Baseball has been part of the cultural fabric of St. Petersburg since legendary players like Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio came to town for spring training in the decades that spanned the mid-1920s to early 1960s.
In the mid-1990s, when the city finally achieved its long-desired dream of having a major baseball league franchise of its own, there was a collective cheer of support. Individual tickets for the Tampa Bay Rays
’ first season at Tropicana Field in 1998 sold out in 17 minutes.
Now, 19 years and hundreds of games later, the future of baseball and Tropicana Field are at a cross-roads. The stadium itself is in need of facelift. It’s also been well publicized that the team’s owners aren’t sure whether they want to stay. They’re currently exploring the pros and cons of remaining where they are in St. Petersburg or moving somewhere else in the Tampa Bay area.
City officials are clearly committed to the team staying in its present location at 16th Street South. The Baseball Forever Campaign
is championing the cause.
But at the same time, the city is doing a little exploring of its own. City officials are taking this opportunity to step back and look at the big picture. And they’re looking at how Tropicana Field fits into the future of St. Petersburg -- with or without the team in place.
It’s not every day that a city gets to take a baseball stadium and the 86 acres of land surrounding it and re-envision how it might be better utilized, says Dave Goodwin, director of planning and economic development for the City of St. Petersburg.
“We have a rare opportunity to create a vision for Tropicana Field that could serve as a catalyst for economic development and job creation,” says Goodwin.
Last year the city began working with HKS Architects
, an international architectural design firm with offices in Tampa.
Over the summer, city officials and HKS began reaching out to the public to give local residents a voice in how they perceive a project of this scope and potential.
“At every step, the public conversation has been ongoing,” says Brian Caper, economic development analyst for the City of St. Petersburg.
What has emerged is a new conceptual master plan that starts from scratch and completely reinvents Tropicana Field. The goal is to transform this part of the city into a thriving mixed-use center.
“We’re looking at a mixed-use development where people can work, live, shop and come for entertainment -- a 24/7 destination that draws people to the area,” says Goodwin.
The first step in getting there was to build some consensus among various stakeholder groups. The city’s economic development team and HKS have met with city council members and a dozen or more business and neighborhood association, as well as church groups.
Public forums took place at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg
, Campbell Park Recreation Center and the St. Petersburg Coliseum. Even teens residing in the area of Tropicana Field were consulted during a workshop at the Thomas ‘Jet’ Jackson Recreation Center.
Connecting the dots
The feedback is not entirely unexpected. A main theme that emerges is connection -- the desire to do a better job of integrating Tropicana Field with the rest of the city, especially Campbell Park and nearby neighborhoods to the south.
“We consistently heard that people wanted to knit the city back together and dissolve the boundaries that had been created years back when the stadium was built,” says Randy Morton, Director of HKS Urban Design Group.
Tropicana Field is wedged between Central Avenue’s Edge District with shops and restaurants, and Campbell Park and nearby South St. Petersburg Midtown communities with primarily residential housing.
It’s an enormous plot of land that sits squarely in the heart of the city, but is curiously disconnected from the emerging vibrancy underway in many downtown districts. That’s partly due to the interstate highway that cuts through the area.
Boundaries for the 86-acre site include First Avenue South to the north; Martin Luther King Jr. or 9th Street to the east; 16th Street to the west; and Interstate 175 to the south.
“When the Interstate came in and Tropicana Field was built, there were several streets that were closed off as a result,” says Jeff Danner, past President of the Grand Central District Association
”That created a huge gap between downtown and where the Trop is located,” says Danner. “Filling in the gap would be a huge benefit.”
Reconnecting the stadium with the city is also a priority for the Edge District, says Barbara Voglewede, Executive Director and Main Street Program Manager of the Edge District Business Association
“The whole idea of community and connection is very important,” says Voglewede. “What we don’t want is a site that remains isolated like it is now -- a kingdom unto itself. It needs to help nourish all the surrounding neighborhoods.”
The current Tropicana design not only created a disconnect with adjacent business districts, but it cut off historically African-American neighborhoods to the south of the stadium, including the Deuces Live Main Street District.
In addition, the stadium was built on top of the former Gas Plant neighborhood, an African-American community that was dismantled in the 1980s to make way for the new baseball facility. Both of these issues have been a source of concern to local residents for decades.
