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St. Petersburg may consider further restrictions on noisy pile drivers

ST. PETERSBURG — The patience of downtown residents irked by pile drivers hammering away at a downtown construction site won't be further stretched by more metallic pounding when the nearby Tropicana Block is developed.

Nor will nearby residents scramble for noise-canceling earphones when Bliss, an upscale condo, rises near Beach Drive early next year.

Those developers say they'll employ quieter methods of building a sturdy foundation, instead drilling holes deep into the soil and filling them with concrete, rather than pounding in prefabricated pilings with a noisy motorized hammer.

"When you're close to neighbors — with all the noise and vibration — it may be a little more expensive, but it's the most sensitive way to go," Bliss developer Brian Taub said.

The Tropicana Block also will drill shafts, said Brian Van Slyke, development executive for the Kolter Group, a West Palm Beach development firm that bought the high-profile site in June.

St. Petersburg, like Tampa, restricts the hours for pile driving, but is considering stronger measures to discourage noisy construction.

Among the ideas: further limiting the hours and requiring hammers to be wrapped or otherwise muffled, said Rick Dunn, the city's chief building official.

"It's an expensive proposition for developers, but that's something we're looking at," Dunn said.

Pile drivers were used in the city's previous high-rise condo boom, in the early 2000s, but fewer people lived downtown. Now, the clanging jangles nerves.

"I get it. And the mayor's office wants us to expedite a resolution so we'll be working fast," Dunn said.

City officials will meet this month to discuss options. A possible solution might be to apply zoning or land-use regulations to pile-driving practices, Dunn said.

Almost all Florida cities — like their counterparts around the United States — allow pile driving, which is cheaper than drilled shafts or other similar processes. Pile driving also is the only option, advocates say, when the soil is unstable or contains hidden gaps or pockets that require builders to lengthen or shorten pilings.

That's why company officials say pile drivers have been in use since April on the 17-story apartment building in St. Petersburg at 330 Third St. S that's being built by Miami-based American Land Ventures and its Tampa contractor, DPR Construction.

"Pile driving was deemed the safest and most effective way of supporting the structure," DPR regional manager Page McKee said.

But St. Petersburg developer Joel Cantor said that the main reason developers choose pile drivers is to save money.

"You only pay for what you need. They are no hidden costs," said Cantor, who developed Signature Place in downtown St. Petersburg. "But the bottom line is that you have the noise and possible structural damage to neighboring buildings — it's not just the nuisance."

That DPR's 17-story project is allowed to drive piles 200 feet below the surface surprised him.

"I can't believe they'd actually allow that to go on, certainly not for that long. It seems ridiculous," Cantor said.

Michael Cheezem, another St. Petersburg developer who has built numerous high-profile projects around Tampa Bay, said he hasn't used pile drivers in decades, because of concerns for neighboring residents and businesses.

"It's a bit more expensive, but it's certainly less of a nuisance," he said.

City officials will try to determine exactly how much money is saved with pile driving, but they don't have any cost estimates yet, Dunn said.

"Most companies I know want to save money. But pile driving just to save money? I don't know if I've ever seen that," said Van Hogan, director of development for the Pile Driving Contractors Association in Orange Park.

Instead, some builders prefer pile driving because Florida limestone is so tricky. And the amount of weight and stress that a piling can withstand can be easily and more accurately tested, he said.

"Alternative methods have gained some ground, but pile driving certainly has its place," Hogan said. "It's a proven technology."

Also, pile driving isn't always cheaper, said Roger Rehfeldt, vice president of Reliable Constructors Inc., a Mount Dora drilled shaft company.

"It all depends on the site conditions," Rehfeldt said. He said there is no easy way to calculate the average savings of using pile drivers.

Dunn, the city building official, said St. Petersburg will try to chart out a middle path.

"We'll try to incentivize a neighborly approach. It's a balancing act," he said.

Times researcher Natalie Watson and Times staff writer Andrew Meacham contributed to this report. Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

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