St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch has a big decision to make. His legacy — in large measure — hinges on the outcome. Get it right, and the city takes a leap toward realizing its full economic potential. Get it wrong, and he sets the city back. It’s that critical. Of course, we’re talking about the redevelopment of Tropicana Field.
Very few U.S. cities have an 86-acre parcel like this so close to downtown ready-made for a major makeover. Welch is weighing multi-billion dollar proposals from two development groups, Miami’s Midtown Development and Sugar Hill, a group led by San Francisco developers JMA Ventures. He also has to factor in the Tampa Bay Rays — will the team play in a new stadium at the site or eventually move to another location?
The city could have taken a less hands-on approach by creating a blueprint for the site that included density limits and green space requirements, and then sold off parcels to multiple developers for maximum value to let the site develop organically. The mayor, though, appears ready to choose Midtown or Sugar Hill to redevelop the entire 86 acres (minus the acreage the Rays could want to control if the team stays at the site). Both developers’ plans include thousands of housing units, a hotel, a conference center, park space, and a stadium, if needed. Welch says an announcement will come next week.
This decision isn’t simple, but it can help to start with asking what factors should be considered — and which shouldn’t.
A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity like this should be transformative. The redevelopment should make the site a local name brand like Riverwalk in San Antonio, Texas, the Cornel Tech campus on Manhattan’s Roosevelt Island, Granville Island in Vancouver, British Columbia, or on a smaller scale, Armature Works in Tampa. It should be distinct and special. It should be a place where people clamor to live, to work, to play, or some combination of the three. The greenspace should be inspiring. The final product should be a long term economic force for the city. Yes, attracting a large research institute or Fortune 500 company would help. Whatever the approach to redevelopment, the site should become a destination, not just a place where people live.
Another important consideration: Will what gets built on the Trop site benefit the surrounding area? Will businesses want to relocate nearby? Will other developers want to add to the mix by improving smaller properties in the area? The Trop site cannot become an island. Its benefits must flow deep into surrounding neighborhoods.
What the city should not do is think of the project as a way to solve too many problems. Take the city’s struggle with a lack of affordable housing. It’s real, and this Editorial Board has supported efforts to make housing more affordable. But the Trop site should not become ground zero in that effort. Midtown’s plan sets aside about 20 percent of the housing units for affordable and workforce housing. That’s reasonable, though still on the high side. Sugar Hill’s plan calls for about half of the units for workforce and affordable housing. That’s too much for one project.
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Affordable housing is best sprinkled throughout our city, not concentrated in limited areas. The Trop project can better help address housing affordability by contributing to a robust tax base that the city can tap to support creative efforts to build more apartments and houses. Done right, the redeveloped site will attract well-paying jobs, which also makes it easier for more people to afford to live in the city. Done wrong and the site becomes an economic dead zone, a place where people live but that few people want to visit. That can’t be allowed to happen on such a huge property, not one so vital to a city on the rise.
Both Midtown and Sugar Hill have tried to sweeten the deal by including millions of dollars for local charities and other community investments. That’s great, but those gifts must remain secondary to the project’s overall viability. The single most important consideration is the long term economic gains, not the short term sweeteners. It’s impossible to please everyone, but the city and its residents – from the least advantaged to the most advantaged – lose if the project ends up being just humdrum.
The people of St. Petersburg are counting on the mayor to remain clear-eyed on what most benefits the city. He must be 100% confident that his chosen development firm can pull off such a monumental project, including securing enough financing. The last thing the city needs is to have to bail out the project financially or switch firms midway through. If the mayor has any doubts, slow down. This is too important to rush. Sure, questions about the Trop site and the Tampa Bay Rays have swirled for years. Naturally, people want answers. They want to feel that progress is being made. But it’s OK to take a step back to ensure firmer footing going forward.
Ten years from now, the redeveloped Trop site should be a model that other cities envy and want to emulate. St. Petersburg should settle for nothing less.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.