But it’s not only reconnection that many people would like to see addressed with the new Tropicana Field Conceptual Master Plan. There’s also a need to stimulate economic development.
“When Tropicana was initially designed, it was expected that it would bring economic opportunity for Midtown and would stimulate growth, but that didn’t happen,” says Alvin Burden, President of the 16th Street Business Association. “Our priority for the new plan is to bring economic opportunity and affordable housing to our communities.”
“What is happening at Tropicana greatly affects all of us and we’re happy that progress is underway,” says Veatrice Farrell, Program Manager for the Deuces Live Main Street. “As a main street nationally certified program, our mission is economic revitalization and historical preservation of our downtown district.”
A new urban district
Late last fall, HKS compiled months of community input into a final conceptual master plan that can be viewed online
The new vision is big. It calls for an urban center fully integrated into the surrounding neighborhoods.
“We’re talking about developing a site that feels like it’s part of the whole city and not a stand-alone island separate from it,” says Goodwin.
The goal is to create a seamless connection from the waterfront and emerging Innovation District to the Warehouse Arts District, Deuces Live, Campbell Park and all of the South St. Pete Community Redevelopment area initiatives
that are underway, says Goodwin.
One of the most important changes involves moving the stadium from its current location at the southwest corner of the site, near the intersection of 4th Avenue South and 16th Street South. A new stadium would be built on the southwest corner, placing the facility closer to 1st Avenue South.
However, says Caper, that does not mean that the city will be designing the new stadium. A new stadium design is the Rays’ decision, he says.
Why the relocation? There are several strategic advantages, says Caper. First, it improves the connection with all of the action downtown. “It brings the site more in to the fold of the core urban experience,” says Caper.
It also improves transportation access to the site for the public. Caper points out that 1st Avenue South is being considered as a potential major corridor for improved transit throughout the city.
Public green spaces
The new Tropicana plan also includes redesigning a number of public green spaces, including the pedestrian bridge that goes over the interstate and links Tropicana Field with Campbell Park.
“We’re talking about taking something that is functional but making it much more architecturally and visually appealing,” says Caper. “We hoping to create a unique experience -- an iconic statement similar to the bridge at Millennium Park in Chicago.”
Even Booker Creek, which flows through the current site, gets a potential transformation. Instead of its current state as little more than a drainage ditch, the creek gets a makeover to become a usable waterway for recreation and entertainment purposes. “If you’ve ever been to San Antonio’s Riverwalk, that’s the vision we’re hoping for,” says Caper.
Redeveloping Booker Creek is a concept that the Edge District has been thinking about for some time, says Voglewede, the district’s Executive Director.
“We’ve just undergone a two-year planning process with our own master plan in the Edge District and one of the elements we’ve included is to create a beautiful public green space with bike and pedestrian paths along Booker Creek, which runs north and west of us,” says Voglewede.
A Booker Creek linear park system would link to Tropicana Field, as well as existing and additional bike trails throughout the city.
Additional design concepts for the new Tropicana Master Plan include constructing residential housing at a range of income levels and converting 16th Street into a Main Street District with significant streetscape and landscaping.
“We’re really talking about using the site as a major engine for economic development for the whole city,” says Goodwin.
One of the biggest surprises in the new plan is the inclusion of office parks and a tech campus. It moves Tropicana Field from a destination that only showcases baseball and entertainment, to a center that fuels job creation.
“We hope to create intense employment center on the site,” says Goodwin. “Because the city owns all of the land, we can afford to be patient and offer the right incentives to encourage companies to relocate here.”
A collection of office towers rising next to the Edge District’s more low-rise buildings is of some concern.
“Our hope is that there will be a gradual increase in elevation to avoid a wall of buildings or a cut-off between our two districts,” says Voglewede, the Edge District’s Executive Director. “On the other hand, it’s certainly a very ambitious plan overall and we’re happy to see that the city and the architectural consultants have definitely been listening to the community’s concerns.”
What’s the next step? If the Rays say yes, “we’ll move from the conceptual stage into a much more formal detailed plan,” says Caper. “We’ll start looking at the overall site and making decisions about the right location for everything.”
If the Rays say no, the plan goes back to the drawing board to be redesigned as a mixed-use development without a baseball stadium.
“The development potential would be different, but we’ll still be looking at how we can best maximize the site for the future development of downtown St. Petersburg,” says Caper.