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Rays Stadium Search: Channelside

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Looking for a new Rays stadium in "Port Tampa Bay."

Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

Nothing beats a well-designed waterfront stadium.  The Rays executives know that, which is why they proposed a stadium at the site of the former Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg several years ago.  That stadium was scuttled by a fear of public backlash due to the onset of the Great Recession, and the city and team never found common ground again.

But the Rays are no longer confined to the St. Petersburg city limits, and Tampa has water, too. It’s worth considering whether there are any waterside parcels that would be appropriate, and available, for a baseball stadium.

History

The Hillsborough County waterfront, at least the parts of it seen as potential stadium sites, are part of Port Tampa Bay (previously called the Port of Tampa), controlled by the Tampa Port Authority.  The Port Authority is a state authority whose governing board includes members appointed by the governor, and Tampa and Hillsborough County representatives serving ex officio.

The current chair of its Board happens to be one Stephen Swindal, who was once George Steinbrenner’s son-in-law and heir apparent.  He still has ties to the Yankees through his company that runs a Dominican baseball academy (quotation from linked article: "I'm always going to be pulling for the Yankees.")  Does this make him likely to support a Port-area stadium (because he knows baseball) or oppose it (because, Yankees)?

There are two Port Tampa Bay sites that have been in the stadium search discussion.  One is a ship repair yard at the tip of Ybor Channel, the other is the  current cruise port very close to Channelside Bay Plaza.

Tampa’s first port was located in Port Tampa, an independent city (until annexation in 1961) and now a neighborhood not far from MacDill Air Force Base.  Some of its structures were destroyed by the hurricane of 1921, by which time dredging had opened new channels, allowing ships to move further up the bay, to the current Port Tampa Bay location.

Both Davis Islands and Harbor Island were created with sediment dredged to make way for shipping. The Army Corps of Engineers continues to dredge the channels periodically to keep them free for large vessels.

In its early years, first Port Tampa and then the Port Tampa Bay grew thanks to passenger travel (linking to Henry Plant’s railroad and later through the development of the cruise port) and to the growth of phosphate mining, with phosphate excavated in central parts of the state and transported to ships for distribution.

Phosphate, along with shrimp, are among the most important commodities moving through the cargo port today, and the port is the seventh busiest in the United States.

International Ship Repair

Founded in 1970s, International Ship Repair has been owned by the Lortons (and now solely by George Lorton) since the 1990s. It is one of four ship repair businesses operating in Port Tampa Bay, and its yard sits at the tip of Ybor Channel, positioning it north of the Channelside core and south of Ybor (from which it is separated by the Leroy Selmon Expressway). The company has recently expanded, adding new dry docks and doubling its workforce.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn lists this as his second most likely/attractive site,  after the Tampa Bay Apartments. The site is 22 acres, and it wraps around the head of Ybor channel, with the largest section on the eastern side of the water (in other words farther from downtown/Channelside.)

Mayor Buckhorn suggested that the site could be expanded filling in Ybor Channel, making the site a more rectangular and feasible 30 – 40 acres.

What is attractive about this site: The entire site is owned by a single company, which makes its acquisition easier than sites with multiple owners.

The location, between Ybor and Channelside, opens the potential for transportation connections to both, and if the cruise port area does see renewed development (see below) then there would be intriguing possibilities for synergies, with pedestrian bridges and waterside walkways creating attractive design and recreation features.

Channel District
Source:  City of Tampa

The proximity to the Selmon Expressway facilitates auto transportation, and there could be potential to expand the TECO trolley line, which now passes near the western part of the site.  Part of the site sits in the Channel District Community Redevelopment Area, raising the possibility of tax increment financing helping with some costs.

What could be problematic about this site. As far as I know, the idea that this site could be available comes only from Buckhorn’s claim that the owners are willing to sell (unlike the owners of Tampa Park Apartments, they have not stated that publicly).

Indeed, the International Ship Repair ownership is on record as opposing Port plans to fill in part of the channel for the purposes of developing mixed use space at the cruise port. The company even partners with the Hillsborough County School district to create employment pipelines for students in the two Maritime Industries magnet high schools.  As they don’t seem like a company looking to get out of the business, presumably any deal would need to involve their relocation.

Mayor Buckhorn has suggested this could be accomplished with a land swap, with their current site exchanged for another, comparable site elsewhere in the Port area.  But how easy is that?

In reports about the ConAgra flour mill site the need to relocate that company’s operations was considered a deal killer.  It’s not clear to me why relocating a ship repair yard would not be similarly cumbersome, but I’ll assume the Mayor has some insider understanding of the situation that puts this site near the top of his list.

The site’s current configuration would certainly pose some design challenges for a stadium and its auxiliary functions.  Gaining new land by filling in the tip of the channel would solve one set of problems, but it creates new ones. Creating new land in this fashion is expensive and brings a host of regulatory bodies into the picture (interestingly, the St. Petersburg "sail" stadium also would have required some landfill, albeit a much smaller area).

