St. Petersburg residents weigh in on developing flood-risk areas

The proposal reflects a fundamental choice facing Florida’s coastal cities as they contemplate preparing for floods and a changing climate.
A look at St. Petersburg's waterfront from Albert Whitted Park, at the southern tip of the downtown waterfront, during an overcast sunrise in March.
A look at St. Petersburg's waterfront from Albert Whitted Park, at the southern tip of the downtown waterfront, during an overcast sunrise in March. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Aug. 21, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — City council members last month said they wanted to hear from residents before deciding on a plan that could bring more development to the parts of the city most at risk of flooding in a hurricane.

Twenty people responded to that call in a meeting that stretched into Thursday night. They were largely split on the plan, with some calling for the council to delay the conversation to next year while others said the city urgently needs to build more housing.

“Any limiting of future development is frustrating,” said Joe Farrell, of the Pinellas Realtor Organization, adding that officials should be trying to encourage contractors to replace old buildings. “There is a great need for hurricane hardening throughout the entire city, but especially in the Coastal High Hazard Area.”

Others said they wanted to see more evidence of how the proposal would affect affordable housing and climate resilience. “This policy chooses short term economic opportunity over the longevity and safety of the entire city of St. Pete,” said Old Southeast resident Amy Baxter.

Council members voted 7-1 to move ahead with the measure, setting up a final public hearing later this year. In a separate but related vote, every council member supported implementing stricter building standards within those high-risk areas.

The proposal exists in the wonky guts of urban planning, but it represents a fundamental choice Florida’s coastal cities could face as they contemplate preparing for floods and a changing climate. The plan would allow for increasing density on land defined as the Coastal High Hazard Area, but new multifamily construction would have to be built to the tougher standards.

City rules currently prevent increasing intensity of development within that zone, which is defined as the place that national models show could be flooded by a hurricane of Category 1 strength. That means land set for individual homes, for example, can’t be converted to a parcel for a big apartment building.

The rule is held over from when the hazard area covered only about 20 percent of the city, most of which was preservation land. In 2016, the risky zone doubled, encompassing much more of the city, including prized tracts for development.

Related: St. Petersburg leaders tee up August debate on development in areas at risk to storm surge

Until recently, opponents of the proposal rooted their argument in resilience. They said it makes little sense for local leaders to invite more people to live, and more money to be invested, in areas vulnerable to catastrophe and potentially climate change rather than building on higher ground.

But Mayor Rick Kriseman and supporters of the plan have said the change will make the city better prepared for storms by forcing contractors to make tougher buildings. It’s also critical, they say, to prevent the city’s growth from being stunted by the restrictive regulations.

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Density increases would only be considered for projects in certain target areas, constituting about a third of the hazard zone, according to the plan. Developers would be subject to a lengthy review process with public hearings and a chance for local officials to reject bids.

Policy shifts would come with a parallel change in the building code to make some properties in the Coastal High Hazard Area use storm-resistant materials and be built several feet above minimum flood standards. All of that would add costs to developers.

“This is not a pro-development policy by any means,” said City Development Administrator Alan DeLisle. “It is a pro-balanced approach based on the challenges we were hit with a couple years back with the expansion of the Coastal High Hazard Area.”

Related: Fight over building in St. Pete’s flood-risk neighborhoods gets delayed again

Of late, the conversation around the pitch gradually shifted from climate readiness to concerns about affordable housing and gentrification.

Those supporting the change have said keeping the Coastal High Hazard Area away from developers will limit the city’s efforts to expand affordable housing while also forcing developers to look elsewhere for available land — which could result in gentrifying traditionally lower income and minority neighborhoods.

Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders said she owns a home in a historically Black neighborhood outside the hazard area and does not want to see it change.

“I plan to stay here and protect it,” she said. “I need to protect my history. I need to protect my legacy but we also need to work together to protect our environment.”

A number of speakers said conversations with such breadth should be tabled for a more robust, city-wide discussion next year when local officials devise St. Petersburgs’ long-range plan, StPete2050.

Council member Gina Driscoll, the lone no vote, pushed for that more patient approach, saying the decision will have an effect on the whole city, not just the 41 percent within the hazard area. She said the infrastructure investment that would be required to facilitate redevelopment is reason enough to wait.

“I think we owe it to all residents in our city to have that conversation and what this means for the areas that are on higher ground,” she said.

DeLisle and some council members rejected the notion that the measure needs more public input, reminding the council and residents that discussions on the topic began five years ago.

Council member Brandi Gabbard, who emphatically supported the plan, said getting “bogged down” in the density portion was the wrong approach. She stressed that the package will increase hurricane readiness, particularly in her district — which includes the Gandy area along Old Tampa Bay — much of which would be eligible for redevelopment under the measure.

The amendments to the city’s rules are set to be brought up for a final vote Oct. 8.

“I don’t know how many meetings you can possibly do about something,” Gabbard said. “And we still have meetings to go.”