Four developers, including the Tampa Bay Rays organization and its partner, Hines, have submitted bids to redevelop the 86-acre Tropicana Field site in downtown St. Petersburg.
Proposals were due by 10 a.m. Friday, Dec. 2, and, as expected, Sugar Hill Community Partners, one of the finalists of the previous request for proposal process under former St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman, submitted a plan.
The other bids came from entities under the names 50 Plus 1 Sports and Redevelopment Associates, according to a statement from the city. The Rays hinted in October that they would respond to the RFP when they asked for the deadline to be pushed to Dec. 2. If nothing else, the team's bid is a sign of renewed interest in downtown St. Pete after a series of unsuccessful flirtations with Tampa and Montreal.
"We commend 50 Plus 1 Sports, Hines and Tampa Bay Rays, Restoration Associates and Sugar Hill Community Partners for their diligent efforts to submit proposals that will fuel inclusive progress and equitable development for future generations who will live, visit and do business in our city," St. Pete Mayor Ken Welch says in the statement, issued Friday. "We will review the proposers' plans with a keen eye on their interpretation of affordable and workforce housing; office and meeting space; arts and culture; research, innovation and education; recreation; open space, healthy and sustainable development; and intentional equity.”
In late June, Welch surprisingly restarted the RFP process, much to the dismay of Miami-based Midtown Development, which had been chosen by Kriseman to develop the property in his final days in office. Midtown indicated at the time that it would not submit a new version of its $2.7 billion plan, dubbed Creekside.
“We wish Mayor Ken Welch and the residents of the city of St. Petersburg all the best in their future efforts to redevelop Tropicana Field,” the firm stated.
The new RFP, formally issued Aug. 26, calls for additional emphasis on equitable redevelopment; a 17.3-acre carve-out for a baseball stadium; specific requirements for affordable and workforce housing; and new details that respond to current economic and societal conditions and community sentiment. The proposals will be posted on the city’s website when they’re deemed compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to city officials. A public presentation, scheduled for Jan. 4 at the Coliseum in downtown St. Pete, will give residents a chance to hear each development team give an overview of their bid.
The Sugar Hill team, led by former NBA star Kevin Johnson — who was also the mayor of Sacramento, California, from 2008 to 2016 — didn’t waste any time in trying to achieve frontrunner status for its bid. The group held a meet-and-greet session with local media Friday morning, right after the deadline for RFP responses had passed.
In attendance were Johnson and representatives from Sugar Hill’s local partners, including Tampa-based Blue Sky Communities, a developer of affordable housing; Sarasota-based DuCon Construction; and the St. Petersburg Housing Authority. The event also featured executives from PMG Affordable, an offshoot of New York-based Property Markets Group that’s focused on affordable housing projects in Tampa, and Machete Group Inc., a Houston, Texas-based development management company.
Johnson, a three-time NBA All-Star, tells the Business Observer that he wasn’t deterred by Welch’s decision to tell developers to do it all again after more than two years of work.
“We’re of the mindset that we want to finish what we started,” he says. “When the mayor rebooted the process, we didn’t hesitate — we knew we wanted to participate and submit our bid again, because we felt like we had an obligation to the community. We've been on the ground here for two years, meeting with folks. They gave us input in a real way. And we wanted to make good on what we said.”
Johnson’s background in professional sports, politics and now the development and construction business gives him a unique perspective on the Tropicana Field situation. It also helps that he’s been in a similar situation before, when the Sacramento Kings basketball threatened to leave the city for Seattle, which has been without a NBA squad since the SuperSonics decamped for Oklahoma City in 2008 and became the Thunder.
“There’s a lot of similarities,” he says. “Our team stayed, and it ended up being catalytic for all of downtown Sacramento. It revitalized downtown, and it elevated Sacramento’s profile on a national level because we had such a significant project. I think all those similarities will bear out” in St. Pete.
Johnson and several other members of the Sugar Hill team emphasized, however, that the Tropicana Field site must be about socioeconomic opportunity for residents, first and foremost, with baseball as a secondary priority. To make way for the current ballpark, a thriving, predominantly Black area of the city, known as the Gas Plant neighborhood, was razed amid unfulfilled promises of economic prosperity. Wounds from that remain raw more than three decades later.
“I want the team to stay,” Johnson says. “As a developer, it would be great if the Rays develop their 15 acres or so, we develop the remaining 60 to 70 and we work together. But it’s got to be one project; it’s got to be one vision; it’s got to be coordinated. When I was mayor, I said, ‘Look, it’s got to be bigger than basketball,' meaning we want the team to stay, but our city’s got to go on without the team.”
Johnson also spoke to the affordable housing crisis affecting communities up and down Florida’s Gulf Coast, not just in Tampa Bay.
“That is a differentiator for us,” he says. “There’s a scarcity of affordable housing, and we want to change that. The first time we submitted our proposal, we had a significant amount of affordable and workforce housing. This time, we've doubled down — we've made it even more significant. We already had Blue Sky, but then we brought in PMG, which has done great work on the other side of the bay, and the St. Petersburg Housing Authority. We have a dream team when it comes to affordable housing.”
Johnson adds that the bumpy road to Dec. 2 was filled with business lessons, the biggest being, “You’ve got to finish what you start. We made promises to the community, and how do you not make good on commitments you’ve made to the community, especially the commitments that were made in the past to the historic Gas Plant district?”
Also, Johnson says, Sugar Hill Community Partners put to good use the additional time afforded to it by the restarted RFP process, adding to and further diversifying its supporting cast of partner organizations.
“If you have more time,” he says, “you have more time to get better. I think we have even a better project at this point than what we had previously.”
Brian Hartz holds a master’s degree in journalism from Indiana University and has been a St. Petersburg resident since 2013. He has also worked for newspapers and magazines in Indiana, Canada and New Zealand.