In the 1980s, the demolition of homes and businesses proceeded to make way for what would be known as the Florida Suncoast Dome, now known as Tropicana Field.
An entire neighborhood, the Gas Plant neighborhood — its people, places and culture — was not just displaced but also dispersed on the promise of jobs and economic opportunity. The 1990s saw a focus on neighborhoods, building a highly involved civic culture of neighborhood associations and a citywide neighborhood planning effort. Meanwhile, the jobs and economic opportunity from the dome largely did not materialize. In the early 2000s, the focus shifted to downtown, which has become an economic engine over the past 20 years, remaking a retirement haven into a lively city with a diverse economy and renown art scene.
This brings us to the present. Like communities throughout the state, the city of St. Petersburg’s beautiful location and laid-back culture continue to attract new businesses and residents. Limited supply within the city’s neighborhoods, however, contributes to a seemingly unending upward pressure on housing cost. Some reports indicate job growth is outpacing housing growth by over 3 to 1. Over a third of all households are cost-burdened, meaning they pay more than 30% of their income toward housing costs, the highest rates of cost-burden households among the city’s low-income workforce and vulnerable households, such as seniors on low fixed incomes.
With that history and context, once again the Historic Gas Plant neighborhood site holds promise. This time, the site presents an opportunity to address and potentially restore what was lost: a vibrant community that contributed to the economic vitality of St. Petersburg. Realizing the potential of this site for economic development (i.e., jobs) efforts and addressing the history and legacy of the community that existed here prior to the stadium necessitates an emphasis on affordable housing.
In a city on a peninsula where large parcels of land available for development are few, no greater opportunity exists for the city to address the affordable housing need than the Historic Gas Plant site. More affordable units will help attract and retain employers. It will address the cost-burden issue, which affects low-income renters the most, has many benefits including more disposable income and creating the housing stability needed for households to effectively plan for educational pursuits, save for home purchases and other activities that build up the local economy. In an area where there is an abundance of high-end housing, a high number of affordable units will not serve to concentrate poverty at all, but instead create opportunity for many to live where they work.
In 2022, the Florida Housing Coalition recognized St. Petersburg as its Housing Champion, recognizing the city under the leadership of Mayor Ken Welch for prioritizing affordable housing, demonstrating its commitment by devoting the greatest percentage of its American Rescue Plan Act State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds to housing. As a growing chorus of economists have highlighted, addressing the shortage of affordable housing in our productive and dynamic urban centers sustains and maximizes economic growth.
In continuing this commitment to affordable housing with the redevelopment of the Historic Gas Plant site, a choice is not being made between housing and economic growth. Instead, it recognizes that one cannot be had without the other.
Ashon Nesbitt is the CEO of Florida Housing Coalition and a St. Pete native.
(This letter was updated to reflect the date of demolition of homes that made way for the Suncoast Dome.)