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Rays Stadium Search: Tampa Heights

A stadium with Hillsborough River views? This may be the waterfront property the Rays have been looking for!

Could a stadium go here?
Tampa Downtown Association

The Tampa Bay Times recently reported that Rays executives had met with Hillsborough County officials to discuss potential stadium sites.

The sites under discussion are by now familiar to DRB readers: they include the Tampa Park Apartments site at the edge of Ybor City; the Florida Fairgrounds; the International Ship Repair site; and the current location of Jefferson High School in Westshore.

The article also mentions two sites we haven't yet studied. One is the Greyhound race track in Sulphur Springs. Given the Rays stated preference for centrally located, vibrant, urban spaces we would be surprised if this site is under serious consideration.

The other is an area along the Hillsborough River in the Tampa Heights neighborhood, just north of downtown. Here, 49 waterfront acres, largely undeveloped, have been assembled. The property is currently owned by SoHo Capital, with plans for a mixed use project called The Heights.

Tampa Heights redevelopment area
City of Tampa

The area includes one structure, the Armature Works building, which opened in 1914 as a trolley barn and more recently served as the plant for the manufacture of phosphate mining machinery. It's now largely vacant and under renovation -- an "innovation lab" associated with SOCOM at MacDill has recently rented part of the building, and the rest is slated to be redeveloped as a sort of Pike Place market/food court sometime in the next year or two. At present the building still looks pretty far from finished.

Apart from this historic industrial building the rest of the site is vacant, stretching north to Ross Avenue.

Redevelopment site

What's appealing about this site

In the past decade, Tampa rediscovered both the Hillsborough River and the importance of good urban design, and nowhere is that more evident than in the area stretching from downtown's Curtis Hixon Park north to this area. From the redesigned Curtis Hixon and Riverwalk, to the lovely Waterworks park, complete with band shelter and delightful playground and splash area, to the restored Ulele Spring, local residents can fully enjoy the beautiful bend in the Hillsborough River.

Private investors have also added to the appeal of this area. Richard Gonzmart, owner of the Columbia restaurant, restored the former Water Works building and opened Ulele, which is now Tampa's favorite date night/special occasion restaurant.

Ulele restaurant

Of course the Rays want to consider this site. It's lovely. It's connected to some of the best loved and best designed urban redevelopment we've seen in this region. A stadium there would have spectacular river views. It's close to downtown and just across the river from the soon to be redeveloped Julian Lane Park.

What's more, there is plenty of land and it is all controlled by one owner. No low income tenants, high schools or industrial facilities need to be moved. Even more importantly, the area is already a Community Redevelopment Area, which means tax increment financing could help support infrastructure improvements.

What's problematic about this site

But there's always a catch!

First, the Rays would need to get control of the site, and the current owners don't seem at all interested in selling, or including a stadium into their plans. They have already commissioned a master plan for this area that will include 1900 condominiums, 260,000 square feet of office space, and 100,000 square feet of retail. The overall aesthetic of the project seems kind of retro-hipster, with a public market, a restored street grid, and even an iconic water tower that has been relocated from Bartow. So as far as the developer is concerned, there's no room for a baseball stadium. But more on that in a bit.

Secondly, it sits at the edge of the Tampa Heights neighborhood. Known as Tampa's first suburb, this community was developed around the 1890s, an easy streetcar ride to downtown. It boasts some of Tampa's best preserved 19th and early 20th century homes and churches. While the neighborhood still has many vacant lots, there has been a great deal of small-scale reinvestment. Residents have worked together to create a community plan, which guides local development. They have worked hard to build a community garden and youth center. Would they welcome a baseball stadium?

Community Garden

Moreover, this community is currently under siege on its eastern side, as the proposed expansion of I-275 threatens to destroy some of these community amenities as well as several blocks of housing. Residents have been mounting an incredibly energetic campaign to stop this project, known as TBX. Although it's unclear whether they will be successful, this could make it politically difficult to push a stadium development on a neighborhood that is feeling besieged and is highly engaged in the political process.

Access to this site could also be problematic. While I-275 is nearby, the closest exit puts traffic onto a narrow two lane street that could most certainly not handle 10,000 vehicles driving to a game (it is also unlikely to handle the traffic generated by the 1900 proposed apartments). Because that road runs along the lovely park and restaurant areas described above, widening it would not be feasible.

To avoid overwhelming this road, new highway access would need to be designed, and doing that without a great deal of disruption to residential areas would be a challenge. (Then again, as this is Tampa, this "problem" can be applied to almost any stadium site.)

Bringing cars in along Columbus Avenue, to the north, or creating stadium parking under the highway with footpaths and shuttles could be alternatives but would not completely address all the problems.

Why this site shouldn't be dismissed

Yes, I know the developer has said "no" to a stadium idea. But I'm not willing to write it off entirely.

First, some background: plans to create an "urban village" along this bend in the river have been around for a while. In the mid-aughts a different developer also had plans for a mixed use community. They even worked with neighborhood leaders to craft an agreement that would include a set aside for affordable housing and public space. That development stalled, however, with the owners declaring bankruptcy at the height of the Great Recession.

The current development group picked up this project in 2013, no doubt believing that the economic recovery would make this a more propitious time to move ahead. And perhaps they can.

But let's be real. Their plans are very ambitious, and from what I can tell even their earliest redevelopment phases have been pushed back (the opening of the rest of the Armature Works building was initially announced as "Coming in October 2016", and is now "sometime in 2017").

Also, they are certainly not the only ones with big dreams for downtown Tampa.

Lightning owner Jeffrey Vinik's redevelopment project Channelside will have 1,000 new apartments, along with office and retail space.

The Encore project, a mixed income development, has hundreds of apartments planned for the next few years.

The Port Authority is looking to develop several hundred more units on their land, and Mayor Buckhorn envisions hundreds more market rate units replacing the Housing Authority's North Boulevard homes just across the Hillsborough.

And then there is a smattering of smaller, private developments in the works -- 400 condominium units at the former Tampa Tribune building, another 400 in a building planned next to the Straz Center.

I believe in the "downtown renaissance" as much as the next person, but is downtown Tampa really going to be able to absorb new residents on this scale?

Clearly not all these projects will succeed, and there are other projects that seem likely to be breaking ground before this one will. Those 1,900 units could well be seeking funding just in time for the next burst real estate bubble.

So why not a baseball stadium? Why not consider an "intimate" (e.g. 2 tier, 30,000 seat) stadium, well designed for compatibility with other recreational or retail uses, as part of the Heights redevelopment plan?