While the site is close to Channelside and Ybor, linking to those areas will require some thought (and investment).  Parking and restaurants in Ybor city are only half a mile away, but that’s a half mile walk underneath the Selmon Expressway. And the Channelside Bay Plaza (and nearby parking garages) is almost one and a half miles distant, probably too far for a comfortable stroll on an August afternoon, although the addition of a bridge over the channel, or pedestrian paths along the water would shorten that distance.

The eastern side of the yard is bordered by highway and industry, so designers would need to explore ways to mitigate impacts across these uses.

Cruise Port

The Port Authority has its headquarters in a building between Ybor Channel and Channelside Drive, alongside the cruise port, where several buildings and ship berths supports Carnival and Norwegian Cruise lines.  You can board a cruise ship in Tampa to explore the Caribbean or venture into the Panama Canal.

According to the Times, the cruise port and Port Authority building occupy about 12 acres (scarcely enough for a stadium), but in fact, the Port Authority owns and controls about 45 acres that is seeking to redevelop.  This includes the parking lot currently serving the Tampa Aquarium.

You might be wondering why the cruise port and its environs would even be under discussion.  Well, the Port Authority is anticipating a decline in the local cruise business.  The cruise industry has been developing ever larger ships; the newest versions are too large to travel under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which is the only way from the Gulf into the Port.

While there has been the occasional suggestion to replace the Skyway, this would apparently be an insanely expensive undertaking and has not received serious consideration.  Rather, there has been discussion about creating a new cruise port on the Gulf side of the Skyway, with Tampa’s cruise port shrinking and serving a smaller niche market. Once upon a time, Hillsborough County Commission Victor Crist had even suggested trading the cruise industry for the Rays.

The Port Authority has been seeking ways to further develop its real estate for a while, without much success.  But with the impending decline of the cruise industry, and the new interest in downtown/channel district real estate, thanks to the residential investments of recent years and  Jeff Vinik’s Strategic Property Partners, the Port Authority is trying again.

Last summer, the Port Authority. unveiled a master plan anticipating office, hotels, apartments – in all, some 9 million square feet of development, with $1.7 billion in new investments, including $200 million public dollars for infrastructure upgrades.  This planned development would come on top of the plans for Jeff Vinik's land, where he and his partners have said they will be investing $1-2 billion for offices, hotels, apartments and retail.

The Port Authority master plan does not include a stadium, and newspaper reports have quoted Buckhorn as dismissing this as a site for baseball, believing its prime location makes it more valuable to the city as mixed use residential and commercial development. But it could be overly optimistic to imagine that the market could absorb the millions of square feet of new space under development by Vinik as well as the very ambitious plans proposed by the Port Authority.

A 45 acre site, if planned well, could include a baseball stadium and still fold in some of the commercial development and public space envisioned by the Port’s planners.

Some advantages of this site: It has an ideal waterfront location, is close to several underutilized parking garages, and sits on the TECO trolley line.  The proximity to Amalie Arena creates opportunities for synergistic development of parking and sports-themed entertainment. The entire site sits within the Channel District Community Redevelopment Area, which could help with infrastructure investment costs.

As the Port Authority plans calls for a significant ($200 million) public infrastructure investment, and the local government would need to provide infrastructure funds for any of the other sites under discussion, why not co-locate these activities and make better use of these public funds?  As San Francisco’s ATT Park has shown us, a stadium is hardly incompatible with a marina.

Some disadvantages of this site: Economists and real estate analysts like to talk about the "highest and best use" of urban land, a concept that suggests it is always desirable to develop land for whatever purpose will provide the highest economic yield. It’s clear that the The Port Authority, which controls the site and its redevelopment, and the Mayor think there is a market for offices, hotels, and retail in this area, which is likely to yield higher returns than a baseball stadium.

Are they right in this assumption?  We will find out as SPP seeks occupants for their developments, and as the Port Authority consultants engage in more detailed design work and market analysis, whether this district can support so much new space coming on line within a relatively short time frame.

If this market fails to develop, however, it’s possible that the Port Authority could come to see a stadium as a more attractive alternative.

Concluding thoughts

Either of these sites would be consistent with the Rays' wish list -- at least 20 acres, widely accessible and connected to existing entertainment nodes.

The port location, you could argue, meets their interest in finding an "authentic" place, as the Tampa Bay region is defined by its major body of water.  Ironically, perhaps, had the Rays been free to search for a site eight years ago, an Ybor Channel location could have been ideal. At that time there was no Vinik investment, not much private sector interest in downtown Tampa, and a stadium would likely have been a welcome catalyst for development.

Today, city officials seem to believe the Channel District is able to sustain more profitable land uses.  Displacing some of the Port's maritime industries would free up other sites, but eliminating well-paying semi-skilled jobs at a time when Florida and Tampa Bay area wages are stagnant is certainly problematic.

Nonetheless, both of these waterfront sites are intriguing and likely to be the subject of further discussion.