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Who should get to develop St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Field site? | Editorial
The mayor is expected to choose a development group for what is now called the Historic Gas Plant District.
A rendering of proposed Rays stadium and surrounding redevelopment as envisioned by the team and the Hines real estate group.
A 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 Jan. 19

Redevelopment of the 86 acres of St. Petersburg’s Historic Gas Plant District is high stakes, once in a generation. Legacies will be cemented. Reputations enhanced — or possibly destroyed. You have heard that before, of course. The difference now is the city is days away from a decision, and in the view of this editorial board, it should not really be a close call.

Mayor Ken Welch is considering four development proposals. He is very likely to choose one of them, arguably the most important step in a project that will take years to complete. Which development team should the city trust to mold that property? Twenty years from now, which is most likely to have gotten it right?

The four teams competing for the multibillion-dollar project are Sugar Hill Community Partners, Hines in partnership with the Tampa Bay Rays, Restoration Associates and 50 Plus 1 Sports. The front-runners appear to be Sugar Hill and Hines-Rays. In a recent strengths and weaknesses report, city staff favored those two development teams, and most community leaders, groups and businesses that have made public recommendations have backed Sugar Hill or Hines-Rays. Welch has indicated he will “make a major announcement” about the redevelopment at his State of the City address on Jan. 30.

At least part of the decision comes down to some of the usual physical considerations. How should the plan emphasize entertainment, office towers, hotels, retail shops and green space? Does it need an outdoor concert venue? Where will people park? Will they be able to walk? Both Sugar Hill and Hines-Rays have solid plans to address these basic needs. The plans include ample park space and make good use of Booker Creek, the ribbon of water that runs across the site. The plans also appear to tie the new development into the neighboring properties in positive ways.

But this is no ordinary plot of land. A segregated Black community once called it home. Residents said the neighborhood known as the Gas Plant thrived for decades, despite discrimination and racist government policies. Their memories were made there: A grandmother buying flowers from the local grocer. Kids playing baseball in a vacant yard. Families exchanging the daily scuttlebutt from the front steps. A grandfather — Mayor Welch’s grandfather — running the local wood yard. By the mid-1970s, the neighborhood was being described as both vibrant and blighted. Still, positive feelings about life in the Gas Plant endure to this day. So do the painful memories of unkept promises about good jobs and better housing made to residents when the city decided to build the current domed stadium and surface parking lots in the 1980s.

The development should acknowledge the site’s history, not with a lone plaque, but infuse it into the project. Residents and visitors should understand what was there in the decades before the stadium — and what was lost. The good news is that both Sugar Hill and Hines-Rays have a keen grasp of that history, and both of their plans deliver on that priority. They both, for instance, support moving the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum onto the site and possibly naming buildings and streets in ways that harken back to the Gas Plant era.

Both Hines-Rays and Sugar Hill also understand the importance of having businesses and professionals with diverse backgrounds on their teams. Their rosters included many Black and women-owned businesses that will contribute to the design and construction phases. Among the Black and women professionals and businesses on the Hines-Rays team are Dantes Partners, a Black-owned and founded firm with experience in developing affordable housing; Tampa native Anddrikk Frazier of Best Source Consulting; and Gwendolyn Reese, a historian and expert on African American history in St. Petersburg.

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Between 20 and 25% of Sugar Hill’s many partners — developers, designers, engineers, contractors, advisers and other service providers — are owned or run by women or minorities. They include the national development management firm of McKissack & McKissack and local builders DuCon, Horus Construction and Rock Solid Construction and Development. Sugar Hill’s point person is Kevin Johnson, the first Black mayor of Sacramento, California. He sees similarities between the Sacramento neighborhood where he grew up and the Gas Plant neighborhood — urban renewal, displaced residents and promises broken. “For me it is personal to be a part of a team that could right some wrongs of the past and do something really special in the future,” he said. “That includes creating an inclusive and diverse team, which is what we have done.”

Hines-Rays has a distinct experience advantage. The Rays teamed with some of the most seasoned design and development firms in the country. Hines has 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. For context, International Plaza and Bay Street in Tampa is about 1.2 million square feet. Hines also has a strong history of securing stable financing, important for a project like this that could take more than a decade to complete.

Hines has worked with Gensler, the group’s master architect, on dozens of successful projects, including the $450 million West Edge development in Los Angeles, a testament to the two firms’ ability to coordinate and communicate on large and complicated developments. The group also includes Populous, the leading 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.

