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  1. Business

Brink: St. Petersburg's controversial 50-story condo tower? 'That's what downtowns are for.'

Given the Tampa Bay area's growing population, building skyward has many advantages.
The 50-story condo tower proposed for downtown St. Petersburg
The 50-story condo tower proposed for downtown St. Petersburg

Enough with the hand-wringing over the proposed 50-story tower in downtown St. Petersburg.

The hysteria could lead an outsider to think developers had asked to build a nuclear reactor on the 400 block of Central Avenue, instead of luxury condos and a hotel.

The height shouldn't scare us. The proposed tower is just nine stories taller than One St. Petersburg, which at 41 stories and 450 feet is the city's tallest building. Nine stories hardly seem worth so much anxiety.

New York developer Red Apple hasn't released a specific height for its 50-story tower. But even if the new tower ends up looking a bit like a gangly teenager who shot up before the rest of the class, others will follow. Some might rival its height. The planned 408-foot tower near Al Lang Stadium will be tall enough to help it blend in.

If it gets built, the skyscraper will rise from an empty 2.3-acre lot in the heart of downtown, where buildings like this belong. It won't loom over any residential neighborhoods.

The renderings depict a relatively thin structure, rounded on its ends, with lots of glass. An art critic might call it elegant. Others have proclaimed it ugly. Not a surprise in a city that took years to settle on a new Pier design.

Assessing art and architecture is personal. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel astounds many. Others say ho-hum and leave to grab a gelato. You like Rembrandt. Your neighbor prefers Georgia O'Keeffe. I like Frank Lloyd Wright. Others think he's overrated. Surely there's room for them all.

We wouldn't build much if we needed unanimity on how every project looked. And what we did build would be vanilla and uninspiring. The Don CeSar hotel? Too pink. The Sunshine Skyway bridge? Too sleek. The Eiffel Tower? Too industrial. The Empire State Building? Too art deco. King Kong would have had to find another landmark to terrorize.

Not so long ago, building a St. Petersburg skyscraper above 500 feet would have seemed absurd. The city was a dead zone, especially once the sun went down. It's a sign of how far we've come that a developer is willing to take what might be a $250 million risk.

Towers of this size are nothing new in many of our peer cities. Nashville, Minneapolis, Charlotte, Denver, Austin, and Jacksonville all have buildings that exceed 600 feet. Several have 700-footers. That's not an endorsement to chase ever greater heights, but it shows that it's hardly novel — or catastrophic — for a city like St. Petersburg to consider a 50-story tower.

Building skyward has several advantages.

For one, a 50-story condo tower would strengthen the city's tax base. The developer has said the project will include about 325 condos, many in the $1 million price range. That's like stacking 325 million-dollar homes on one city block. The resulting surge in property taxes could help pay for more police officers or a sewer system that works.

New residents will pump money into existing downtown businesses, which increases the city's sales tax revenues. People who live downtown often want to work close to where they live, which could attract much-needed employers. This virtuous cycle might even lead to the construction of a new office tower to mix with all the condos.

Building vertically also allays sprawl, an affliction that plagues parts of the Tampa Bay area. More families moving into condo towers means fewer single-family homes carved out of what's left of our wilderness.

The metro area's population is growing. There's no turning off that spigot, so it's a matter of where everyone will live. With enough willing buyers, I'd rather encourage more downtown skyscrapers than see another strawberry field or orange grove turned into tract housing.

That's what downtowns are for.

Contact Graham Brink at gbrink@tampabay.com. Follow @GrahamBrink.

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