Trop site project must respect its history | Pillars

The historic gas plant complex represents both triumphs and tragedies in the history of St. Petersburg. The rebuilding of the region is a generational opportunity to meet our collective needs, build sustainable and inclusive economic development, and deliver on the decades-old promise of progress for all.

Kenneth T. Welch, Mayor of St. Petersburg
Kenneth T. Welch, Mayor of St. Petersburg [ Times files ]

Long before the American pastime came to Tropicana Field, there was a community there. Homes, businesses and churches make up the gas plant area. As was the case in many segregated cities in the United States at the time, the area was part of a red-line zone where African-Americans were required to live in the city—regardless of income, education, or achievement.

While its origins are rooted in discrimination, one of Gas Plant’s legacy is determination and perseverance — and unfulfilled promises. Despite government-sanctioned racial segregation, the Gas Works area has grown into a place that fosters and welcomes business, culture, and community. Its profound impact on my early years will never be forgotten. I learned to use an ax at my grandfather’s lumber camp and studied music as a young drummer and guitarist in my family’s church. This is where my uncle’s family runs a dry cleaner and my aunt runs a restaurant there. All of these businesses and my church will be displaced by the construction of interstates and the pursuit of Major League Baseball. My family’s story is the story of thousands of people who have called the gas plant (and nearby Deuces) home. History matters, not only in our understanding of our shared past, but as a basis for equitable progress in our future. This is why I have chosen to rename the request for proposal to develop the site from Tropicana Field to Historic Gas Plant District in recognition of the heritage of the area.

The gasworks community is forced to make sacrifices for the greater good. In exchange for this sacrifice, the government and city leaders pledged to provide inclusive economic opportunity, with a promise to create more jobs and expand minority-owned businesses. However, these promises were never fulfilled.

It is our responsibility to address this unfinished business while building a transformational project that will benefit all St. Petersburg stakeholders for decades to come, as long as we plan consciously and with an unwavering commitment to equity. This isn’t a zero-sum game — when it comes to economic opportunity, we’re all better off when we’re all better off. By choosing this path, our economic progress will be stronger and our prosperity more sustainable.

Now is the time to walk the talk.

Now is the time for us to choose the right path. As St. Petersburg rapidly develops, the redevelopment of the historic gas plant complex represents the most significant opportunity for inclusive, sustainable development in St. Petersburg in a century. The development of the site must not only make a significant contribution to meeting our city’s needs for housing, employment, office space, and other community priorities, but must also create partnerships and impact that transcend district boundaries. Development of the area will reflect our commitment to equity, sustainability and progress for all and deliver the highest level of community benefit.

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My administration’s push for equity is targeted and intentional. History and life experience tell us that the historic natural gas plant area is not a “blank slate”. Rather, it is a slate of sacrifices by the African-American community who turned a redlined neighborhood into a nurturing one, only to be displaced for the “greater good.” I believe we have a moral responsibility to incorporate meaningful community recovery and restorative economic inclusion into this generation’s development opportunities.

The redevelopment will have impacts beyond its 86 acres. For example, while the program’s contribution to affordable housing and workforce housing must have been impactful, our housing needs cannot be addressed by this property alone. That’s why our teams prioritize on-site and off-site housing, innovative partnerships and housing fund contributions when requesting proposals for development sites. Likewise, our needs for office space, cultural facilities, hotel and conference space, and education/tech space require a balanced strategic approach. Intermodal facilities that strengthen the links between housing, jobs and transport are also important. The Historic Gas Plant District Request for Proposals reflected these priorities and balances, and the responses from the four development teams fully embraced these criteria and provided meaningful and impactful recognition of the community that was once known as the Gas Plant District.

We are on the right path, and as we continue to focus on inclusive progress, the future of the historic gas plant district and our entire city is promising.

Kenneth T. Welch is the mayor of St. Petersburg.