Hines and its partners have often been the lead players in major projects around the U.S. and the world. They were intimately involved in every step of many of those developments. Sugar Hill’s group also has experience on massive projects, but the city staff report pointed out that some references in its proposal take credit for an entire project when their experience comes down to a specific role.

The finances are complicated, but the Hines-Rays proposal offers the largest financial commitment of the four groups, provides the highest land valuation and creates the most construction jobs over the life of its project, according to a recently released report from a consultant hired by the city. Hines-Rays’ proposal will also generate far more in property taxes than the Sugar Hill proposal and only slightly less in sales and tourist taxes. Hines-Rays also ask for a lower amount of government subsidies. Sugar Hill’s plan will create more permanent jobs, but that is based on building an aggressive amount of office space on the site.

Given that Sugar Hill and Hines-Rays both have solid proposals, whom should Welch choose? For this editorial board, it comes down to how much affordable housing to build at the site, how important it is to keep the Rays in St. Petersburg and which group has the wherewithal to complete a transformative project even as designs and conditions change.

Affordable housing is a priority for Welch, and the city needs it. He asked the development groups to include affordable housing in their Historic Gas Plant District proposals. Sugar Hill’s plan calls for half of its 5,232 housing units to be affordable, 1,605 for residents making less than 80% of the local median income and 1,011 set aside for people making 80 to 120% of the median income. The recent consultant’s report said such a large amount of affordable housing “may strain (the) available subsidy.” Sugar Hill calls for more than twice the affordable housing units proposed by the Hines-Rays group. It’s too much.

Affordable housing requires government subsidies and does not create generational wealth the same way as homeownership. What does? Good-paying jobs. A development like this should be an economic engine that provides the kinds of jobs that make it easier for people to afford to live in the city. This 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.

Too much housing on this site — affordable or market rate — risks turning it into a place where people live, but too few people visit or not enough businesses can thrive. Affordable housing should be spread throughout the city. Concentrating it risks creating a site that doesn’t fulfill its full potential, the potential to lift up the entire community. The final product must be special. Anything less, and it will not honor its history. It will not finally mend those broken promises from so long ago.

Mayor Welch tells stories of Gas Plant residents he fondly remembers. Imagine a vibrant, bustling development where visitors come for baseball and entertainment, then serendipitously learn the area’s deep history through the Woodson Museum and immersive tributes across the grounds. You cannot rebuild the Gas Plant, but telling its story to visitors and newcomers honors its past well into the future.

That brings us to baseball. Welch has said that keeping the Rays in St. Petersburg is another of his priorities. Selecting Hines-Rays is currently the best shot at guaranteeing the team remains in the city for decades. Choose Sugar Hill, and there is a very good chance that the Rays leave.

This editorial board would support the Rays moving to a suitable site in Tampa, if it meant the team remained in the area. The team might draw larger crowds, which could lead to a larger player payroll and maybe the elusive World Series win. But the Rays have considered Tampa for years, and Tampa has considered the Rays for nearly as long. And they haven’t reached any sort of agreement. What’s to think they would in the future? If the Rays don’t get the development deal in St. Petersburg, the Rays could move to another state. That would be a blow to the area’s reputation. Yes, the Tampa Bay area can survive without a Major League Baseball team, but why risk that? The Hines-Rays group has a better vision for the overall site, plus the city gets to keep the team for years to come. There’s little downside. The Rays are willing to risk staying at their current location and would have a serious incentive to make the development work. Their economic future would be on the line.

As we have said before, the city could have taken a less hands-on approach to redeveloping the site by creating a blueprint that included density limits and green space requirements, and then selling off parcels to multiple developers for maximum value to let the site develop organically. Less top-down, less government-centric. But that didn’t happen. The mayor appears poised to select one of the four development groups, likely one of these two front runners.

Welch understands the importance of this decision, and few city leaders alive today have the personal connection that he does to the site. It’s worth pointing out that he has the power to ensure that the city and whichever development group he chooses keep their promises this time. After all, he will be mayor until at least early 2027 and until 2031 if he wins a second term.

We would strongly encourage the mayor to choose the Hines-Rays group. Its proposal is realistic and achievable, and its selection would help keep the Rays playing in the city. The group has the experience and expertise to weather the ups and downs that come with such a massive project. The Hines-Rays plan honors the past, while molding the brightest future for the Historic Gas Plant District.

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.