ST. PETERSBURG - If all goes as planned, downtown St. Petersburg will have a new open-air baseball stadium, shaded by a massive white sail, ready for games in 2012 and close enough to the water for home runs to splash down into the Bay.
Tampa Bay Rays baseball executives officially released the design of their hoped-for $450 million stadium during a Wednesday afternoon news conference and unveiled a sophisticated plan to finance its construction at Progress Energy Park, Home of Al Lang Field.
They envision a baseball park with the neighborhood feel of a Wrigley Field in Chicago or Camden Yards in Baltimore, yet an open-air sailboat feel altogether different than the enclosed dome of Tropicana Field.
The yet unnamed stadium would have a relatively few 34,000 seats, 40 luxury boxes and a view to the north, with Bayshore Drive running underneath part of the right-field seats.
The most distinctive feature would be a 320-foot tower beyond the outfield to hold up a grid of cables over the field like a trellis. In the case of strong sun or rain, the tower would winch up a white tarp stored in the top rim of the stadium to cover all the seats within eight minutes, the team said.
When deployed, the sail would become a major feature of the St. Petersburg skyline, akin to a gigantic sailboat docking downtown. That unfurling fabric design would be new to the United States, though similar versions have been built in Europe.
"We know this is a huge undertaking," said Rays owner Stuart L. Sternberg during an interview with The Tampa Tribune.
Sternberg said his position is to "seek a stadium but never demand it," noting that the team could stay in Tropicana Field if voters reject his ideas.
To pay for the stadium, Rays officials envision a multiyear partnership with St. Petersburg and Florida and to sell the current 85-acre Tropicana Field site for multiuse retail and residential development, then use the proceeds to help fund the new stadium.
Rays executives took pains to say fans would not suffer in the outdoor heat. Facing the stadium north and shading it with a sail could drop the temperature inside by 10 degrees without blocking the view of the water, they say. They're envisioning large fans to stir the air, and the structure is designed for wind to pass through. A concourse beneath the seats would be air-conditioned.
Officials also envision starting games later in the evening during the hottest months, and holding Sunday games at night instead of the afternoon.
Joseph Spear, a senior architect with the firm HOK that designed the new field, said the foldable sail would be first of its kind in the United States, and only made possible with a new kind of durable fabric called Tenara.
The AM Rothenbaum Tennis Stadium in Hamburg, Germany, has a similar tentlike design, with the tarp stored in midair above the stadium, as does the new Commerzbank soccer stadium in Frankfurt, Germany.
Baseball's Smallest Park
The proposed Rays site, so close to the water, is just 10 acres, making it the smallest field yet for Major League Baseball, he said.
"I think fans will get it in their heads wondering if the players can hit it out into the water," Spear said.
The new stadium would require remaking parts of Bayshore Drive, adding 0.6 acres of land east into the Bay and moving the road farther out so the road would wind under the right field seating area. Some preliminary plans call for an elevated restaurant cantilevered over Bayshore, with glass walls so diners could see the Bay and the field at the same time.
Besides the field itself, the plans call for an open park to the north, and a string of restaurants and retail shops at street level, merging into the rest of downtown.
Parking at the new field would be an issue, because the team does not have room on that site to build large parking structures. Instead, the Rays want fans to park in dispersed lots throughout St. Petersburg and walk to the stadium past restaurants and shops, similar to how fans in Chicago walk to Wrigley Field and fans in Baltimore walk to Camden Yards.
The Rays offered to pay $150 million of the stadium cost through higher rent installments. The team plans to ask the Florida Legislature for up to $60 million, about half of which would go toward interest costs, and also hopes money from the sale of the 85-acre Tropicana site would make up part of the remaining $240 million.
Emil Pavone, president of the St. Petersburg Downtown Residents Civic Association, questioned the stadium plans. "Our residents have serious concerns. Questions about the ability of them to fund it, to handle the noise, all those people for 80 games a year, the traffic and other things," he said.
Plans For Tropicana's Future
Much of the plan for both sites hinges on the ability to sell the current Tropicana Field site to developers for at least $240 million.
To help illustrate their dreams, Rays executives hired one developer, Houston-based Hines Interests, to draw plans for a neighborhood there with 1 million square feet of new retail and restaurant space plus about 900,000 square feet of residential units, mainly four- and five-story apartment and condo buildings, interspersed with boulevards, ponds and parks.
Booker Creek, now basically a drainage ditch, would be turned into an urban creek, with ponds for kayaking.
The site at Tropicana Field is owned by Pinellas County and leased by the Rays. The lease allows the Rays to play baseball there or develop the site for another use. The Rays hope that if the sale is successful, the city will use the proceeds to help build a stadium on the downtown waterfront.
Team officials did not elaborate on what would happen if the Tropicana Field site didn't generate $240 million.
If construction goes as planned, work would be done in stages, allowing the team to continue to use Tropicana until the new venue opens.
The next step in the process is for politicians and the public to review the plans and decide how and whether they would be financed.
A tentative timeline released by the Rays envisions these phases:
* Public outreach: December-November 2008
* Public referendum: November 2008.
* Regulatory approvals: November 2008-December 2008
* Phase I construction begins at Tropicana Field: March 2009.
* Construction starts on new field: April 2009.
* Phase I of Tropicana Field construction complete: March 2011.
* New field opens downtown: April 2012.