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Rays Stadium Search: Tampa Park Apartments

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Now that the Rays can consider stadium sites in Hillsborough County, we’ve seen a lot of chatter about potential Tampa locations.

The most intriguing is a 21-acre site located where Channelside merges into Ybor City, currently the location of the Tampa Park Apartment complex. The surrounding property is owned by the city, and includes Booker T. Washington Elementary.

It is also the most likely site for a new Rays stadium.

History

The property is co-owned by two nonprofits, the Lily White Security Benefit Association (LWSBA) and Local 1402 of the International Longshoremen’s Association.

LWSBA had been created in the early part of the 20th century, part of a tradition of benevolent societies that served the needs of poor and immigrant communities in the days before there was a public safety net.

Such institutions continued to be important in African-American communities, as segregation excluded them from housing, healthcare, and even cemeteries that served the rest of the city.

Run by C. Blythe Andrews, who was also the publisher of Florida Sentinel, in its heyday the LWSBA ran a small hospital, a nursing home and an ambulance service and contributed to health care and burial costs of needy. Local 1402 is affiliated with the International Longshoremen’s Association, representing 279 members and carrying out traditional union functions.

Prior to the urban renewal era, It had been a neighborhood of large houses, small businesses, apartments, tenement shacks, nightclubs and churches.

Its name was the Gas Plant, for the two giant fuel tanks that towered over the center of the neighborhood. When the bulldozers came in the early 1980s, clearing the way for what was then just a big gamble, the city erased one of its oldest African-American neighborhoods.

In the late 1960s Tampa's Mayor Nuccio arranged for the land to be conveyed to these organizations for the purpose of constructing apartments for low income African-American households.

Tampa Park has 372 apartments, more than half of which are occupied by tenants with Section 8 vouchers, and nearly all of whom are low income and African-American.

How is this the most likely site?

Let’s review the advantages of Tampa Park.

The owners are apparently eager – really eager -- to sell. In 2003 Sybil Kay Andrews-Wells, identified as the "registered agent" for the apartment complex and the LWSBA, signed a secret agreement to sell the property to Ed Turanchik, one time Hillsborough County Commission turned developer. Turanchik's project never moved forward, however.

In 2013 Ms. Andrews-Wells  announced that she would be willing to sell the complex for a new Rays stadium.  Her announcement was surprising to everyone, as at that time any Tampa stadium discussion could have led to a law suit. It’s a little odd that to see a nonprofit so eager to cash out its assets (the current market value of the property is around $9 million).

The LWSBA has no website, and their most recent IRS filing indicates that in 2013, they spent a remarkable $295,564 on payroll out of a $361,327 budget. Their filing indicates little program activity other than $20,000 in scholarship aid. So we don’t know what they have planned for that  $9 million windfall. That, however, is well beyond the concern of the Rays and their fans.

The site is also very strategically located.

Near both Ybor City and Channelside, the site offers connections to two areas that have, or are developing, some of the region’s most popular entertainment districts. Redeveloping this area, if a stadium is well designed, will serve to knit these neighborhoods together, something that would be applauded by area boosters.

Transportation access is also excellent. It is an easy walk to the TECO trolley, and to Tampa’s Union Station, should this area ever decide to develop rail transit. Several parking garages owned by the city are also available near Channelside and throughout Ybor.

Additionally, Tampa Park is near the Leroy Selmon Expressway, and reasonably close to I-4 and I-275. There’s also some parking already available nearby: the City of Tampa owns a 1500 space garage already built near he site, and there are other public and private garages within walking distance that are seldom close to capacity.

Perched just beyond Channelside, a well designed stadium would provide panoramic views of downtown and waterfront.

The site has other drawbacks as well

First, it’s not clear that the acres owned by Tampa Park would be sufficient for the entire development.  Generally stadiums need 18 – 30 acre footprints, although highly urban stadiums with no on-site parking can get away with less.

The Tampa Park site could be sufficient, but it is long and somewhat narrow.

