ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays have played in Tropicana Field for more than 20 years — and have spent half that time trying to escape it. The Trop is baseball’s last dome, an outdated, obsolete dinosaur with too many catwalks and not enough fans.
But beneath that fossil of a ballpark sits 86 acres of urban gold.
It is a bona fide gem of a development opportunity that could transform downtown — akin to the Water Street Tampa project backed by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik.
Yet as the Rays and the city squabble over the team’s future home, that valuable real estate could get caught in the middle.
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The contract that binds the team to the Trop until 2027 also gives it a say in what is developed on the property. The Rays’ uncertain future led the city to draw up two different plans for the massive mixed-use project: one with a new ballpark, one without.
Mayor Rick Kriseman doesn’t want to wait to find out what the team will do. He wants to forge ahead and start developing the city-owned Trop site now.
“It’s something that I talked about when I ran,” he said, “and it was something I wanted to accomplish that I think the community wanted me to accomplish. ...
“I don’t think you can wait. I think the community has waited for a long time for the city to activate the site.”
But is it prudent to launch such a sizable, high-stakes project with the biggest piece of the puzzle missing? And could the Rays stymie the city’s plans?
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The Trop sits atop a graveyard of promises.
The then-Florida Suncoast Dome rose in the late 1980s from the rubble of a black neighborhood bulldozed to make way for St. Petersburg’s big-league dreams. The hope was that Major League Baseball would spur new growth.
The key to that growth was supposed to be the development rights.
Before the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays played their first game in 1998, the team signed a 30-year contract with the city to play in the dome. One section of the contract dealt with the development rights, the money the city could charge a developer for the right to build on public land.
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All profits from the development of the parcel were to be split evenly between the city and the team. The goal was to encourage both parties to jointly build out the property.
That didn’t happen under original owner Vince Naimoli, who sold the team in 2004. It hasn’t happened under current owner Stu Sternberg, who has sought to build a new stadium everywhere but on Trop land. He pitched building a new ballpark at the Al Lang Stadium site in 2008. Last year the team explored building in Ybor City. Now Sternberg wants to split the home schedule with Montreal.
The Rays declined to comment on the Trop redevelopment.
Former city attorney John Wolfe, who crafted the original Trop lease, says the development rights didn’t work as intended. While downtown has grown and new construction has reached the edge of the Trop, the stadium site remains barren.
“The original purpose (of the development rights) was not fulfilled, basically,” he said, “which was to have development on that site as the team developed.”
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At City Hall, they talk about the Trop project in “transformational” terms.
“If we do this property right, it could truly be a new center of the city, instead of something that has always been a division,” said City Council member Darden Rice, who will likely run for mayor in 2021. “So we have such an incredible opportunity for our future. And we absolutely have to get it right.”
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Save for the ballpark, Kriseman and other officials have already envisioned what this new district could look like. They want to see the land used for mixed-income housing; office space for marquee corporate tenants; room for a medical or tech hub; and an entertainment hub with dining and retail.
While the Rays looked in Tampa, HKS Architects unveiled two visions for the site — dubbed the Gas Plant District plan, after the neighborhood that was razed — that have shared elements: cultural amenities, hotels, lush green space and research labs.
The plans propose revitalizing Booker Creek, which runs right through the property as nothing more than a trickle, and turning it into a water feature with cafes, terraces and public art.
There could be room for a convention center, which Pinellas County has long lacked.
The planners even envisioned the site one day hosting a new campus for the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, which could come with a facility for concerts and sports events. The nearby medical institutions could also expand into the new district.
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The potential is boundless.
The Gas Plant project is also seen as a way to rebuild what was lost when the Trop was built in the late 1980s. The new district would reconnect south and central St. Petersburg.
Kriseman said he also wants the construction to be sustainable and resilient, adaptable to a changing climate. He wants it walkable and bikeable.
“We view this as an opportunity to reconnect the community,” the mayor said, “to bring St. Pete back together again.”
None of that is contingent on building a stadium, he said.
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For months, Kriseman said he expected the Rays to share its stadium plans by the end of the summer. Once the city learned whether or not the Rays were staying then it could seek bids from developers to oversee the project.
But when the team announced last month that it wants to split the season with Montreal, St. Petersburg officials were no closer to figuring out what to do with the Trop site.
Kriseman said that won’t slow him down. Next, he’ll issue a request for proposals, so companies can apply to serve as the master developer to manage the project under one vision, hopefully by the end of 2019 or early 2020, he said.
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The mayor wants to break ground soon. But there’s a lot left to be worked out.
If the team stays, where would the new stadium go? The architects put a new ballpark in the northeast corner. Kriseman said if the Rays stay, team officials prefer the southeast part of the property.
Kriseman worried about starting work while the stadium question remains unanswered. There are other areas where work could begin soon.
“Obviously having clarity makes it easier and frees up more areas we could go after and target,” he said. “But not having that clarity does not prevent us from moving forward.”
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Still, that uncertainty makes developer Nick Haines nervous.
He is the CEO of the Bromley Companies of New York, which is developing the 20-acre, $600 million mixed-use Midtown Tampa Project.
Haines said if the goal is to replace the Trop with a cohesive and integrated development, then a baseball stadium is too large an element to swap in or out midway through.
That decision needs to be made before moving forward, he said.
“I would suggest that would make a very different plan,” he said. “The stadium would have a huge impact on the retail, on the residential, on all the other uses on the site.”
Haines would not say if his company would bid on the project.
Another developer, Craig Sher of the Sembler Company, waved off concerns about the stadium.
“You just allocate X number of acres with or without it,” he said. There’s so much planning to be done, he said, it’ll take “years before you turn a spade of dirt.”
He added: “We must move the development process along ASAP,” he said.
Sher said Sembler, a St. Petersburg company, doesn’t plan to bid on the project.
Rice and Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, who has announced he’s running for mayor, both agreed with Kriseman that the city needs to move forward. Rice and Welch both said the Rays owe the city answers.
“That’s really the hold up,” Welch said.
Said Rice: “The discussion about what we do with the stadium is putting our future on hold.”
The Rays could do more than just stall the Trop project, however. They could tie it up in court.
Because of the use agreement, the Rays have “reasonable” approval of any development on the site through 2027. That means the team and the city have to agree on any future construction.
Who decides what’s reasonable? Maybe a judge, said Wolfe.
“They could certainly delay it for years if they wanted to,” Wolfe said.
Contact Josh Solomon at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4613. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.