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Is Atlanta’s Battery the model for the Trop area? Let’s hope not.

San Diego Padres v Atlanta Braves Photo by Matthew Grimes/Atlanta Braves/Getty Images

If you have been reading about the Rays/Hines redevelopment proposal that will include a new baseball stadium, you are likely to see many comparisons to Atlanta’s Truist (earlier Suntrust) Park and its surrounding development, called The Battery. Both are mixed use developments with shopping, restaurants, a hotel and apartments, anchored by a baseball stadium. With Truist Park representing one of the most recently built ballparks, comparisons are natural. (For example, Michael Harrison of Hines makes that comparison in this John Romano article)

So is the goal of our Tropicana Field redevelopment to emulate the Truist Park/Battery development?

I hope not.

Don’t get me wrong, the Battery is fine. I visited the development back in 2017, when I had evacuated to Atlanta to ride out Hurricane Irma, and the Braves (at the end of an uncharacteristically terrible season) kindly gave free tickets to fleeing Floridians. At that point the stadium was finishing its first season and there were several commercial streets with stores and restaurants, although I don’t know whether all the office space, hotel and residential developments had yet come online. But they had clearly created a commercial area that was a good complement to the ballpark.

The Battery, as you might know, is not in the city of Atlanta. In moving to unincorporated Cobb County, the Braves had decided to abandon their in-city stadium and build a new, ballpark-centered area outside the city limits, siting this new development between Cobb Parkway, I-75 and I-285, an area adjacent to several malls and a lot of fast-food restaurants.

The Battery and Truist Park, aerial shot

For Tampa Bay locals, an analogy might be the Rays building their stadium at The Shops at Wiregrass out in Wesley Chapel. For those unfamiliar, this is an open-air mall not far from I-75, about a 30-minute drive from downtown Tampa, about the same as the drive from downtown Atlanta to Truist Park.

Shops at Wiregrass, aerial shot

You would drive there, park your car in one of the surrounding parking lots, and then walk into this recently constructed mall-like development where you could grab a beer, buy a shirt, and see a baseball game. The same stadium, same public spaces and same commercial establishments could be replicated in pretty much any city in the US.

But copy-and-paste suburban mall is not what we need or want here, even if it seems to do fine in Cobb County. There are some important differences between The Battery and what I’ll call the Historic Gas Plant District in St. Petersburg:

The Historic Gas Plant District has a past. It’s not an anonymous highway interchange. It bears witness to the complex history of urban change, racial discrimination and segregation, and environmental degradation (we shouldn’t romanticize what it meant to live next to a gas plant!). The city of St. Petersburg, which currently owns the land, has made clear that new development has to honor that in a number of ways that were not present for Battery developers. Educational programs, an African American cultural center, space for small, locally owned retailers, and over 1000 units of income-restricted affordable housing (in addition to several thousand more market rate units) are among the place-specific elements of the proposal.

The Historic Gas Plant District will evolve over two decades. The slow build out of this project is a real contrast to the quick-rising Battery district. The deliberate speed is in some ways shaped by the need to build around a working stadium, which means the developers cannot simply turn the 86 acres into a massive construction site. (You can see a good development timeline via the Tampa Bay Times here.) The slower build might create some frustration. There will be construction going on for a long time. Some of the promised elements of the project may not be finished, or even started, in this decade. But real urban neighborhoods don’t just appear overnight, they grow slowly and evolve based on changing technologies, market conditions and tastes.

The Historic Gas Plant District is a unique redevelopment opportunity. This is not just one of many suburban sites in a sprawling region. It represents one of the few potentially transformative sites in a county that is largely built out. The city and the developers need to ensure that this land is used well. It must include a variety of income-generating, job-producing, tax base-enhancing opportunities that will secure the city’s fiscal future. It must also have community spaces, public art, and activities for residents of all income levels and visitors from all over. Located on a subtropical peninsula, this development must build for the climate change we know is here, and perhaps even serve as a model for how we can build sustainably in warm climates.

The Historic Gas Plant District sits at the heart of St. Petersburg. The Rays and Hines are not building a subdivision at the urban fringe. This development sits at a crucial nexus between disparate parts of the city.

Tropicana Field site, aerial image via Google Earth

As the image above shows, the site does abut I-175, but otherwise it flows into adjoining neighborhoods. The working-class communities of South St. Pete, the growing artist community of the Warehouse District, the mix of wealthy and poor and just-passing-through communities of Downtown St. Pete will all touch on this district. For this new development to be truly successful it must act as a connector that restitches these urban fragments torn apart by highway construction and urban renewal. It can’t be a walled off enclave that turns its back on its neighbors. A development like the Battery does not have that kind of aspiration or responsibility.

Rendering from Rays/Hines proposal

It’s natural to draw comparisons between the new Rays/Hines redevelopment project and the Battery in Atlanta. At first glance they are so similar: a baseball stadium surrounded by a mix of homes, offices, retail and entertainment.

But the redeveloped Tropicana Field needs to be more. It has to understand and honor the history of the location; it has to turn the long unproductive land surrounding the ballpark into something productive and beautiful that also adds value to a city that already has much to treasure. Mayor Ken Welch decided that the Rays were an important part of St. Petersburg’s long-term plans, entrusting them with this redevelopment challenge. The end result — the community we will see in twenty years — needs to be more than a shopping mall.