The reports range from constructive to questioning, from dense and technical to broad and plainspoken. And they don’t shy away from blunt criticism.
“For a public project this is disappointing,” read one comment.
“Proposal is at times redundant, disjointed and has some significant glitches and errors,” read another.
“Felt like this was ‘any old pitch’ for a project,” read another. “For this site I was looking for more passion and excitement about the project.”
The comments come from St. Petersburg city staff evaluations of the shortlisted proposals to redevelop the 86-acre Tropicana Field site, a project with the potential to transform downtown life.
These “strengths and weaknesses” reports offer a window into how city leaders in planning, mobility, infrastructure, finance and economic development view each proposal. With his shortlist down to two, Mayor Rick Kriseman will rely on their analysis as he hones in on his pick for his preferred Trop site plan.
“I won’t say it pushes him in any one direction, but he does value the team’s feedback,” said Brian Caper, the city’s manager of public-private partnerships and the staff committee’s de facto organizer. “He absolutely does review these very closely as he looks to make a decision.”
Ad hoc committees such as this often review proposals for city real estate projects, Caper said. But he can’t remember a group as large and focused as this one. The Tropicana Field committee had 26 municipal staffers, including chief financial officer Anne Fritz, city architect Raul Quintana, director of real estate and property management Alfred Wendler and a host of development officials.
“It really is a once-in-a-generation development for the city, and we want to make sure we’re getting it right,” Caper said. “Generally, we do this and it’s one meeting and it’s over. Usually the team won’t necessarily meet with the proposers, either. But with something of this scale and of this nature, we really wanted to make sure we were being as thorough as possible.”
Committee members reviewed all seven Trop proposals in contention. When that group was trimmed to four, they met with developers, asked follow-up questions and sent revised “strengths and weaknesses” memos to Kriseman.
There are now two plans left. One dubbed “Creekside” came from Miami’s Midtown Development, which would buy the land from the city and spend up to $3.8 billion developing offices, parks, a hotel and conference center and up to 8,000 homes. The other, from Sugar Hill Community Partners, led by San Francisco developer JMA Ventures, would call for $837 million in public financing. Its array of parks, offices, homes, hotels and a 1.1 million-square-foot convention center would cost up to $3.1 billion.
The committee considered how the plans fit the city’s original request for proposals, from funding to environmental concerns to the site’s historical significance as a onetime hub of Black life in St. Petersburg.
Both teams got questions about their plans to widen and renovate Booker Creek. Several committee members applauded the ambitious designs, but questioned the practicality and sustainability of managing a radically renovated new park.
“While the Booker Creek renovations would be an innovative urban design feature and add real value to the City’s park system,” Community Redevelopment Area and workforce development manager Rick Smith wrote of Midtown’s plan, “its practicality and long-term sustainability needs to be thoroughly investigated, sooner rather than later if it becomes an element that tips the proposal in its favor.”
Both plans also got questions about their proposed placement of a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium closer to the center of the site, rather than on one end. Several staffers wrote that the plans would impede the flow of downtown development and mobility. Smith wrote that Midtown’s integration of a stadium into the site felt like “an afterthought,” while special projects manager David Goodwin called Sugar Hill’s plan his “least favorite of all of the proposed stadium locations.”
The critique left David Carlock, Sugar Hill’s development manager, thinking his group should have elaborated on their stadium location.
“In retrospect, a couple of extra pages in the proposal really unpacking our rationale and explaining in detail why it makes a lot of sense to put it where it’s going, and why frankly it’s really challenging to put it in the southwest corner, that probably would have been helpful,” Carlock said.
Through a spokesman, Midtown developers declined to comment on specifics of the strengths and weaknesses reports.
“The staff has been very thoughtful in their questions, and they are clearly diving very deep into all the proposals, both in the past and presently,” said Midtown representative Dean Warhaft.
The finalists got different reactions to a question about community outreach and benefits, particularly as it related to the Black community.
Midtown’s proposal was “widely off the mark,” Smith wrote, “referring to sustainability objectives of the master plan instead of the social equity lens through which the City views ‘community benefits’ for the project.” Goodwin wrote that it offered “no coherent response” and “appears to be some type of mistake.”
Sugar Hill’s community benefits, on the other hand, were praised for their attention to detail, from specific commitments to the city’s Small Business Enterprise program to the development of a “history walk” and minority-owned craft brewery.
“It was clear to me that this proposal and team understands St. Petersburg — our history and the direction for the future evolution of this community, the importance of honoring our history while pursuing our future,” business development manager Jessica Eilerman wrote of Sugar Hill’s plan.
Sugar Hill did, however, get questions about its plan for a 1.1 million-square-foot convention center, by far the largest of any finalist. Smith expressed concern that the facility would eat up $550 million in public funding, more than any other part of the plan.
“Is a convention center of the size and capacity conceived necessary, and if so, is the location on the border of the Campbell Park neighborhood the best?” wrote Quintana, the city architect. “Why construct the convention center as a first-phase priority if the Trop is still used for baseball. Seems like this would create a conflict of uses and activity.”
Sugar Hill’s approach, Goodwin wrote, felt like it had a “trust us we’ve done this before attitude. That falls short for a project of this magnitude.”
Carlock said his group took the critiques to heart.
“What we learned from the discussion with the city is that they are appropriately and rightly focused on a number of practical considerations,” Carlock said.
On the whole, the reviews of both proposals listed more strengths than weaknesses.
“The Midtown Creekside proposal covers all bases and each one well,” wrote development coordination managing director Chris Ballestra. “From financial strength to design, from neighborhoods to equity, this is an excellent proposal. Team members are all experts in their respective fields. Design and layout very thoughtful (and) tied to human scale with flexibility embedded.”
Caper wrote that Sugar Hill’s plan demonstrated “a strong understand(ing) of St. Petersburg and the key elements of the RFP. Strong focus on the historical aspects of the site. Several ideas to celebrate cultural diversity. Emphasis on the arts and public gathering space. Very strong.”
There’s a fine line, Caper said, between delivering positive feedback and explicitly endorsing a plan. The final decision, he said, should and will be up to Kriseman, who will then present it to City Council for approval.
“We’re giving the mayor as good of information as we possibly can to inform his decision to ultimately decide on a preferred developer,” Caper said. “It’s probably been a little bit longer of a process as usual. It’s certainly been a more involved process than usual. But for something of this scale, it really should be.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Alfred Wendler, St. Petersburg’s director of real estate and property management.