improvements at the Howard Frankland Bridge, the Westshore/Interstate 275 interchange and the U.S. 19/Curlew Road intersection.

Related: Kriseman hires Trop project consultant without City Council approval

Blanton said fans coming from Palm Harbor or Wesley Chapel or Brandon will be driving to games for the foreseeable future.

But, he said, more practical transit improvements are already in the works today. An expanded express bus and rapid transit network could make it more viable to take that system to a stadium. The SunRunner bus rapid transit system, when complete, will shuttle people between downtown and the beach right past the Trop site. Already, fans who drive into St. Petersburg and park elsewhere downtown can scoot or ride a bike share to the stadium.

“The tools are there,” Blanton said. “It’s just a matter of getting people comfortable.”

Last fall, the city launched AVA, an electric, driverless, artificial intelligence-driven shuttle on Bayshore Drive. It could be a preview of another way the city could get more people to and from games, said Frank Domingo, Stantec’s mobility practices lead for Florida, who worked on the Sugar Hill plan.

“Florida is hot,” he said. “That little air-conditioned EV shuttle that goes about 12 to 15 miles an hour to take you from the parking lot to the game, that’s an attraction, too.”

If developers do it right, getting to the stadium — by foot, by shuttle, or by some other method — might become almost as memorable as the game.

“They remember everything about the day,” said Stantec’s DeNisco, “not just, ‘I parked in section 12C.’”