Principle for profit and redevelopment of the Tropicana St. Pete land
cityofstpete / Flickr
Just before Memorial Day weekend, St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman called the finalists after narrowing the “Master Planner” field on the Trop site to two. Alex Vadia, director of the Midtown Group missed the call; his staff said he was inspecting a playground on a Miami property. David Carlock, director of the Machete Group and driver of the Sugar Hill team, said he was mentoring an undergraduate student at FAMU.
Vadia and Carlock expect to talk a lot with the city this month.
Kriseman, meanwhile, expects friction from all sides. While the Rays continue to play football with other municipalities, also highlighting the ridiculous plan of a “split season” with Montreal, the city council is committed to slowing the process.
Now is the time to reconsider. What does St. Petersburg want from this massive development? And how did we get there?
The story of the 86-acre Tropicana Field site is a boomerang launched by Jim Crow. Under segregation, African Americans forged a community around the gas plant, the neighborhood south of the railroad tracks along First Avenue S and what is now I-175. In the 1980s, the city razed houses, churches and shops, under the pretext of “urban renewal”, to build a stadium that was quickly deemed obsolete.
In July 2020, Kriseman issued a Request for Proposals (or RFP), apparently to fix the past. The site is part of an area planned for Incremental Tax Funding (or TIF), intended to address the “scourge and poverty in southern St. Petersburg”. The same call for tenders included “21 Guiding Principles”, detailing the history and need for “economic equity and inclusion”.
But the catch. The instructions provided for plans with or without a stadium. (The Rays will be offered a significant portion of the property by staying until the end of their lease in 2027). Second, and further off the radar, came a call for conference space, between 50,000 and 100,000 square feet, with a “grand flagship hotel.”
Will a stadium or conference center bring “equity and inclusion?” Among town planners, the answer to both is a categorical ‘no’.
My own understanding turns to the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, who said that economic relations “secrete” space. Lefebvre explained how street gates, zoning, code, everything from a sports arena to a homeless shelter, shape our social order in brick and mortar. Levebvre’s terminology disgusts me, I must admit. The secretions are reminiscent of teenage stink glands and traces of snails. And its concepts can be difficult to grasp.
So think of “The Blob”, the horror classic from 1958, where an alien parasitic jelly eats a city. The Blob sneaks into every nook and cranny of civic life. It oozes under doors and through ducts. Only a young and beefy Steve McQueen (the actor, a white man) can save the day.
The Too site illustrates how profit will ooze, or “secrete” into our city. The monster quickly grows out of control. To prevent the Blob from taking over the process, our best chance at fixing a deeply divided city, we need to close the entry points.
With the 2020 tender, Kriseman left the front and rear doors open, calling for a convention center and, of course, the stadium.
cityofstpete / Flickr
Nationally, the value of sports arenas has been seriously questioned. Ask a hundred economists if municipalities should subsidize professional sport and 86% will say no. “The middle stadium generates $ 145 million a year,” says a UC Berkeley newspaper, “but none of that revenue comes back to the community.” The funds to help franchises build stadiums should instead go to bridges, parks, housing, sewers, things that a city really needs.
The consensus is clear.
So why do officials bow down to outrageous demands? An antitrust exemption allows owners like Stu Sternberg – in the process of developing a plan to share the season with Montreal – to play municipalities against each other.
No politician wants to lose a local franchise.
The media then greases the wheels for operation, or clears a path for the blob. Sport places newspapers at a “delicate intersection” of broader “business and political narratives,” observes the Columbia Journalism Review. John Romano of the Times bluntly says losing the Rays “would stink economically, it would hurt reputation, it would hurt quality of life.”
In other words, it is not true. Saying goodbye to the Rays to Montreal wouldn’t hurt St. Pete’s economy. Waxing Caesar, a report from the Brookings Institute concludes that “the economic benefits of sports facilities are minimal”. Winter tourists will flock to our beaches, baseball or not. What about the taxes for a stadium? Much better to remedy systemic racism, the slime that compromises our civic “quality of life” on a daily basis.
Now imagine the rest. If the baseball blob split in half, like an amoeba, the cloned tracker would be called the “Convention Center.”
City planners like Heywood Sanders demystify the convention center “follies” with a thud. Cities, counties and states across the country have oversized themselves to compete in an already saturated market. Politicians commission feasibility studies that are “sparse, obscure, and of limited reliability at best.” Decisions take place outside of the file, “sheltered from the vagaries of urban policy”, with budgetary shells that escape public scrutiny. Only a handful of these ill-advised centers operate in the dark. Even successful ones, like Baltimore’s Inner Harbor or New Orleans, have not budged from the poverty needle.
The national trend calls for a clear warning on the local front: If St. Petersburg is to bring “economic equity and inclusion” to its southern side, avoid the siren songs of men in suits and (hotel) suites.
Still, Kriseman’s office moves forward, following the script of a scramble. In 2016, the city commissioned a “Downtown Hotel / Conference Center Opportunity” report. This white paper (not on the city’s public site, but shared with the developers) opens with a half-truth. Downtown St. Pete, the first sentence reads, lacks “available hotel rooms and associated upscale meeting / conference space.” “
The existing Hilton waterfront (whose website claims 47,710 square feet of conference space) and Renaissance Vinoy (60,505 feet) already match the RFP projection of 50,000 feet. If the market demanded more space, make no mistake, free enterprise would fill the void. But the goal here is to streamline the distribution of businesses.
The same report ends with a set of “critical assumptions” or a disclaimer that explains how the numbers presented are not guaranteed. Like the speed-taler in a pharmaceutical ad, the report is full of bullshit. The analysis assumes “stable and moderate growth” from 2016 to 2020, without taking into account “future economic shocks”.
The city is following a plan that claims COVID-19, hurricanes and economic recessions never happen.
Industry players might take this for granted. Machete Group’s Carlock is advocating for St. Pete as a corporate destination, and based on internal research, Sugar Hill is calling for an ambitious, state-sponsored $ 540 million facility. The project would be a “powerful economic engine”, building on the city’s existing amenities. After having cut his teeth on Downtown Disney, Carlock sees St. Pete as a tourist draw and he points out the Sugar Hill Plan’s elaborate mechanisms for job creation, economic inclusion and even food security. The convention center project, he also concedes, can “reduce”.
Or better yet, drop that line altogether. St. Petersburg has embarked on a path that has mostly been successful in benefiting investors, with equity being a secondary consideration at best.
Beware of the Blob. Depending on the theme, it “jumps and crawls and slides and slides / on the floor / through the door”. Profits motivate silt through every vent and door, shaping the space and replicating the existing economic order.
So close the front and rear doors. Consult the academic literature on convention centers. What about a stadium? We don’t have Steve McQueen to save us. But what about this defense? Tell the Rays “no”.
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