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

The mayor says the plan is about resilience. Critics say it would put more people in harm's way.
A view shows downtown St. Petersburg, looking across the new Pier District while it was under construction last year.
A view shows downtown St. Petersburg, looking across the new Pier District while it was under construction last year. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published July 30, 2020|Updated July 30, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Despite lingering uncertainties, City Council members have given new life to a plan that could bring more housing to parts of the city most at risk of flooding from storm surge, saying they want to hear from the public.

In a meeting that stretched for almost two hours, they rehashed three years of debate, grappling with whether to loosen a prohibition on adding development in vulnerable areas. Members weighed the city’s growth against doubt about how to plan for climate change in a coastal city and hurricane-prone state.

“This is not a blanket increase in density,” said council member Brandi Gabbard, explaining how the vast majority of her district is in the risky space. “Does it provide the opportunity? Yes. Should we be taking that opportunity off the table? No.”

If passed by the City Council this fall, the proposal would allow developers to request a change in zoning for higher density in what’s known as the Coastal High Hazard Area — where national models show flooding might reach in a Category One hurricane. Current rules prevent step-ups in housing and development there. Contractors cannot necessarily build dozens of apartments, for instance, on land zoned for just a few homes.

About 40 percent of St. Petersburg falls in this area.

Members voted 7 to 1 to advance the proposal to a full City Council meeting next month, with Gina Driscoll casting the lone no vote.

Council members Lisa Wheeler-Bowman and Darden Rice said they supported advancing the plan so residents can weigh in more. Thursday’s meeting was for the “committee of the whole,” which is the City Council working out policy in a setting without public comment.

“Let’s just move forward and see how this goes,” Wheeler-Bowman said.

The administration of Mayor Rick Kriseman, who labels himself a “pro-growth progressive,” has described the changes as a way of making the city more resilient. An amendment to the density rule would happen alongside shifts in the building code and local development regulations. Those changes would demand tougher construction for multi-family housing in the Coastal High Hazard Area, including requiring buildings to be raised several feet above base flood levels.

Kriseman tweeted his support moments after the vote.

“The seas are rising. Rain and flooding will increase with intensity over time. We’ve already seen that. In @StPeteFL, we are committed to building a city of the future that highlights how strict, smart development standards are the way forward. It’s all about resilience,” the mayor wrote.

City staffers explained the amendment would not instantly greenlight a wave of new development. Instead, they said, increased density would be allowed only in certain swaths of the Coastal High Hazard Area that are targeted for growth and after a lengthy review, up to a year, involving multiple public meetings.

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“We have worked very hard to balance this to keep our city growing, to keep our jobs growing,” said development administrator Alan DeLisle.

Opponents, led by the Suncoast Sierra Club, have said local leaders could pass tougher construction requirements without allowing more development. They contend the plan will put more people in harm’s way, at a cost to future residents.

“It was an easy vote to say, okay, kick the can down the road,” said James Scott, chair of the Suncoast Sierra Club. “There should be a much bigger discussion about our coastal development and land use. This is like an opening salvo to a years-long discussion.”

The idea of easing density restrictions emerged after new federal maps in 2016 doubled St. Petersburg’s high hazard area. DeLisle called the adjustment a “wake-up call.” What previously included mostly preservation land now accounts for several parts of the city that are enticing to developers, including swaths near Fourth Street N and Carillon Town Center, and the Skyway Marina District that Kriseman has tried to invigorate while in office.

“What happens tomorrow if we don’t deal with this now?” DeLisle asked council members. “Is it 60 percent the next time? Is it 70 percent?”

The City Council last month was supposed to take a first vote on the proposal, but Kriseman’s team pulled the item the night before from a meeting agenda, saying people “needed more public education and conversation.” The message, according to critics, was clear: The mayor did not have the votes.

Over the last month, several council members said, they peppered city planners with questions. The proposal will now go back to where it stood in June, for a first reading in late August followed by a potential final vote in October.

The debate, and questions, will continue. Rice, a likely mayoral candidate in 2021, said the city staff has not answered questions about what more development would mean for the public burden of maintaining infrastructure. For instance, she wondered whether because of rising seas St. Petersburg would need to work with the state in a few decades to raise Fourth Street, one of its target areas for growth.

“I’m concerned about how short-term this plan could be,” Rice said. “I’d like to be reassured how this proposal is actually consistent with what future decisions, tough decisions, expensive decisions we’re going to have to make about the area.”

Council member Robert Blackmon spoke in dire terms about the consequences of voting the proposal down. He said if the city doesn’t open up the Coastal High Hazard Area land for developers, those looking to build will find lots in the city’s traditionally Black neighborhoods, displacing residents there.

“A vote against these amendments in my opinion is a vote for gentrification and backdoor redlining in our city,” he said.

Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders said as a Black woman whose two sons could not afford to buy a house in the place where they were raised, the issue to her is personal. She said she will hold staff to their commitments to support affordable housing and avoid allowing development to roll over neighborhoods.

“Some communities suffer a whole lot more and to a greater detriment than others, and for me that is my responsibility to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves,” Figgs-Sanders said. “A decision has to be made. ... What is going to be the best outcome and the consequences for years down the line?”