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Pinellas mayors consider new high-rise protections after Surfside collapse

One option is copying the provision already in place in Miami-Dade County requiring thorough building inspections every 40 years.
Side by side on Clearwater Beach are the construction site of a new J.W. Marriott hotel, right, and the 12-story Continental Towers, left, opened in 1970. Officials in Pinellas beach cities are considering next steps after the collapse of a condo tower in Surfside.
Side by side on Clearwater Beach are the construction site of a new J.W. Marriott hotel, right, and the 12-story Continental Towers, left, opened in 1970. Officials in Pinellas beach cities are considering next steps after the collapse of a condo tower in Surfside. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Jul. 1, 2021|Updated Jul. 1, 2021

TREASURE ISLAND — The ripples from the Surfside condo collapse reached Pinellas County’s beach cities this week. Mayors and vice mayors are talking about how they can prevent such a tragedy in a region where high rises also loom over the beaches.

“I’ve gotten several inquiries from residents about what we’re doing with inspections,” Al Johnson, mayor of St. Pete Beach, said at a meeting of mayors and vice mayors Wednesday at Treasure Island City Hall.

“They had $75 million worth of construction issues in that building that they knew about and did not act on,” added Joanne “Cookie” Kennedy, mayor of Indian Rocks Beach.

“I’d like to see us all working together,” said John Hendricks, mayor of Madeira Beach. “See what the county has in mind, see what the state has in mind and what we as individual municipalities have in mind. And do it quickly.”

One option that emerged was copying a provision already in place in Miami-Dade County, where the bodies of 18 people have been recovered and another 145 remain missing following the June 24 collapse of Champlain Towers South.

High-rise buildings in Miami-Dade that are more than 40 years old must undergo a thorough inspection every decade to ensure structural soundness. An independent engineer checks the building and submits a report to local government. Building owners face civil violations and fines if they fail to comply.

Neighboring Broward County later added the provision, but it’s not part of the state building code so no such protection is in place for those living in the estimated 30,000 high-rise condos built in Pinellas County since 1980. Inspections here typically stop once a building opens. Fire crews can report structural soundness violations when they conduct their own inspections but they don’t specifically check for them.

In St. Petersburg, Mayor Rick Kriseman and Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin will discuss the collapse and its implications soon, and the city is monitoring updates from Surfside, said spokesperson Ben Kirby. In Tampa, spokesperson Janelle McGregor did not mention specific plans but said “we stand ready to adapt to and implement any changes the state mandates.”

“I think a lot of people were in that same boat,” Hendricks of Madeira Beach said in an interview. “It’s like, ‘Well, what the heck do we do now?’”

During Wednesday’s meeting, Pinellas County Property Appraiser Mike Twitty told the beach mayors he would provide a list of all condominiums built before 1980. Madeira Beach city manager Robert Daniels warned that the state could take years to implement new building measures. Treasure Island Vice Mayor Saleene Partridge suggested that fire department inspectors could add structural soundness during their visits.

Clearwater Vice Mayor Hoyt Hamilton said after the meeting that the city needs to look at possible next steps, but he held off on pushing for tougher measures.

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“I don’t want to sound callous, but I think it is a one-off thing,” Hamilton said. “We don’t have condo buildings falling all over the country.”

It’s important to determine first the cause of the Surfside collapse, he said. Then, “we need to make sure moving forward that you’re always taking whatever steps are necessary to prevent that.”

Many condos and hotels In Clearwater, where a high-rise development wave dates back to the 1970s, have not reported inspections to the city since they opened their doors.

Inspections should be done more frequently than every 40 or 50 years, said Clearwater building official Kevin Garriott said in an interview.

“And while I don’t think it’s the government’s responsibility to do that, they need to maintain their own property,” Garriott said. “Property maintenance needs to be done by the owners of that property.”

Along a stretch of South Gulfview Boulevard in Clearwater Beach, the frame of a future J.W. Marriott is taking shape at a construction site squeezed in by other luxury hotels and condos. A threshold inspector, hired by the builder, must be on-site to review construction, as with all buildings over three stories.

The inspector submits a report to the city and the city arranges a final inspection of all the parts — electrical, plumbing, mechanical, fire, zoning, engineering and traffic.

Next to the Marriott sits the 12-story Continental Towers, opened in 1970. From 2015 to 2016, the building underwent a $1.5 million renovation in which river rock was removed from the window panels and new windows and balcony railings were installed. The condo association applied for a building permit with the city before the renovation and the city consulted with the engineer who did the inspections.

Janet Nassif, president of Continental Towers Inc., the homeowners association, read about Miami-Dade’s 40-year inspection ordinance as she watched the news coverage from the collapse. It’s a good discussion to have in the beach cities of Pinellas, she said, but just one of many possible solutions in an evolving situation.

“I think it’s really hard to know how (to) solve a problem if you don’t know the underlying cause or causes,” said Nassif, who lives in the condo.

Building codes change all the time, typically in reaction to a building failure, said David Prevatt, a professor of civil and coastal engineering at the University of Florida.

In Miami-Dade County, that happened in 1974.

A Federal Drug Enforcement Agency building in downtown Miami collapsed, killing seven federal employees and injuring 16. In the weeks that followed, John Pistorino, then an assistant county engineer, learned that the DEA building had not been taken care of. The steel embedded in the concrete had rusted and expanded, weakening the structure. The building owners had painted over cracks that showed structural deficiencies.

Pistorino wrote the ordinance requiring 40-year inspections, choosing this frequency because that’s how old the DEA building was. The ordinance passed the county commission and was soon adopted by Broward County.

Now, building officials in both counties have the authority to issue a notice of violation to comply. As a last resort, they can mandate evacuation for failure to comply.

“What this does is it puts a little more onus on the owners to have an independent engineer,” Pistorino told the Tampa Bay Times.

The ordinance has revealed several buildings where critical maintenance was lagging.

Even without the ordinance, Pistorino said, the state’s building code is rigorous and the collapse of a high-rise exceedingly rare. It remains a mystery.

“People should feel comfortable in their buildings,” he said.

But during Wednesday’s meeting, several of the mayors planned for the worst-case scenario.

The conversation shifted to how the state might respond, how quickly they should move and if the small cities that make up the barrier island cities should act first.

“We can’t keep kicking that can down the road until an accident happens,” Mayor Hendricks said. “We also can’t be shy about saying, ’Look, we got to condemn this building.’”


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