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Southern Poverty Law Center investigating Gas Plant, stadium plan

The legal organization said it’s looking into how St. Petersburg acquired and managed the land primed for a major redevelopment.
 
Pinellas organizer for Faith in Florida, Dylan Dames, speaks during a September news conference on the steps of St. Petersburg City Hall. The group has been a vocal critic of the proposed ballpark redevelopment project and is now working with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Pinellas organizer for Faith in Florida, Dylan Dames, speaks during a September news conference on the steps of St. Petersburg City Hall. The group has been a vocal critic of the proposed ballpark redevelopment project and is now working with the Southern Poverty Law Center. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Feb. 9|Updated Feb. 11

A national civil rights law organization has entered the debate over the redevelopment of Tropicana Field into the Historic Gas Plant District.

Attorneys from the Southern Poverty Law Center have spent time in St. Petersburg, including a December evening at an event organized by the social justice nonprofit Faith in Florida, which has been a vocal critic of the project. Video interviews conducted that night with residents were posted last week to the legal group’s website alongside a written account of the history of the property that indicates the law center plans to get involved.

No lawsuit has been filed over the project. According to the web posting, the center has signed on “to investigate the history of how the city first acquired the land; how federal, state and local entities used the powers of eminent domain in the name of economic development; and how that development failed to produce sustainable employment or affordable housing.”

Kirsten Anderson, the deputy legal director of the center’s economic justice team, declined to comment for this story through a spokesperson. Anderson was among the attorneys who visited St. Petersburg in December. In the law center’s post, she said the organization is concerned that St. Petersburg never met the conditions of the millions of dollars in federal redevelopment money that helped it buy out the historically Black Gas Plant community decades ago.

“The generational wealth of this community was the land, and that has been stripped from it,” Anderson is quoted as saying. “Now the city is planning to sell this incredibly valuable land for less than market value to a development company. That is a continuing violation of the original harm that will further retrench racial discrimination.”

Anderson submitted a request to the city on Nov. 6 seeking public records in 22 categories, many of them dating back to 1978, including grant details, redevelopment plans, economic and environmental studies, and communications between city officials and the Tampa Bay Rays.

The city about a week later provided a cost estimate totaling $14,475. City clerk Chan Srinivasa said Anderson did not pay for the records and none were provided.

The center’s economic justice division takes on a range of issues, according to its website, many of them involving impoverished communities of color in the Deep South: predatory lending practices, laws targeting homeless people, Medicaid access.

Anderson — who is based at the center’s Tallahassee office, according to her Florida Bar profile — has been involved recently in other cases concerning land use and historically Black communities in Florida. Those include an effort to halt a commercial development in Eatonville, north of Orlando, and a movement for historic preservation in the Sumter County town of Royal amid a planned turnpike extension there.

Dylan Dames, a Faith in Florida organizer, said the law center and the Miami-based legal nonprofit Community Justice Project have been looking for ways to expand the impact of Faith in Florida’s community-level work.

“I think they’re invested in helping Faith in Florida and a couple of other organizations on the ground see this through,” he said. “I can’t comment on what legal strategies they’ll take, but they’ve demonstrated that they’re an invested partner.”

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Dames and supporters of Faith in Florida have turned out at public meetings vetting the stadium and redevelopment deal. St. Petersburg’s appointed Community Benefits Advisory Council on Tuesday voted 7-2 to approve an enhanced benefits package they say justifies the city’s public subsidy for the project.

That vote clears a hurdle for the project and gives an initial blessing to the City Council, which will ultimately vote on whether to approve legally binding documents that would greenlight the project. That vote is expected to take place in April.