St. Petersburg residents weigh in on finalist Trop proposals

Emily L. Mahoney, Tampa Bay Times
·5 min read

ST. PETERSBURG — Residents of St. Petersburg had their first chance to pose questions in-person to developers and city leaders this week regarding the finalist proposals to redevelop Tropicana Field, a massive undertaking that represents a confluence of the city’s history, politics, sports fandom and growth.

During the public comment meetings on Wednesday and Thursday, a small army of developers, architects, executives, planners and more stood in front of the stage at the Coliseum, making the sales pitch for why their plan will be best for the residents who sat before them.

Before one of the meetings, Kathy Hansen, 58, of Allendale, said she was hoping to hear what each developer’s plan was for environmental safety, “particularly because of what’s just happened at Piney Point.” She was also curious about density.

“I come from New York City, so I don’t want to live somewhere that’s overdeveloped again,” she said.

Four finalist development teams — Unicorp National Development; Portman Holdings and Third Lake Partners; Midtown Development; and Sugar Hill Community Partners, led by JMA Ventures — are competing for Mayor Rick Kriseman’s selection, which could come as early as next month. Their plans range from about $650 million to $3.8 billion, and all include housing, shops, office space and parks. The plans have contingencies for whether the Tampa Bay Rays decide to keep their stadium on the site or not.

Each plan has its own distinct design concept, density and additional amenities: including a massive 1.1 million-square-foot convention center under Sugar Hill, markers commemorating the Gas Plant district from Portman/Third Lake, an outdoor roller skating rink under Unicorp, and local art galleries under Midtown Development, to name just a small sample.

A constant refrain of the meetings by both city officials and developers has been the need to rectify the wrongs of the past. In the 1980s, the city bought up the Gas Plant district, a predominantly Black neighborhood, and razed homes, businesses and churches to make room for the stadium. City development officials asked all the developers to honor the former neighborhood as a central part of their concepts.

Attendees were not permitted to pose questions directly to the development teams during the meetings. They instead submitted comment cards that were then selected and read aloud by a moderator, Bay News 9 reporter Trevor Pettiford.

Kriseman said the city chose this process because “sometimes it’s hard for folks to ask a question without also making a statement.”

“It’s all about maximizing the number of questions that get asked so the people get as much information as possible,” he said, adding that comments can be submitted online.

He said the Coliseum was chosen because it’s a coronavirus-friendly site where people can distance, but added there is a showroom at the Enoch Davis Recreation Center and elsewhere in the city, where people can leave their input. Videos are also available to view online.

The written questions covered topics like whether local businesses would be prioritized over chains (all the teams said “yes”) and how building will progress while uncertainty remains with the Tampa Bay Rays. The latter prompted Eric Antalek, principal with HKS and a member of the Portman/Third Lake team, to congratulate whomever submitted that card on “making 30 to 40 people on this side of the room squirm.”

As the speakers were announcing the conclusion of Wednesday’s meeting, resident James Martin shouted that his question was not answered. A few members from multiple development teams walked over afterward to speak with him, but he said he was still frustrated. His question wasn’t answered during an earlier Zoom meeting either.

“You hear the mayor ... the first words out of his mouth are talking about the wrongs that were done. But there is nothing after that addresses them wrongs,” said Martin, 63.

Martin said that instead of some of the teams focusing on affordable rental apartments, which are reserved for people in lower income brackets, they should include a locally owned credit union to help Black St. Pete residents get loans and mortgages.

“I’m not even trying to be an adversary in this. The point is everything they’re talking about has been done,” he said. “It’s about the accumulation of generational wealth, because that’s the only way the tables get equal.”

Another attendee, Dick Pierce, 80, brought his own typed-up notes to the meeting. He’s attended all three meetings, he said. Pierce said he’s been most impressed by Portman/Third Lake and Sugar Hill.

Sugar Hill has “done the research ... they are best steeped in the problem that everybody here says they want to resolve, which is to make it right for South St. Petersburg,” he said.

Sandra Sandoval, 32, said since moving to St. Petersburg five years ago, she’s been learning more about the history of the Trop site.

“I really appreciated folks’ desire to bring in the community to get buy-in,” she said, adding that she’s “interested to see in this 10-year process how that will continue.”

Kean Clifford, also 32, said he’s been struck by how rare of an opportunity this project is.

“How we do this, success or failure, is going to be in the textbook on 101 City Planning,” he said. “This is going to be a very important part of our city’s history ... and I’m here to just experience that process so I can be part of the history that’s being made.”

Times staff writer Josh Solomon contributed to this report.