Here’s what images of the Rays’ new stadium say about the Gas Plant District

When you view an aerial rendering of St. Petersburg’s proposed $6.5 billion Historic Gas Plant District, the new Tampa Bay Rays ballpark at the center looks a bit like a pavilion. Or a pyramid. Or a circus tent.

The design, though, was actually based on the pop-up.

There wasn’t much data on how baseballs were hit back when the Rays’ current stadium, Tropicana Field, was built in the 1980s, said Zach Allee, a senior architect with the club’s stadium design partners, Populous. That’s no surprise for anyone who’s ever seen a ball clank off one of the Trop’s infamous catwalks.

“Now we have loads of data on how every single hit and pitch was played in Major League Baseball, and we’re designing to that ball flight,” Allee said. “And because it’s a fixed-roof ballpark, it’s allowed us to shrink that roof down over just the data on that ball flight trajectory.”

In the four years since the city issued a call for proposals to remake the 86-acre Gas Plant site, St. Petersburg has spent countless hours debating the project’s purpose, its value, its potential for the community and the cost to get it done.

What hasn’t been discussed nearly as much is the design — or look — of the actual ballpark.

The Rays and their development partners Hines have released fewer than 15 artist’s renderings of the Historic Gas Plant District, and only one shows inside the stadium. That may makes sense at this early stage, as the project is so much more than a ballpark — and it still hasn’t even been approved by the city and Pinellas County.

But if the stadium is to be the district’s main magnet, how it ultimately looks and feels to fans will matter about as much as anything.

“There is no ballpark tourism for people who want to come and see Tropicana Field,” said Joe Mock, who has reviewed hundreds of stadiums for his website “But there is ballpark tourism for people who want to go to Petco Park in San Diego or PNC Park in Pittsburgh, because those ballparks are spectacular in their aesthetics.”

Rays co-president Matt Silverman said the team has been “careful not to provide intermediate drawings, because we want to show the public something that is more complete.” Team officials aim to release a few more detailed mock-ups soon.

“The renderings are supposed to give a sense of what the district can look like,” Silverman said. “The particular designs of each building are yet to be determined. But what we’re showing is illustrative of what can be built — the quality, the size, and the energy that will be generated.”

Rendering the future

To understand what can be gleaned from a rendering of a stadium still four years from opening, it helps to know what a rendering actually is.

“Every illustration you see that comes from designers, planners, architects is a slice in time,” said Duncan Paterson, design principal with Gensler, the Gas Plant District’s masterplan architect. “The design process is something where we are, continually, with multiple designers and constituencies, trying to vet the feel of the place, as well as test reality.”

An initial architectural rendering can be purposefully restrained, even impressionistic. Or it can be bold and attention-grabbing. The Rays and Populous had a proposal like those once, back when they were considering a waterfront park with an innovative sail-topped roof. Mock loved that design, calling it “very, very inspired” and “ahead of its time.”

There’s a similarly bold ballpark in the works in Las Vegas, where the Oakland A’s hope to move in a couple of years. The club’s proposed stadium meshes with the outlandish aesthetics of the Las Vegas Strip, with a roof of shell-like overlapping layers and an enormous grid of windows covering almost an entire side of the dome. A news release touting the first new renderings of the stadium likened it to a “spherical armadillo.”

“Las Vegas is wildly over the top,” Paterson said. “I know the architects that are designing that ballpark, and I know exactly what they’re being directed to do. It’s Vegas. We’re quintessentially about creating a community — creating a series of districts and communities that blend into St. Pete.”

Planners call it placemaking, or establishing a sense of place — how it feels when you enter a neighborhood and navigate your way through. And a good sense of place doesn’t always leap off the page like a colorful Las Vegas stadium.

“A lot of times, those kind of buildings are appropriate,” Allee said. “They’re kind of objects. But this one, placed within a community, felt like it wanted to be a good neighbor to its surroundings.”

The Rays and Populous have been working on various stadium designs since the mid-2000s, Silverman said, and the working design now brings in elements from different ones. There is ongoing collaboration between the team, Populous and Gensler as they try to make sure the stadium fits not only into the Gas Plant District, but the rest of the city.

Take the roof. The pyramid design — which reminds Mock of Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena — isn’t just more accommodating to fly balls. Because the roof slopes down toward the street, rather than straight outward, it should feel less towering and imposing to pedestrians, and fit in more cleanly with adjacent buildings.

Another keyword Paterson used is “porosity” — creating small windows and openings into not just the stadium, but other parts of the district. The renderings released thus far don’t really show it, but the team and designers want passersby to be able to peek inside the stadium. An adjacent retail complex is being designed with pedestrian pass-throughs, similar to the one in the old Snell Arcade building on Central Avenue.

“St. Pete is all about ground-floor activation,” said Everald Colas, founder and principal at St. Petersburg firm Storyn Studio for Architecture, another partner on the project. “The ballpark has that sensibility, that the pavilion lifts itself out, you can see under its gills, you can have a peek from Second Avenue and see perhaps a glimpse of the game.”

Silverman said the team is working through additional plans to give the stadium an indoor-outdoor feel, possibly through the use of retractable walls or removable windows.

“Our fans want comfort, they want air conditioning, but they also — especially on nice days and evenings — want to feel connected to the outdoors and to our climate,” he said. “That’s what our design is aiming to do.”

Room to grow

How close will what’s been revealed so far actually reflect the stadium that could open in 2028?

Back in the day, Paterson said, architects used to draw floor plans and build cardboard models, then “watercolor prospective sketches that were more hazy and illustrative and probably not as representative of the real design. Today, we are building, developing and even understanding the budgeting of something earlier so we can come far closer to the target than we did a long time ago.”

Some things, like the fixed roof and approximate seating capacity, won’t change. Other new elements, like artwork and stadium amenities, will come together closer to the grand opening. At each step, digital modeling will give designers fresher, faster, more photorealistic peeks at the fuller picture.

Silverman said a schematic design should be complete in the next couple of months, “and at that point we’ll have a very strong sense of what the stadium is going to look like, its footprint, the seating sections, the layout of the field.”

While St. Petersburg officials must approve all designs, they won’t necessarily have much say in creating them, city architect Raul Quintana said. Only in matters of safety and infrastructure are they likely to ask for changes.

“We have opportunities to provide them input, and they’re willing to accept that input,” he said. “But I don’t see us weighing in on what it looks like and how they’re going to ultimately make it.”

Mock, who has followed stadiums throughout the design and build process, said the final design probably won’t look exactly like the renderings do today.

“By no means is anyone placing an order for the structural steel right now,” Mock said. “Whatever renderings you’re seeing now, I think absolutely you should take with a grain of salt, because there will be further thinking, and there will be more people that come up with more ideas.”

Any new ideas that arise, Paterson said, won’t be limited to the stadium.

“No one ever went somewhere and came home and told their friends and family they saw a great building that day,” he said. “Only an architect will do that. However, everyone will go somewhere and say, ‘I went to this great place.’”

Times staff writer Colleen Wright contributed to this report.