RAY OF LIGHT: The newest ballpark proposed by the Tampa Bay Rays calls for multiple views to the outdoors inside a stadium with an opaque roof. (Courtesy Populous)

For one architect, seventh Rays project in 17 years

The Tampa Bay Rays are in the midst of developing another ballpark, with city officials meeting this week to discuss multiple agreements tied to financing the proposed $1.3 billion project in St. Petersburg, Florida.

After a workshop discussion Wednesday among city officials, the first votes on the project are set for this afternoon, according to tampabay.com. Pending approval, a final vote by city council would take place on July 11. Pinellas County approvals are also required to approve tourism taxes to provide public money from both the city and county to finance roughly half the cost of ballpark construction.

It’s been a long journey for the Rays, a 1998 expansion team, to replace the Tropicana Dome, which stands among Major League Baseball’s least appealing venues. The Rays typically finish at the bottom of league attendance, despite a strong organization that fields competitive teams, making the playoffs nine times over the past 15 seasons.

To put things into perspective, Zach Allee, a principal at Populous, has worked on seven ballpark projects for the Rays over the past 17 years. Those extend from a stadium whose centerpiece was a sailing-themed roof canopy in 2008 under famed MLB designer Joe Spear, among Allee’s first projects, to the team’s wacky proposal in 2019 to build two new facilities in Tampa Bay and Montreal, where they would split the regular season between the two markets.

“I worked on them all, except for the 2018 one in (Tampa’s) Ybor City, and there were other ones that never saw the light of day,” Allee said.

While those blueprints gathered dust on the shelf, Allee helped design Truist Park, JetBlue Park and improvements to Al Lang Field in St. Pete, among other baseball-related projects.

“Zach could’ve made a career working for the Rays,” said Populous principal Byron Chambers, who’s leading the newest project. “We think this is the one that’s going to stick.”

Now, the two architects are challenged with designing a new indoor stadium to replace the old indoor stadium, and in the process, create an entirely new experience for the fans, despite the fact that both have fixed roofs.

The Rays opted for their new ballpark to have a permanent, opaque roof, knowing that their fans are weary of watching baseball indoors at an outdated, 36-year-old facility and its teflon-coated fiberglass dome.

“They decided to do that for game certainty,” Chambers said. “We’ve stepped into the idea for how to make the new building feel like it’s completely transparent, even though it’s sealed, to make sure this venue is 180 degrees in the other direction in terms of the way the experience feels for the patron. There’s a reason why they’re building a new stadium, and we’re embracing it.”

Starting off, a key point of differentiation is the mixed-use components tied to the new ballpark project. The Rays and Hines, a big developer, have partnered on that piece of the development surrounding the stadium as part of resurrecting the historic Gas Plant District, a Black neighborhood in St. Pete.

The overall development, a massive project estimated to cost $6.5 billion, would include affordable residential and senior living units; 1.4 million square feet of office; medical and commercial space; 750,000 square feet of retail; 750 hotel rooms; a 4,000-capacity concert venue, a 100,000-square-foot conference center with ballroom and meeting space; and 14,000 parking spaces.

GAS PLANT GANG: The Tampa Bay Rays’ new ballpark would help anchor a massive redevelopment of the Gas Plant District in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Courtesy Populous)

Populous is focusing on the ballpark, the site of which is east of Tropicana Field in an existing parking lot. The architect is in the early stages of design, teaming with consultants Walter P Moore and ME Engineers. Together, they’re forming a 30,000-seat facility plus standing room, which would be the smallest ballpark in the majors. There’s a big emphasis on premium seating with a multitude of products.

Designing an indoor stadium translates to developing suites and club spaces open to the field, capturing more of an arena-style environment, Chambers said. The roof portion over the field will be the highest point of the structure, while the remaining enclosure will bring the roof much closer to ground level, to create intimacy and scale to avoid massive, empty volume above the seats.

“The Rays pushed us to shrink it and design the rest to feel much more scaled, like an outdoor ballpark,” Allee said.

There would be plenty of light coming through the building through glass walls on all four sides across multiple floors. It will be especially noticeable on the north facade facing Second Avenue, where the district is activated.

For the Rays, it’s more about providing ballpark views to the outdoors vs. the sky and being thoughtful about getting indirect light into the building through those clear stories, keeping in mind sun glare is a fire safety issue.

“Matt Silverman always says it’s more like a car with windows that you can roll down in key spots, vs. a convertible where you open the roof,” Chambers said, referencing the Rays team president.

To pay tribute to the heritage of the Gas Plant District, initial concepts extend to a front porch theme on the north and northwest edge of the ballpark, Second Avenue and the northwest entry plaza. The porch would encompass the outfield, featuring a variety of seating products.

“We view this porch as where community and baseball stories are told,” Chambers said. “It becomes a real centerpiece, much like the way people told their stories on porches back in the day. There’s a metaphor there that we’ve been with from a design standpoint.”

To better integrate the ballpark into the mixed-use district, the plan is to design double-sided concessions spaces that are open year-round, in addition to a big civic plaza outside the stadium.

The vision is to open the ancillary development at the same time as the ballpark opens in 2028, similar to what the Atlanta Braves did at Truist Park and The Battery, the district next to the stadium. It was the first in MLB to have a venue and mixed-use open simultaneously, setting a benchmark for other teams to follow.

In Tampa Bay, the Braves’ efforts serve as a model for what the Rays could do, given their site is in an urban area, compared with Truist Park, which essentially sits in a suburban area despite having a city of Atlanta address.

“They’re similar in a lot of ways, because they do have those two things working together,” Allee said. “The difference is, this one is more centralized. It’s going to have more development around it more than just one corner of the outfield. Truist is very linear and this is more ingrained throughout the property.”