Condo owners at St. Petersburg's Signature Place to cough up $8.7M for repairs

Defects assessed at Signature Place include missing rebar and stucco that could fly off.

Condo owners at downtown St. Petersburg's Signature Place are on the hook for $8.7 million in repairs that are expected to take until December 2016 to complete. The assessed problems include improperly applied stucco and missing rebar. CHERIE DIEZ   |   Times
Condo owners at downtown St. Petersburg's Signature Place are on the hook for $8.7 million in repairs that are expected to take until December 2016 to complete. The assessed problems include improperly applied stucco and missing rebar.CHERIE DIEZ | Times
Published August 19 2015
Updated August 20 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — Condo owners in Signature Place, Tampa Bay's tallest and newest condo tower, are being hit with $8.7 million in special assessments to correct "urgent construction defects" that endanger residents and pedestrians.

Repairs to the 6-year-old building in downtown St. Petersburg originally were estimated to be less than $700,000 but mushroomed after experts discovered "missing or improperly installed" rebar, which helps strengthen exterior walls.

Work to remedy the many alleged defects — which include stucco that could fly off in high winds — has been under way for months and now is expected to last until December 2016. That is far longer than first anticipated.

"I'm sitting most of the time with earplugs, it's so loud," condo owner Birte Patenaude said Wednesday.

According to the assessment schedule given to all owners, Patenaude will have to pay $27,537 in special assessments on her one-bedroom unit. Although the amount will be spread over 10 years, it will still add $230 a month to the $768 she already pays in condo association fees.

"Everybody thinks everybody living here is a millionaire but I'm not," said Patenaude, 70, a retired teacher who lives on $35,000 a year from a pension and Social Security. "And I'm not the only one struggling."

Signature Place has many units that are moderately priced by luxury-condo standards: Patenaude paid $277,000 for hers five years ago after selling a house. The assessments, which will start Oct. 1, range from $9,910 for the smallest units to $132,244 for the three-story penthouse, according to the schedule obtained by the Tampa Bay Times. Many are in the $50,000 range.

G. Derrick Roberts, who paid $1.835 million for the penthouse in February, said he knew before buying that the Signature Place Condominium Association was suing developer Joel Cantor, Lend Lease Construction (formerly Bovis) and others.

"Obviously at that point nobody knew how big it was going to be," Roberts said.

He said he was among a "vocal" group of owners who thought repairs and assessments should be delayed until the suit was resolved and the condo association knew how much, if any, money it would receive.

"But the board voted and we have to abide by it and do whatever the board thinks best," he said.

Condo association board members did not return calls for comment. Their lawsuit, filed in October, cites more than 100 alleged construction and design defects in the 36-story tower. Among them is cracked and improperly applied stucco that has allowed water to leak into the interior.

In February, consultants also discovered problems with the underlying concrete block walls, as well as with the connection of the walls to the floors and beams.

"As areas of stucco were removed, other hidden defects in the construction were revealed," the condo board told owners in a July update. "These defects affect the health and safety of residents and pedestrians and cannot be ignored."

According to the update, the defects included missing or improperly installed rebar in the concrete block exterior walls previously concealed by stucco.

"While the concrete walls are not load-bearing, they are designed to resist code-required wind forces that could someday hit the building,'' the update said. "They are essentially the skin of the building, but are somewhat structural in nature in that they have to survive hurricane load winds."

Asked whether city inspectors should have spotted the defects, Roberts, who is in the construction industry, said: "Absolutely."

"One of the reasons why there are inspections and that you have city inspectors is that they come through and are supposed to be catching all of this," said Roberts, president of a company that represents makers of commercial heating and air conditioning systems.

He added, though, that "inspectors are human and make mistakes. Mistakes get made all of the time. It's how you fix your mistakes."

Rick Dunn, the city's building official, said rebar is supposed to be inspected by state-licensed engineers hired by the project's owner. They are required to make their reports available to the city, though Dunn could not say whether the city looked at those for Signature Place.

As for other components of a new high rise, "It's pretty difficult for any building department to do a complete inspection of every inch of a building when you're doing 20 inspections a day," Dunn said.

Signature Place, at 175 First St. S, was announced in 2005 at the peak of the real estate boom and neared completion just as the market collapsed in 2008. Plagued by slow sales, Cantor, the developer, had to slash prices and finally resorted to an auction to unload dozens of the 244 units.

Special assessments for condo repairs are not unusual, though they typically involve much older buildings in need of new roofs and the like. Owners in the nearby Bayfront Tower have been assessed for deteriorating outer walls, but that was built in the 1970s.

Although Signature Place's problems became public almost a year ago, the high demand for condos in downtown St. Petersburg has helped keep sales fairly robust. The Multiple Listing Service shows eight units have sold in the past six months, including one owned by Brian Daly, whose drunken, boorish behavior was the subject of a Times story last year.

Daly sold his 24th floor unit in July for $480,150 — almost $70,000 less than he originally asked.

Other units have fetched closer to asking price. Thirteen units currently are on the market at prices ranging from $409,000 to $1.1 million.

Roberts said he is still glad he bought the penthouse, dubbed Glasshouse for its floor-to-ceiling windows. He liked it so much he even bought all of the contemporary furnishings.

"I absolutely love my place and would purchase it again tomorrow," he said. "The people inside (Signature Place) are phenomenal. At the end of the day the building is structurally sound, it's not going to fall apart."

Patenaude, the retired teacher who is also a talented artist, said she, too, loves living in a striking downtown high rise. But she is so angry about the problems that she plans to protest in front of Signature Place with posters showing caricatures of Cantor and past and present St. Petersburg mayors.

She also wants the condo board to remove a plaque near the entrance on which Cantor extols Signature Place as a "monumental piece of art" and says developers have a responsibility to improve and enhance the cities in which they build.

"This totally offends me,'' she wrote to the condo board, ''and he should be ashamed of his self-congratulation."

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.

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