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St. Petersburg's skyline might rise if FAA agrees to Albert Whitted change

The city is considering asking the Federal Aviation Administration to approve changes for managing air traffic using Albert Whitted Airport that would allow for an increase in the maximum height for downtown buildings.
The city is considering asking the Federal Aviation Administration to approve changes for managing air traffic using Albert Whitted Airport that would allow for an increase in the maximum height for downtown buildings.
Published Dec. 29, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — If a developer and the city get their way, high-rises topping out at 500 feet might one day reshape the city's skyline.

One Progress Plaza holds the title as the city's highest at 386 feet, 5 feet taller than Signature Place, and a little under the Federal Aviation Administration's height limit of 400 feet.

But the Kolter Group wants its proposed One St. Petersburg 41-story tower at First Avenue and First Street N to grab the altitude crown at 450 feet.

To do that, Kolter hired a consulting firm to figure out a way to persuade the federal agency to raise the ceiling, possibly to 500 feet.

The proposed solution? Divert air traffic approaching Albert Whitted Airport over downtown east over the water of Tampa Bay.

Recent advances in aeronautical navigation — replacing land-based beacons with GPS satellite technology — would make the shift safer by reducing the risk of a downtown plane crash and more friendly for building skyscrapers, said Richard Lesniak, the airport's manager.

"It appears to be kind of a win-win. The airport ends up with a better approach, which improves safety, and, oh, by the way, it increases height opportunities downtown," Lesniak said.

The potential economic benefits to the city include increased tax revenue, jobs and hotel space, said Dave Goodwin, the city's director of planning and development.

"It's real," he said. "Are we going to get a rush of folks wanting to build 500-foot towers downtown? No, that's not going to happen. But it becomes a possibility for the right project."

Developers looking to build a corporate headquarters, condo tower or hotel could be interested in building that high, Goodwin said.

"It's a big opportunity. That's what interests the administration," said Dave Metz, interim city development administrator.

The primary reason to make the change, though, Metz said, is safety. Although a September plane crash in Vinoy Park was attributed to pilot error (the plane ran out of gas), the prospect of an accident downtown is something the city doesn't want to see repeated.

The next step is for the city to sign a contract with Kolter's consultant, a Satellite Beach firm called Federal Airways and Airspace, Metz said.

Typically, those types of proposals take about 18 months for the FAA to approve, according to an agency spokeswoman.

Kolter development executive Brian Van Slyke said a higher airspace ceiling would benefit not only the company's tower, but the city as well.

"It's the ultimate positive improvement everyone can get behind," he wrote in an email.

The FAA hasn't received a request to raise the ceiling on the downtown's airspace, but the switch to GPS technology is occurring across the country, said spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen.

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"This isn't at all unusual," she said.

The issue surfaced after City Council member Darden Rice asked for a report on two crashes tied to Albert Whitted in recent months.

It was during a presentation of that report at a recent committee meeting that the airspace regulations were first discussed publicly.

For Rice, increased safety is the biggest benefit.

"This next-generation technology means we won't have as many flights coming in over densely populated areas downtown," she said. "That's a good thing."

Secondly, it opens the possibility of high-density development, she said.

"That will be part of a larger discussion with the community about how we want our skyline to look," she said.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

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