St. Pete Pier poised to survive doomsday sea level rise scenario

Published May 7, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — According to climate change experts, the Tampa Bay area doesn't stand a chance.

A World Bank study ranks the region among the 10 most threatened by rising sea levels. A bipartisan report in 2014 declared that in addition to more frequent hurricanes, higher temperatures will likely cause up to 45 additional deaths per 100,000 people each year in Tampa Bay.

"Between $15 billion and $23 billion of existing (Florida) property will likely be under water by 2050," according to the 2014 report.

But take heart, Tampa Bay. All is not lost, or at least not the $46 million pier that St. Petersburg is building 1,265 feet into Tampa Bay.

It's designed with the impending cataclysm in mind. If worst comes to worst, it'll survive — even if we don't.

How? Look no further than the instructions city planners gave the pier architects: Anticipate sea level rise and build a structure that would last for 75 years.

"Addressing climate change and resiliency are baseline values included in the Downtown Waterfront Master Plan, including the Pier District," Sharon Wright, the city's sustainability manager, said in a statement.

A feature of the new pier — floating docks that some detractors said would be impractical and unsafe — seems set to be eliminated for budget reasons. But the new pier's height is its salvation. It will sit about 11 feet, 6 inches above sea level, or 3.5 feet higher than the one it's replacing.

The waterfront landmark will exceed FEMA requirements, architect John Curran said, and rise above the 100-year flood plain.

"The whole system is designed to withstand a 100-year storm event," said Curran of ASD in Tampa, which is working with New York-based Rogers Partners Architects and Urban Designers and Ken Smith Landscape Architect.

"Structurally, we want to make sure it can withstand all the forces that will be attacking it," Curran said of the new pier, whose primary structural components will be concrete.

The designers have assembled a "formidable team" of consultants, including coastal and marine structural engineers for the project, he added.

Council member Karl Nurse, known for his focus on environmental issues, said he is satisfied that the new pier will address global warming and its repercussions.

That said, Nurse added he wasn't sure if the approach, the area that will link the pier to downtown, is similarly protected.

The approach currently being designed, stretching from the Vinoy Renaissance Resort to Pioneer Park and Beach Drive to Spa Beach, has been under water in the past. James Schnur, Pinellas County historian in residence at Heritage Village, notes that the area is built on dredged land from Tampa Bay.

"We're certainly accounting for flooding and sea level rise with any vertical structures such as restaurants," said Jason Jensen of Wannemacher Jensen in St. Petersburg, which is working with W Architecture of New York on the pier approach.

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"We don't want to design just for today. We have to look beyond FEMA flood regulations. We want to design landscape and hardscape that is very resilient. If a flood happens, it will require work, but should be able to recover. It will continue to serve the community with a great landscape for many decades to come."

That means architects are bracing for the worst.

Among the contingencies will be materials, such as pavers and concrete, that will "withstand being submerged, withstand wave action, and won't float away," Jensen said.

Local scientists with the Tampa Bay Climate Science Advisory Panel warn that the region, "with nearly 700 miles of shoreline and 3.2 million residents," already is witnessing sea level rise.

"There is broad scientific consensus that this trend will continue on into the next century," the group's 2015 report adds.

Gary Mitchum, a professor and associate dean at the University of South Florida College of Marine Science and an expert on rising sea levels, was asked to sit on the committee that selected the design team for the new pier. This week he praised the architects for addressing storm surges and sea level rise.

"With the existing pier, the elevation was set more on a storm surge requirement, so they added an additional several feet to that," he said. "I think that worked out extremely well. I think they did a good job with it."

David Hastings, a marine science professor at Eckerd College, said it's difficult to predict exactly how much seas will rise.

"There are a number of elements associated with the challenge, one of which is we don't know how we as a civilization are going to respond to these environmental challenges. … Are we going to start reducing our greenhouse gas emissions?" he said.

"The National Climate Assessment predicts that sea levels could rise 2 to 3 feet in the next 30 years and 4 to 7 feet by 2100. The problem with that number is that it is not the average sea level rise that we will notice first, it's the extreme sea level rise."

There's a 25 percent cumulative risk of flooding exceeding at least 5 feet by 2030, Hastings said.

"Five feet is a lot. We're a very flat city. It's not just the pier," he said, adding that St. Petersburg has "a smart bunch of folks in the administration now" who are planning for such an eventuality.

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.