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Advisory group approves Gas Plant project, stresses affordable housing

The vote by the St. Petersburg advisory council is an affirmative step for the redevelopment.
 
An artist's rendering of the proposed Rays Stadium and redevelopment of the historic Gas Plant District.
An artist's rendering of the proposed Rays Stadium and redevelopment of the historic Gas Plant District. [ Courtesy of Hines and the Tampa Bay Rays ]
Published Feb. 7|Updated Feb. 10

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Ken Welch has made ensuring redevelopment of the Tropicana Field property benefits the entire community and not just baseball fans a key plank of his first term.

A group of residents tasked with gauging whether those benefits are sufficient gave its blessing this week. But not before recommending that the City Council add some teeth to its agreement with the Tampa Bay Rays and development partner Hines to make sure they make good on their pledges, and sooner rather than later.

The Community Benefits Advisory Council endorsed the sweeping proposal to redevelop 65 acres surrounding the stadium. The key barometer used to judge the benefit included examining how much of the housing on land that was once home to the historically Black Gas Plant District would be affordable.

The panel found that the 1,200 affordable homes — 600 on stadium land, another 600 elsewhere in the city — was an acceptable number. But its members recommended that the City Council demand a speedier timeline for building those homes and for steeper penalties if the team fails to deliver any of them.

“This is a big project. Probably the biggest project for the next 20 years,” said advisory member Ruth Whitney. “This is a chance to do a big number of affordable housing and the people have asked for it. This is what is wanted.”

She said the City Council didn’t have to accept the advisory group’s numbers, but “we are definitely sending a strong message that this is what most of the people have asked for.”

The committee also asked that $50 million the team has pledged to support the community with a significant contribution toward the city’s affordable housing initiatives and for minority-owned businesses, which will be paid through 2047, increase with inflation.

Tuesday night’s decision is expected to inform a decision by the City Council, which will ultimately vote on whether to approve legally binding documents that would greenlight the project. That is expected to take place in April.

Related: Advisory group questions why Rays affordable housing plan lacks teeth

Under terms negotiated by the mayor and his staff, St. Petersburg would sell the Rays and Hines about 65 acres of prime land in the heart of downtown for a discount — or $105 million. The city is also planning to pay $150 million for infrastructure for that land, with the Rays and Hines on the hook for cost overruns.

A new $1.3 billion stadium for the Rays was not under review because it will be a publicly owned building, like the current Tropicana Field.

The taxpayer subsidy triggered the community benefits review. In response to its requirements, the Rays and Hines pitched the $50 million package. The panel suggested revisions to how the money would be spent, recommending $15 million for city affordable housing initiatives, at least $5 million of which would be put in a community trust for long-term housing needs; a $10 million donation for a new home for the Woodson African American Museum of Florida; and rental assistance for residents. There is also money for small and minority-owned business mentorships, subsidized rents for those businesses and internships.

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Advisory members Bruce Nissen and Karyn Mueller voted against the benefits package. Some who voted for it warned that just because they made the benefits package stronger, that didn’t mean they endorsed the entire deal.

“The whole question of whether they’re going to really make our city so much better, there are so many lacks in some of the parts of what they’re proposing,” Whitney said.

She tried to call for more housing for those making 80% of the area’s median income or below, but she didn’t garner enough support. She was able to increase the penalty for not building affordable units by certain deadlines from $25,000 per unit to $150,000 for the 600 homes on-site and to $175,000 for those off-site. The group also voted to move up the timeline for construction of the first 300 affordable and workforce housing units to 2028 from 2030, prioritizing housing for low-income earners.

City Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders warned that the affordable housing is contingent on the Rays and Hines securing competitive tax credits. She urged the committee to judge the project as a whole and said the redevelopment is not meant to solve every city ill.

“I just don’t want us to fight for additional units and we don’t get them anyway, and we still lost other benefits that come along with this,” she said.

The benefits that the advisory group recommended aren’t set in stone. Hines senior managing director Michael Harrison, who sat through the meeting, said the approved benefits package is still subject to negotiations. He referred to comments he made in past meetings, that when something is added it would mean something else would have to be subtracted.

“We’re going to sit down with the city and staff and we’re going to go through every one of them, and we’re going to see how we can balance that against the agreement that we have been working on for 11 months now,” Harrison said.