ST. PETERSBURG — Let’s play a little word association:
Wrigley Field? Ah, the Ivy walls. Fenway Park? Green monster, of course. Camden Yards? That iconic B&O Warehouse.
Tropicana Field? #$&% catwalks.
(Empty seats are also an acceptable response.)
For an entire generation, Tropicana Field has been the stadium that compliments avoid. Utilitarian is about the nicest thing anyone has ever called it.
And, as much as location and demographics have been to blame for lackluster attendance at Rays games, the starter-home vibe of Tropicana Field did little to lure casual fans for three hours on a random weeknight. Which partially explains the $1.3 billion bet the Rays, St. Pete and Pinellas County are making on a new stadium at the same site.
We already know that location is not universally loved. And we know a fixed roof is archaic by MLB standards.
So, um, what is going to make this new stadium any different?
That’s not exactly how Melanie Lenz described it, but she might as well have. The team’s chief planning and development officer has been plotting versions of a new Rays stadium for more than a decade. She’s traveled across the country to cities large and small to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t when it comes to stadium design. And the one that’s scheduled to break ground in the Trop parking lot a year from now should be unlike any other Major League ballpark.
Now, that sounds like a bold claim, but what does it really mean?
Well, first of all, the capacity of 30,000 will be MLB’s smallest by nearly 5,000 seats, theoretically providing a greater sense of intimacy. Taking advantage of the north-to-south slope of the Tropicana site means the main concourse will be street level while the field and maybe 20 rows of premium seating will be below.
That walkable main concourse will have traditional luxury suites, but also patio-style seating, bar/restaurant accommodations and multiple standing-room only perches. Above that will be more traditional seating overlooking the field. The configuration, in many ways, has more in common with a downtown arena than an outdoor baseball stadium.
The design flourishes will be unique but still recognizable to long-time Florida residents. The stadium is going to be modeled on the Sarasota Modern style of architecture that drew worldwide attention to Florida’s Gulf Coast in the 1940s, 50s and 60s for its glass walls, pavilion-like roofing and subtropical spin.
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There will be wall-sized windows on every side of the stadium, as well as smaller skylights in the roof to provide the sense of an outdoor experience. Many of the walls and windows will be movable, which means the stadium could literally operate as a beach or park-like pavilion on days when the weather cooperates.
Essentially, owner Stuart Sternberg wanted a facility that captured the aura of a Florida neighborhood.
“This is a St. Petersburg building. It shouldn’t look like a building that belongs in, I don’t know, Colorado or Pittsburgh or wherever,” Lenz said. “Looking at the site and looking at the elevation change and the opportunities that presents itself to really open up the building to the community is pretty exciting. Ways to engage with (Booker) Creek and all the natural elements around it. Really, it’s having this be the community living room.
“The pavilion is the community gathering space, right? That’s where you go to have your picnic. That’s where you go to celebrate graduations. That’s where you go to have moments. And that’s what this ballpark is really supposed to be.”
The community around it is the key, of course. Tropicana Field has been buttressed by an asphalt orgy of parking lots and warehouses that kept the rest of the neighborhood at arm’s length. The new stadium will use those vast parking lots to create its own downtown annex of condos, apartments, office buildings, restaurants and bars.
Multi-level parking garages will be constructed in the northwest and southeast corners of the property, which means everyone will be walking past the restaurants and retail shops to get to the stadium’s entrance.
It may not have the rich history of Wrigleyville, but there is enough room with 86 acres on the edge of downtown to create a city within a city.
The new Battery development in Atlanta is the closest comparison, but that’s a suburban project with an outdoor mall kind of feel. The Rays envision this development to be more dense, more urban, with taller buildings and a walkable downtown vibe.
“It’s an incredibly unique project. There’s no parcel of land like this anywhere on the planet,” said Rays president Brian Auld. “On top of that, the city has had enormous say on what’s coming out of the ground because of the way the (request for proposals) was drawn up.”
If you are having trouble picturing it on the site, imagine the location this way:
Tropicana Field is currently a little to the southwest of Ferg’s with its outer edge roughly between 15th and 16th streets. The new stadium will be a little to the southeast of Ferg’s with its outer edge between 10th and 11th streets. Currently, most of the entrances are on the east and west sides of the building. The main entrance for the new stadium will be facing north toward First Avenue.
Second Avenue hasn’t really existed near the Trop because the parking lots run from 9th Street to 16th Street, but a new Second Avenue will be created as the main walking thoroughfare in front of the facility. While the entire 86-acre project will take 20 years to complete, the Second Avenue portion is scheduled to be mostly completed by 2028 when the stadium opens, in order to create that vital, gameday buzz.
While the Rays have been planning this for years — including previous iterations in Ybor City and the Al Lang site — the concept will continue to evolve. The team will be reaching out to season ticket holders for ideas, and also plans to hold community forums to find out what fans want in their ballpark.
When the City Council approved construction of a bare-bones stadium in the mid-1980s, the goal was to lure Major League Baseball to St. Pete. Now, all these years later, the goal is to lure fans into the building.
“There’s got to be a ‘cool’ and a ‘wow’ factor. That’s what we’re really driving and striving for,” Lenz said. “And, honestly, that’s what St. Pete and Pinellas County have going for us. This is a cool place. There is so much exciting stuff happening in our community, And it’s got to be cool. It’s got to bring people in just to be part of the excitement that’s happening there and the energy that’s happening there. It’s a challenge but, man, it’s going to be fun.”
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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