St. Petersburg’s consultant favors Sugar Hill, Hines/Rays’ Tropicana Field plans

The city retained HR&A Advisors to evaluate the four proposals to redevelop Tropicana Field.
St.Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch speaks before potential developers present their proposals to redevelop Tropicana Field at the Coliseum on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, in St.Petersburg.
St.Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch speaks before potential developers present their proposals to redevelop Tropicana Field at the Coliseum on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, in St.Petersburg. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published Jan. 18

ST. PETERSBURG — A third-party consultant hired by the city found that two proposals meet the city’s qualifications for the redevelopment of the Historic Gas Plant District, home to Tropicana Field.

Sugar Hill Community Partners, 50 Plus 1 Sports, Hines and the Tampa Bay Rays, and Restoration Associates all submitted proposals by the city’s December deadline. The evaluation, however, found that the Sugar Hill and Hines/Rays proposal best responded to the city’s needs.

The city retained HR&A Advisors on Dec. 8 to evaluate the four proposals submitted as part of the second quest to redevelop about 86 acres downtown. The city paid the group $73,000 for its work, which culminated in a 78-page evaluation submitted Tuesday and obtained Wednesday by the Tampa Bay Times in a public records request.

HR&A based its evaluation on a detailed review of the four proposals, public presentations delivered by each development team and a review of written clarifications to city follow-up questions. They focused on each proposer’s development team and program, economic impact, financial offer and community benefits.

Hines and the Rays have the largest development budget, creating the most overall total construction jobs. It also would have the longest buildout, with the project wrapped up by 2040. That means the city will collect some tax revenues from redevelopment of the property further in the future.

Sugar Hill has twice the amount of office space compared to the other proposals and would employ the most permanent workers at full buildout. While Restoration Associates has the fastest timeline with completion, by 2033, Sugar Hill aims to wrap up by 2035. The report noted, however that “the proposed office program exceeds citywide projections” for office space demand and could lead to an oversupply.

Hines and the Rays have a large residential component, but offer the smallest percentage of onsite affordable units among the four proposals. The team commits to a $15 million investment for 600 offsite affordable housing units. Its affordable housing partner, Dantes Partners, lacks Florida experience, the report notes.

The Hines/Rays plan also has a senior living facility, which is unique among the four proposals, and 40,000 square feet of conference space in the ballpark facility, plus additional square footage in one of the hotels.

Sugar Hill proposes the second largest number of affordable units among the proposals. HR&A noted, however, that “delivering this scale of affordable housing would require an extraordinary commitment to allocating low-income housing tax credits in a single area, and feasibility to do so warrants further examination.”

The report noted that while Sugar Hill’s shorter timeframe generates jobs, housing and fiscal revenues sooner, “it is not clear the level of demand exists to support this supply over this period.”

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Sugar Hill has the only proposal with a standalone conference center and a hotel dedicated to serving the conference center.

Sugar Hill and the Hines/Rays team were the only proposers who offered specific valuations and estimated public funding requests. The Hines/Rays valuation is about 1.6 times that of Sugar Hill’s and its public funding request is 75% lower.

The report found that the Hines/Rays proposal has the greatest equity commitment with a plan to raise $1.8 billion through financing, greatest land valuation estimate of $97 million in today’s dollars and immediate access to community benefits funds. But, as a weakness, there is no upfront payment for land, or guaranteed valuation, as future valuation is subject to market risks.

As for Sugar Hill, its community equity endowment is an ongoing benefit, rather than one-time financial commitment. But its plan has a lower land valuation and the largest public funding request, including development subsidies. There is also no upfront payment for land.

Similar to city staff evaluations of the proposals, HR&A found that the proposals by 50 Plus 1 Sports and Restoration Associates lack details and specifics. It noted that 50 Plus 1 Sports doesn’t have an affordable housing developer on its team, nor does it have office, hospitality or destination experience. Restoration Associates does not have experience working with a project of this scale, the evaluation says.

Restoration Associates also declined to provide specific valuation and lacks costs or a plan for infrastructure financing, and 50 Plus 1 Sports also lacks costs or plans for infrastructure financing.

Former Mayor Rick Kriseman executed a contract with HR&A Advisors in 2021 to evaluate four shortlisted Trop proposals and negotiate with the developers under the city’s redevelopment bid request at the time. The new redevelopment effort launched by Mayor Ken Welch last summer rebranded the project as the Historic Gas Plant District, with an emphasis on affordable housing and opportunities for minority businesses.

According to his calendar, Welch blocked off Tuesday afternoon, all of Wednesday and the mornings of Thursday and Friday to review the development proposals. He is expected to “make a major announcement” about the future of the Historic Gas Plant District” at his State of the City address Jan. 30. The city’s timeline has Welch selecting a developer this month.