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Another downtown St. Petersburg condo project is plagued by construction flaws

Scaffolding was on the west side of Arlington Lofts, at 535 4th Ave South, in St. Petersburg last month as condo owners contend with repairs. MONICA HERNDON   |   Times
Scaffolding was on the west side of Arlington Lofts, at 535 4th Ave South, in St. Petersburg last month as condo owners contend with repairs. MONICA HERNDON | Times
Published Oct. 30, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — Finished in 2006, it is so plagued with construction flaws that water seeped through the walls and damaged units. Residents sued the developer and are enduring months of repairs and inconvenience.

No, it's not Signature Place, the 36-story tower whose problems have been well-publicized, but another downtown St. Petersburg condo project, Arlington Lofts.

Like those in Signature Place, Arlington unit owners are wondering whether city inspections were adequate then and are now, especially with hundreds of new condos and apartments under construction downtown.

"I'm upset with the builder, but it's the inspectors we trust to approve this stuff," says John Trunzo, who paid $300,000 for his Arlington Lofts condo when the project was completed in 2006.

City officials say they, too, want to make sure inspections are done right. They are beefing up their inspection staff and pulling the original reports on Arlington Lofts to review them.

"I can't tell you exactly what happened there," said David Goodwin, St. Petersburg's director of planning and economic development. "We'll find out who was doing (the inspection) and if there were some problems with the inspection."

Comprising three buildings in the 500 block of Fourth Avenue S, Arlington Lofts is a tiny complex compared with Signature Place — 26 units versus 244 — and far enough removed from bustling Beach Drive that even some city officials have never heard of it. Like Signature Place, though, it started construction during a period of frenetic building in Florida and rebuilding along Hurricane Katrina-damaged areas of the upper Gulf Coast.

"It was so hard to get supplies and workers back then so we think it was just shoddy construction," says Trunzo, 63.

After 30 years in a home on Snell Isle, Trunzo and his wife, Marsha, decided to downsize in 2006. She liked a condo complex on North Shore Drive but they were not yet 55, the minimum age for residents.

Her husband had another issue with the place. "I said, 'Yeah, and the building's 40 years old — that's when problems are going to start,' " Trunzo recalls "We found out that a brand-new building has problems, too. I'll hear about that until I die.''

In December 2006, they bought a two-bedroom unit in the newly completed Arlington Lofts. They liked it because it was close to downtown yet reasonably priced compared with Signature Place on First Street S and the luxury towers lining Beach Drive. In addition, the small number of units gave it a neighborly feel.

Barely two years after city inspectors signed off on the project and residents moved in, major problems began. Chief among them was water seeping behind the exterior walls and into the units themselves.

The condo association hired a consulting firm, which issued a 58-page report replete with photos of moisture-related damage including stains, mildew and dry rot. Some balconies lacked enough slope to drain properly, causing algae to grow and water to pond outside patio doors.

That wasn't all. The report found that some of the stairs were in bad shape, already rusting and poorly designed with risers and railings lower than required by code. Certain fire doors were improperly installed. A large crack that crossed the floor of the parking garage indicated a possible sinkhole and "lack of adequate foundation support," the report said.

In 2013, the association sued the developer, Mancinelli Investment Group of St. Petersburg. They reached a confidential settlement earlier this year.

"I really don't have much of a comment on this because it was all taken care of in litigation," owner Paul Mancinelli said.

With the proceeds of the settlement, the association hired Largo-based Down Under Construction Services, or DUCS. In September it erected scaffolding that covers the entire west side of one building as workers began to remove and replace sections of wall.

"For a building 10 years old it should not be in this position right now," said Joseph Romano, DUCS president and CEO. "There are some ways they could have built the wall assembly correctly and they just failed to do it. The construction, the way they put it together was substandard."

In particular, Romano said, the coping cap on the roof wasn't installed right, allowing water to seep behind the walls, "spoil" the concrete and damage the units.

Should a city inspector have caught that?

"I don't know if an inspector would have picked that out, maybe they came back after the inspector was gone," Romano said of the original workers. "Everything was there that was supposed to be there, it just wasn't done the way it should have been done from the top down to keep water out."

The Arlington's problems are similar to those at 6-year-old Signature Place, where water also seeped through exterior walls and into the units. That condo tower has a host of other problems that are costing owners more than $8 million.

City officials have acknowledged that their inspectors were stretched thin during the last decade's building boom.

Today, in addition to an outside inspector working under contract, the city has 14 inspectors and plans to hire two more because there is so much construction activity. In what Goodwin, the planning director, calls the "humongous" fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the value of new construction in St. Petersburg soared to $468.6 million, nearly 20 percent more than in the previous year.

"The issue has been and remains finding folks with the proper qualifications and certifications to do this work," Goodwin said. "Finding those willing to work for the city has been a struggle for us for quite a while and I think you would find that all building departments have the same issue."

With St. Petersburg paying between $44,936 and $67,150, "it's hard to compete with the private sector," Goodwin added.

Romano said his workers are fixing Arlington Lofts' western wall "like it should have been done day one" and are sealing around windows, dryer vents and other places prone to water intrusion. When work is finished on that side of the building, crews will check out other problem areas.

In the meantime, the Trunzos are getting estimates on replacing damaged drywall in their condo. They also need a new master shower.

"I have two bedrooms that are a mess, the shower is a mess," Trunzo says. "But it's basically rebuilding the building so it should be better than new when it's done."

Like many other condo complexes, Arlington Lofts had its share of foreclosures but those have been resolved. A 1,290-square-foot unit recently sold for $242,000, and prices are predicted to climb as demand for downtown condos continues to soar.

"It's a nice place and we've got a good group of people," Trunzo says. "I don't want to move. But moving into a condo was supposed to be less stressful and it hasn't been. Now I'm thinking maybe I'm just not a condo-type person."

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.