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Rays stadium search: Westshore

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This business district near the bay and the airport could be an ideal stadium location -- but is there room for a baseball stadium?

When the first discussions about a new stadium for the Rays began, I thought Westshore might be the ideal spot.  This ten square mile business district, which is the region’s largest employment center, would have many advantages.

The employment base would create opportunities for corporate sponsorships, and would provide a flock of office workers who could walk to weekday evening games.

Convenient to much of Hillsborough (via I-275, the Veterans Expressway and Dale Mabry Highway) and Pinellas (via I-275 and the Courtney Campbell Causeway), Westshore could be the compromise that would make residents of both counties happy.

Indeed, Danny, who so presciently foresaw that the Rays would be allowed to search for a new site back in 2014, raised this point in an earlier post.

Here's the area in question, from Westshore Business Alliance. We will be examining the region between Lois Ave and Westshore Blvd.

Westshore Map

Background

This area has developed alongside Tampa International Airport (which started its life as Drew Field, opened in 1928 but not really seeing much activity until it was repurposed as a military air base during World War II), and two enclosed or partly enclosed shopping malls, Westshore Plaza (opened in 1967) and International Plaza (opened in 2001).

Developer Al Austin was a leader in turning this area from a sandy patch along Upper Tampa Bay into a major office, hotel and shopping district, as Robert Kerstein notes in his Politics and Growth in Twentieth Century Tampa.

Anticipating that an expanded airport and newly completed I-275 would make this a good location for commercial development, Austin was one of the first to start buying up land and building offices. Austin, who died in 2014, was known as a local philanthropist, an influential Tampa International Airport board member, and a major Republican donor who spearheaded the effort to bring the Republican National Convention to Tampa in 2012.

While commercial activities dominate this area, it is also home to an estimated 13,800 residents, according to the Westshore Business Alliance. This total includes those living in condominium and rental complexes intermingled with office towers (many built in the last decade), and the modest single family homes in the largely African American working class community of Carver City/Lincoln Gardens. The million dollar, waterside mansions of the Beach Park subdivision are nearby.

Some Advantages of This Area

Of course, assuming there will ever be robust transit in the Tampa Bay region is a fool’s errand. But  any transit improvements that are developed are likely to include -- if not start with  -- Westshore, where a multi-modal transit hub is already a gleam in the Planning Commission’s eye. This would be adjacent to the stadium site.

So in addition to its current locational advantages, eventual transit development could make the area even more accessible.

Moreover, the ABC committee, which studied several Hillsborough and Pinellas county stadium sites in 2009, found that Westshore was second only to downtown Tampa in population density and income within a 30 minute drive (based on 2000 census data).

With its office towers, multi-lane roadways and noisy airport neighbor, Westshore may not have some of the characteristics associated with "authenticity" and urban experience sought by the Rays, but It’s already attracted many upscale chain restaurants, so if places like Ocean’s Prime and Fleming Steak House are to your liking, you will enjoy an outing to a baseball game in the Westshore area.

The architectural design of new developments there is pretty high quality, and there have been more efforts in recent years to improve the pedestrian experience and pedestrian access. You can see examples of some of the most recent developments here and discussions of plans for bicycle connectivity here.

Also, while visitors to Westshore's malls and offices may not think of this area as "waterfront," it is actually very close to Tampa Bay. A stadium could probably have water views, at least from the upper decks.

Some Disadvantages of This Area

Here's one that's pretty major: There is no obvious site for a baseball stadium. Driving along along Spruce Street/Boy Scout Boulevard, you are confronted by a great deal of empty space, but much of that is either owned by the airport or has limited redevelopment value because of restrictions imposed by the airport.

The only site that might be on the table is the 60 acres owned by the Hillsborough County School District.  The site includes the K-8 Roland Park magnet school; the Lavoy Exceptional School and, most notably, Jefferson High School. The alma mater of Tony La Russa, Tino Martinez and Fred McGriff, Jefferson first opened in 1939 on Highland Avenue in Tampa Heights.

That original site was closed in 1967, and the students sent to other schools. The school district acquired the Westshore site in the early 1970s and opened the new Jefferson High School in 1973, adding the elementary and special education schools later.   While the Tampa Heights building that housed the first Jefferson High School is now a historical landmark, the current structure is not especially noteworthy (see photo below).

Would relocating these schools, which together enroll about 3000 students, be financially or politically possible?  Would co-locating them on the stadium site be technically feasible?

Two years ago, Danny excerpted a Tampa Tribune article that said:

Hillsborough Deputy Superintendent Cathy Valdes said school district officials are open to discussion as long as the plans come at no cost to them.

"That's a big tract of land," she said. "It's very valuable. We've told them we've got to operate our three schools. It can't cost us any money."

Valdes’ comments suggest that the site could be made available at the right price. However, more recently Mayor Buckhorn has suggested that site is not on the table. A recent article quotes school board and city council members who don’t seem to be leaving the door open for further discussions.

"I don't think it will ever happen,'' said Tampa City Council Chairman Charlie Miranda, one of three council members who attended Jefferson High. The Carver City/Lincoln Gardens neighborhood already must cope with heavy traffic from West Shore, he said.

As this is not the original site or original building of Jefferson High School, It’s hard for me to believe that this building is so sacrosanct that a stadium plan could not include funds to build a state of the art campus, either co-located with the stadium (part of the Rays desire to build a stadium that included other uses) or at another nearby site.

Jefferson High School

But the challenge of relocating not just one but three schools could be daunting.

The high school site also includes multiple athletic fields, which necessitate a very large footprint.  Could a high school be built on site, sharing some practice facilities with the Rays?

Co-location might lead to conflicts, but that doesn't mean it couldn't be considered (here's a facility that doubles as a minor league baseball stadium and high school sports complex).

While the site is surrounded on two sides by commercial uses (hotels and office-related parking), its neighbor to the north is a new apartment complex, and to the east is he Carver City-Lincoln Gardens neighborhood, pictured below: 

Carver City

Carver City neighborhood across from school site

No doubt the residents of these communities and those who represent them will be reluctant to have a stadium as a neighbor, though when folks realize that they can charge people to park in their driveways and on their lawns (like the West Tampa residents living near Raymond James Stadium), they might feel there are some upsides, too.

Concluding thoughts

The Westshore area has some clear locational advantages in terms of accessibility, proximity to potential ticket buyers and sponsors, and existing infrastructure.

The only site in discussion, however, borders a quiet residential neighborhood and is currently home to three schools housing 3,000 students.

Keep in mind that some of the other Hillsborough sites under consideration require moving a ship repair yard; closing a cruise port; or displacing some 400 low income families.

Indeed, other than building in the Tropicana parking lot, just about all potential sites involve some sort of disruption. It will be up to the Rays, public officials and the city's residents to weigh the costs of benefits of these location and make choices that allow the team to attract fans while making the city, overall, a better place to live.