It’s not clear that you could easily fit a stadium as the site is currently configured, meaning the Rays and the city would have to expand outside the property controlled by the apartment complex.

There could be potential to acquire adjoining sites but that complicates the project (the parcels marked in red in the maps above show an potential, expanded site that includes additional properties).

The additional parcel that would best suit the development houses the Booker T. Washington Elementary School, a historic building whose relocation would certainly stir opposition.

Here's a Google Earth rendering of the entire swath of land under consideration, including the apartment complex, elementary school, a public library, a Catholic church and some businesses:

There’s also a small city park which would become far less useful if the residents it serves are relocated (although selling off a city park could add new layers of approval). Surrounding properties include some county and city owned lots, a TECO facility, some industrial land and two churches.

In addition, connections between I-275 and I-4 would certainly need to be expanded and improved, which could require additional investments or purchase of right of way.

For all these reasons, Mayor Buckhorn has indicated his support for this site.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn couldn't deny he had a favorite site.

It's the Tampa Park Apartments, a nearly 50-year-old apartment complex for 372 low-income families between downtown and Ybor City.

"I don't hide my optimism for that particular site," he said after a City Hall news conference Friday...

HOWEVER, the same article from the Tampa Bay Times that provides the quote above, reminds us of some very important context.

The complex also presents a challenge: It's full of poor, mostly black families, some who have lived there for generations.

So wouldn't evicting them for a new stadium just repeat what happened in St. Petersburg's Gas Plant neighborhood before Tropicana Field was built?

"That would be the biggest issue," Buckhorn conceded.

"Issue" is an understatement.

372 Families Call Tampa Park Home

The biggest hurdle to redeveloping this site is the relocation of its 372 families, and unfortunately, these problems are less legal and more moral and political.

According to reports, Tampa Park’s contract with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to house Section 8 tenants runs to the end of September 2017. Should the city choose to redevelop the land, the apartment owners are also required to give a full year’s notice to tenants, who are entitled to some relocation assistance.

This would put the start of demolition most likely sometime in 2018, which wouldn’t slow down the process of planning or financing, but relocating families of little or no income -- some of whom may have special health or social service needs -- cannot be taken lightly.

Even if the current complex may not look like much to those who have wider housing choices, many families have been there for years, with strong connections to their community. Helping families move without subjecting them to a dramatic loss in quality of life is not easy. The city, and by extension the Rays, would have to do this right.

Moreover, the city of Tampa has already been tearing down low income housing units at a pretty rapid pace.

Three projects housing over 1500 families were torn down in the past two decades; with the planned demolition North Boulevard Homes (making way for Buckhorn’s West Tampa redevelopment) and Presbyterian Village (to be torn down for the planned Tampa Bay Express highway project, named one of the twelve largest highway boondoggles in the nation), another 1000 units of subsidized housing will disappear.

Each of these demolitions requires the relocation of the city's poorest residents into a dwindling remaining stock of subsidized housing. A Rays stadium at this site would not be politically feasible, nor would it pass the smell test for anyone who cares about the overall health of our city, if displaced tenants received only token moving assistance.

Residents displaced by the demolition of the Gas Plant neighborhood decades earlier received $4,000 per family, which in today's dollars would equate to $12,500-$13,000. Residents moving out of Presbyterian homes this year are receiving benefits ranging from $25,000 - $70,000 per household, depending on family size and needs.

This adds a cost on to the city ranging from $9.3 million to $27.9 million, but a price that Tampa has shown a great willingness to pay. This does not include the cost of relocating the elementary school, the public library, or any other necessary accommodations.

Conclusion

Predicting urban development outcomes is about as reliable as predicting which hard-throwing 18 year old will ever pitch a major league inning.  All sorts of unseen hurdles, from community opposition to insurmountable access issues, can emerge to scuttle plans for a project of this size and visibility.

The Tampa Park site would, however, have to be seen as the favorite at this point.