TAMPA — For decades, Tampa Bay football, baseball and hockey fans have become accustomed to driving to games and parking a few hundred feet away from the venue.
Those days would come to an end if Hillsborough County builds a new baseball stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays on the southern edge of Ybor City.
If it ever gets built, there will likely be no gigantic surface parking lots outside this baseball stadium. Instead, sports fans would have to park in garages, use transit and — brace yourselves — even walk to games.
The 14-acre site north of Adamo Drive and east of Channelside Drive would put Tampa more in line with other major baseball markets that play in urban stadiums. That is quite a contrast to the Rays' current home in St. Petersburg's Tropicana Field and its massive surface parking lots. Bucs and Lightning fans also park near Raymond James Stadium and Amalie Arena, respectively.
Such a change would bring new challenges for the Rays, not the least of which would be getting fans to drive from far-flung areas to a new facility and helping them all find parking in an urban setting.
"I think the goal of the Rays and of all of us, if this stadium gets built there, is it's a very urban stadium," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "What you don't want is acres and acres of surface parking. That defeats the purpose of building in the urban core."
Not only does surface parking take up prime urban real estate around a stadium, the mayor said, but it can also cost $20,000 to $30,000 per space to build. Meanwhile, there's no financial plan in place to actually build the stadium itself, which could cost from $500 million to $650 million.
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Tampa officials have made it clear that any parking plans are speculation at this point. But Buckhorn said he imagines fans will take advantage of existing garages and lots, such as those in downtown and Ybor, as opposed to the city building new parking structures. From there, fans could walk through downtown to the stadium, take shuttles or ride the TECO Line Streetcar.
If urban development sprouts up around the new stadium, that could create a safer, more enjoyable climate for people to walk and bike in. But first, people have to be able to get there.
Melissa Smith, 46, of Largo isn't sure she'll want to battle traffic crossing the Howard Frankland Bridge and then navigating downtown Tampa to get to a Rays game.
"Ybor City, for me personally, because I am a Pinellas County resident, there's no appeal, absolutely no appeal, to drive there, be there or go there," Smith said. "I like baseball, but I'd rather just watch it from the comfort of my couch."
Smith said it typically takes her 25 minutes to drive south to the Trop. She imagines a trip north to Tampa would more than double that commute, when factoring in traffic and parking. She's also dissuaded by Ybor City's rowdy reputation.
But Buckhorn hopes to win over visitors like Smith and other non-Hillsborough residents by surrounding it with restaurants, shops and other businesses to attract people to the area. He envisions "a more intimate environment" surrounding a more intimate stadium, which would hold 30,000 to 35,000 people. The Trop's maximum capacity is 42,000 but attracts far less than that.
"Ultimately, what I would like to see happen if this occurs is that this becomes a place where people come early and stay late," the mayor said. "It becomes more and more of a destination as opposed to the desolate area it is now.
"I think, eventually, as it all fills in down there, then it becomes a very walkable, pedestrian-friendly environment."
The proposed site itself is not so traffic-friendly. It lies at a tangle of interstates known as "malfunction junction." Nearly 200,000 cars travel south on Interstate 275 west of Dale Mabry each day, according to the Florida Department of Transportation. Another 200,000 take the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway daily, when counting both directions. And Interstate 4, east of Nebraska Avenue, accounts for an average of 180,000 cars daily.
That's a lot of traffic, said Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority executive director Katharine Eagan, but that also means lots of options for commuters.
"All the major roads come together there," Eagan said, "so it's not just a highway leading to a peninsula."
She anticipates that HART would build a new streetcar station near the stadium because the trolley already travels past the area. The agency would apply for a federal grant to pay for building a platform right by the new stadium. That would give people the option of parking in the downtown or Ybor garages and taking the $2.50 one-way ride to the park.
She said construction of such a stadium would also trigger HART to review its current bus routes and see if there are more direct ways to get people to the stadium from further out in the county.
Brian Hattab, 28, of Carrollwood said it will be "infinitely easier" for him to get to games if the Rays one day move to Tampa.
"Anywhere you put a stadium that holds 30,000-plus, there are going to be traffic problems," Hattab said. "In the event I don't feel like dealing with traffic one night, I can take a much, much cheaper Uber to the game because it's no longer a 30-plus-mile trip."
A Tampa baseball stadium is still far away from becoming a reality, of course. If it does happen, it could take from nine to 15 months for the Rays to sign a deal on a new stadium. Add construction time on to that, and it'll be years before Tampa Bay sees a new baseball park.
Lightning fans will face a similar situation as the surface lots around Amalie Arena are replaced by the Water Street Tampa development in coming years. But that development will also bring new parking garages online, giving future hockey and baseball fans even more downtown parking options.
Times staff writer Rick Danielson contributed to this report. Contact Caitlin Johnston at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.