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Trop redevelopment hopefuls pitch to the public

Bill DeYoung



Chuck Whittall, president and CEO of Unicorp, speaks during Wednesday's event at the St. Petersburg Coliseum. Photos by Bill DeYoung

The city held its first in-person public meeting on redevelopment of Tropicana Field Wednesday at the St. Petersburg Coliseum, with approximately 100 citizens in attendance to hear from the four developers whose proposals are being considered for the 86-acre site.

Representatives from Midtown Development, Portman Holdings/Third Lake Partners, Sugar Hill Community Partners/JMA Ventures and Unicorp National Development were allotted 15 minutes each for power point presentations on their plans for transformation of the one-time Gas Plant site, home to a thriving African American neighborhood. All of it was razed in the 1980s in anticipation of the arrival of Major League Baseball.

Sarah Jane Vatelot, left, at the Sugar Hill Community Partners table. At right: Deputy mayor Dr. Kanika Tomalin chats with Sugar Hill’s development manager David Carlock.

The last hour of the event consisted of a question-and-answer session, with the written submissions read aloud by a moderator. Public comments were not permitted, although each of the development companies had display tables set up around the perimeter, and casually spoke to individual attendees before and after the main presentation.

All of the proposals call for mixed-use development of the site, and actually include two blueprints – one including a ballpark for the Tampa Bay Rays, and one without. The Rays’ contract with the city expires in 2027, and team administrators have not announced whether they will remain in the city.

Executives from each development firm took the podium, with a phalanx of team members assembled in a row behind them, including architects, designers, contractors, legal representatives and – in some cases – representatives from St. Petersburg civic, arts and professional organizations.

Although the echo in the cavernous Coliseum made it difficult to understand much of what was said, each team made a passionate pitch for their designs, and they all used the same buzzwords and talking points: Honoring the past while keeping an eye on the future, the restoration of dignity to the neighborhood, the creation of affordable housing, the creation of jobs, inclusion, sustainability, the arts, expansive greenspace and return of viability to beleaguered Booker Creek.

Just eight questions were answered in the allotted final hour. When asked about rent control plans for small businesses on the site, “We often set our retail rates below market value so that we can attract local businesses,” replied David Carlock, Sugar Hill development manager. “As opposed to your national operators who can pay your higher rents.

“And if you’re not intentional about that, if you’re not seeing the bigger picture of your community, a lot of places will rent the retail spaces at the highest rates possible because it creates the most value. But it creates the most value at retail; it doesn’t create the most value in the community. So we intentionally set our retail rates below market value so we can attract the really creative local groups. It ends up making the development a better product.”

Chuck Whittall, Unicorp CEO, had a ready answer for a submitted question about greenspace. “We have 37 acres of park space,” he said. “Not one other plan has that. And that’s going to be a discussion for the community – I love our balance, but maybe that’s not quite enough. Maybe we need to have a little bit more commercial space in order to take less chit money. But I think open space is so important. Public space, greenspace, to me that’s the most powerful animal. It’s always beautiful.”

Mayor Rick Kriseman will select a development firm by May or June, with a development agreement in place in the fall.

A second public meeting will take place at 6 p.m. today (Thursday, April 8) at the Coliseum. Click here to register for attendance.

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