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Rays Stadium Saga: Tropicana Field Redevelopment, Explained

The land under Tropicana Field is valuable, and whether it can be reclaimed by the city will come into play more and more in the coming months.

On July 14 of last year, Tampa Bay Times writer Josh Solomon shined a light on an important aspect of the Rays Stadium Saga: redevelopment of the 86-acres under Tropicana Field and its parking lots.

In his article titled, “St. Petersburg’s future lies beneath Tropicana Field. Do the Rays stand in the way?” Solomon wisely notes that St. Petersburg’s future is wrapped up in the very lease they are trying to prevent the Rays from escaping or renegotiating.

The Trop is baseball’s last dome, an outdated, obsolete dinosaur with too many catwalks and not enough fans.

But beneath that fossil of a ballpark sits 86 acres of urban gold.

It is a bona fide gem of a development opportunity that could transform downtown — akin to the Water Street Tampa project backed by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik.

Yet as the Rays and the city squabble over the team’s future home, that valuable real estate could get caught in the middle.

Indeed, the City of St. Petersburg — which has the money to make just about any project they’d like happen both through their own funds and the possibility of a piece of Pinellas County’s six cent tourism tax — has been developing plans for the future of that gold mine, both with and without Tropicana Field.

The plan without a stadium

Catching up on the Stadium Saga

Before city officials made their two plans, the City Council (finally) allowed the Rays to explore a new stadium location anywhere in Tampa Bay, and then awaited the team’s decision.

And the Rays chose to look across the bay, in search of more viable financial support, spurred on by recent tax regulations that would encourage development in designated Opportunity Zones.

Three years later that search was declared a failure after neither the political or corporate powers that be could coalesce behind the team’s move to Hillsborough County. Indeed the only definitive outcome of that effort was the FBI probe opened against a county commissioner who had worked behind the scenes to assemble a stadium site.

After a failure to find corporate support in line with the team’s long or short term expectations both in St. Petersburg (the present reality we all live in) or in Tampa (via the failed attempt to land in Ybor City), the Rays have determined that neither of the region’s major city’s is a viable home for a full time (82 game) baseball team.

Having changed the calculus, the Rays held a press conference in downtown St. Petersburg — aptly staged at the surrealist Dali Museum, which is next door to their soccer team’s home and probably not coincidentally the location of their first failed stadium proposal. They pitched their idea to share the franchise across two markets that want baseball but have historically not been able to support it: Tampa Bay and Montreal.

Their new solution would return to the open-air stadium concept they considered in 2008, before the financial crisis, but would be designed with a multi-functional purpose — marrying the Rays, their Spring Training facility, and the Rowdies, with an emphasis on use during winter and spring.

Then, once the weather became too hot for outdoor stadium activities in Florida, the team would transfer operations to Montreal, where summer and fall baseball is the only sort of baseball to be enjoyed outdoors.

If the Rays expected this plan to be welcomed with open arms by St. Petersburg and its long-supportive Mayor Rick Kriseman, the team was wrong. Kriseman’s strong opposition to the Sister City concept has brought the Rays to the stalemate we are all in today: a lease that locks the team into Tropicana Field through 2027 but no plans to remain beyond that date, and no ongoing conversations about their next steps.

The plan to keep a stadium would shift the ballpark closer to 1st Avenue’s restaurants and breweries

The Redevelopment Rights

In Solomon’s July story, he quoted the author of the so-called iron-clad use agreement governing Tropicana Field as saying the following about the team’s wide swaths of parking around the stadium:

Former city attorney John Wolfe, who crafted the original Trop lease, says the development rights didn’t work as intended. While downtown has grown and new construction has reached the edge of the Trop, the stadium site remains barren.

”The original purpose (of the development rights) was not fulfilled, basically,” he said, “which was to have development on that site as the team developed.”

This original purpose is not clear in the contract, nor is its description. Even in naming the matter is misconstrued. Instead of calling the rights Wolfe refers to as land development, it is captured in a section titled, “Air Rights.”

It’s here we find that the Rays, as the occupying “Club,” are entitled to a 50% cut of any development occurring on the property they are leasing from the City. Emphasis my own:

section 3.05. Air Rights.

Subject to the reasonable approval of the CLUB and provided that the CLUB’s operations of the DOME are not unreasonably impaired and that all parking committed to the CLUB is replaced at locations which do not substantially impair the CLUB’s operation or patron’s access to the DOME, the CITY may sell or lease any or all of the air rights over the properties described in Exhibit D hereto and allow development thereof, together with development of locations for necessary ingress and egress and supporting structures.

If the CITY sells or leases any of such rights, then the CITY and the CLUB shall share equally in the net proceeds of such sale(s) or lease(s); provided that the CITY shall first be reimbursed out of the gross proceeds, for all costs incurred by or on behalf of the CITY therewith, including but not limited to the cost of the acquisition and development of replacement parking necessitated by such sale or lease.

Prior to beginning the process for the sale or lease of any such air rights the CLUB shall be advised by the CITY of its intent to begin such a process. It is specifically agreed that the CLUB shall not be precluded from participating in or from being the developer of any development located within the air rights.

Contract language is primarily based upon common understanding (what other purpose does the written word serve?); however, in speaking with various people close to stadium reporting, as well as real estate developers, I was not able to find anyone who believes Air Rights (e.g. the rights for building over a road or a railroad track) is the same as redeveloping the land itself (i.e. a Tropicana Field parking lot).

Exhibit D

Recall, however, attorney Wolfe’s statement that anticipated stadium redevelopment did not take off as anticipated. This suggests that the use agreement was written assuming that the stadium’s presence would entice redevelopment activity on the dozens of acres near the stadium used for surface parking; the city would retain ownership of this land and award the right to build on it (via the “air rights”) to developers.

Thus there does appear to be a common understanding between the City and the Club — as they are referred to in the use agreement — on the application of Section 3.05, which references this map from 1995, while also promising additional parking lots to be developed. In fact, Kriseman yesterday called the contractual provision, “very clear.”

And yet 25 years later this clause has never come into play, as Tropicana Field has thus far failed to spur on any development closer than 1st Avenue.

Which brings us to this week, as the relationship between the team and the Mayor seems to be deteriorating.

Rays President Brian Auld has been meeting individually with council members (recall that one-on-one meetings are not subject to Sunshine Laws). In these meetings he has pitched the two-city plan, while acknowledging that the Rays have the right to stop the city from any redevelopment on the larger Tropicana Field site, citing that use agreement clause giving them some say on redevelopment activities.

When Kriseman was called before Thursday’s meeting to update the City Council on stadium negotiations, he insisted that the Rays don’t have veto power over the redevelopment of the land outside the stadium footprint, claiming redeveloping a parking lot would not prevent fans from reaching the stadium.

The response from council members pushed him to soften his position on sharing the team with Montreal, and to seek pragmatic solutions for 2028:

The upshot? Don’t expect any quick resolution of these issue, and if it all continues to go south, don’t be surprised if the Rays and St. Pete end up in court at the city’s behest.