What to like about the Rays’ proposal for the old Trop site | Editorial
One of the things that stands out in the Rays-Hines proposal is the experience of its team members.
Rendering of proposed Rays stadium and surrounding redevelopment as envisioned by the team and the Hines real estate group.
Rendering of proposed Rays stadium and surrounding redevelopment as envisioned by the team and the Hines real estate group. [ Courtesy of Gensler architectural firm ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Dec. 15, 2022

Four groups recently submitted proposals for how they would develop St. Petersburg’s Historic Gas Plant property. The multibillion dollar development will likely be one of the biggest construction projects in the country. But first, Mayor Ken Welch has to choose a development group. He has said he will decide by the end of January. The right plan executed well will help transform the 86-acre site into an economic engine that benefits the city and all of its residents. Get it wrong and it will be held out for years as an example of what not to do. No pressure.

This editorial board plans to make its own recommendation. As we dig deeper into the proposals, we’ll start over the next few weeks with some of the things we like about each of the four pitches. Yes, we will eventually get to the things we don’t like. First up is the proposal from the Tampa Bay Rays and Hines, who would be 50-50 partners on the project.

One of the things that stands out in the Rays-Hines proposal is the experience of its team members. Hines is one of the country’s leading developers with a 65-year track record that includes building more than 192 million square feet of office space, 74 million square feet of housing and 17 million square feet of retail and restaurant space. That’s a lot. For context, International Plaza and Bay Street in Tampa is about 1.2 million square feet. In other words, Hines has a great deal of experience. That’s a big plus in a project of this size. They know what could go wrong and how to deal with it because they’ve seen it before.

Hines also has a strong history of securing solid financing, important for a project will take about 20 years to complete. History indicates that would mean persevering through at least a couple of recessions.

“We have lender relationships that are long and deep,” Michael Harrison, Hines’ senior managing director, told the Times Editorial Board. “Lenders are going to look at this as a very complicated project, and they will look at whether the sponsor can pull it off. We have and we can.”

Hines has also worked closely with Gensler, the group’s master architect, on dozens of projects, including the $450 million West Edge development in Los Angeles. That, too, is a plus, as the Historic Gas Plant site isn’t just a single tower or office park. It’s a massive project that will require superior coordination and communication. Also on the team: Populous, the architectural firm behind dozens of baseball stadiums including Truist Park in Atlanta, and many other facilities including the Amway Center in Orlando and Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London.

The Rays and Hines also signed up Dantes Partners, which has experience in developing affordable housing, one of Mayor Welch’s priorities for the site. The team also includes Tampa native Anddrikk Frazier of Best Source Consulting and Gwendolyn Reese, a historian and expert on African American history in St. Petersburg. Frazier and Reese have helped ensure that the community has a voice in this project and that the Rays-Hines team has a solid grip on how to be sure the development honors the community that once lived on and near the site, another priority of Welch. In fact, the Rays-Hines plan does a good job of infusing the history into the entire project, not just housing it in a single museum.

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The Rays-Hines plan calls for about 859 units of affordable housing out of about 5,728 total units on the site. Another 600 affordable units would be built offsite, for a total of about 23% affordable housing. That’s a realistic view of the amount of affordable and workplace housing the site can sustain. Build much more than that and the site won’t be able to realize the other important goals of being the kind of economic engine that creates good-paying jobs and businesses.

Finally, it’s a no-brainer that choosing the Rays’ own proposal is the best way to keep the team playing at the site. They want to start the 2028 season in the new stadium. Keeping the Rays at the site isn’t a priority for everyone, and it’s legitimate to ask whether a team with a history of anemic attendance can make it work at the same site, even in a new stadium.

Why are the Rays willing to push in all their chips on this site and this proposal after considering so many other sites over the last few years? Rays president Brian Auld said the addition of nearly 6,000 housing units would help bolster the nearby fan base, plus the team wants to remain part of the city’s future, just as it has contributed to its history over the last 25 years. He also said the clock is ticking on the Rays finding a new place to play games once the lease at Tropicana Field ends in 2027. “We have fewer options available to us and time is running out,” he said.

What would happen if the mayor picks one of the other three proposals? “I don’t know the answer to that,” Auld said. “It’s hard to imagine coordinating all the logistics (with another development group) without working on it from the outset. … We’d have to hear who it is and how it is going to work, and then roll our sleeves up and see what we can get to.”

The Rays weren’t a part of the last round of proposals, which the mayor decided were too dated before he put out a request for fresh ideas. The organization was smart to team up with industry leaders who have decades of experience tackling enormous development projects. As we said, we will bring a more critical eye to some of the things we think could be improved about all of the proposals, but the Rays-Hines team has thrown out an impressive first pitch.

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 and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.