16 July 2009

Trouble at the Trop

If you happened to catch the A's taking a surprising two out of three on the road against the Rays last weekend, you got more than a passing glimpse of Tropicana Field. While the Rays and A's may be on opposite ends of the team development spectrum, their stadium situations are much more similar. The Trop has in the past been accused of being rather library like, allowing The Happy Heckler to hold court in full clarity. (Incidentally, the Happy Heckler may not be so happy anymore due to the real estate downturn.)

While Stuart Sternberg has put some new paint, spit and polish on the Trop, it's still not an ideal venue. He's wanted to move anywhere but the orange dome despite the team being locked into a lease until 2026 (2016 with more favorable buyout terms). Last summer, the focus was on Al Lang Field/Progress Energy Park, a downtown waterfront site. The concept was shelved as the financial specifics couldn't be worked out, especially as the economy started to go into the crapper.

This summer numerous options are being explored by ABC, a group consisting of local business and civic leaders. Multiple sites in St. Petersburg are being considered, and the site search has expanded to include Tampa. An online survey indicates that the leading site is in Downtown Tampa, followed by the Carillon business park site in St. Pete. Within the site study is a breakdown of ticket sales by county. While over half of season ticket sales come from Pinellas County (St. Pete), roughly equivalent numbers (29%) of single game ticket sales originate from both Pinellas and Hillsborough (Tampa) counties.

Local media has largely picked up the financing situation, which is problematic. The outstanding debt ($108 million over the next 17 years) at the Trop is an extra burden that must be carried by St. Pete, the Rays, or both even if a new ballpark is constructed. While dry, the financing presentation provides a good comparison between the financing structure at the Trop and other ballparks and major Florida sports venues. I'll give you a hint: almost all public.

Last, and definitely not least, is a study commissioned by ABC and undertaken by Populous (formerly HOK). The beautiful, 47-page treatise goes into great detail as to what it would take to renovate Tropicana Field to modern standards. To do the job right, which would include building a retractable roof, the cost would be a mind boggling $470 million. One of the appendix documents goes line-by-line into the requirements, which vary greatly in scope. The renovation doesn't need to include all of the prescribed changes, but most would be required. Here's a sobering breakdown:
  • Circulation/Concourses: $52.7 million. Similar to the small-scale renovations I wrote about in March for the Coliseum, these improvements would come from ripping out several rows of seats to create more open concourses. The estimate here is twice as much as I projected for the Coliseum work, though this is more extensive.
  • Seating Size: $9.5 million. Expansion of row treads from 32 to 33 inches in most cases, from 18 (!) to 33 inches in others.
  • Club Lounges: $35.4 million. Construction of three new club areas, at field level behind the plate and along the first and third base mezzanine.
  • Press Box relocation: $13.8 million. Following an ongoing trend, the chattering class would be moved from the mezzanine to the back of the upper deck, behind the plate.
  • Suites: $21.6 million. Larger (500 s.f.) suites, including 2 levels along the baselines and 3 levels behind the plate.
  • Natural Light: $99.8 million. No, not kegs of the yellow liquid masquerading as beer at every seat. This would cover improvements to the roof system that would improve light transmission through the roof, along with clerestory windows and other methods to bring in daylight.
  • Operable Roof: $121.6 million. Your garden variety retractable roof at a newer ballpark (Minute Maid, Safeco, Marlins ballpark), in addition to the "Natural Light" improvements.
  • Site Amenities: $8.4 million. Redone gates and entry plazas.
  • Technology: $20.4 million. Sound, networking, closed-circuit video, surveillance. Includes en suite IPTV.
  • Interior fit-out/Renovation: $17 million. Carpet, floors, finishes.
  • Concessions Equipment: $13.4 million.
  • Signage/Scoreboards/Video: $23.3 million.
  • Mechanical/Electrical/Plumbing: $33.6 million.
So what would it look like?

Looks a lot like Nationals Park.

The best part of the report? In the introduction is a little background about the circumstances that led to the building of the stadium. But while Populous is perfectly fine pointing out all of the modern ballparks it has penned, it in no way acknowledges the simple fact that they designed Tropicana Field!!!!! Yes, it was spec'ed and built before the modern ballpark era. Yes, it was meant to be multi-purpose. Still, no acknowledgement at all? Come on, now.

The upshot indicates that $470 million spent would still yield a somewhat inferior facility. The conclusion:
Tropicana Field would undoubtedly be a better facility, both in its ability to entertain fans and generate revenue, with an approximately $350-470 million (depending on whether a retractable roof is included) renovation. However, the multipurpose seating bowl geometry, overly narrow seating treads, compromised seating sections, and poor distribution of lower and upper level seats would still yield a ballpark with substantial flaws.
I suspect that a Coliseum renovation appraisal (save for the need for a roof) would be strikingly similar.