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St. Petersburg condo may need $45 M renovation, post-Surfside review finds

Bayfront Tower is one of several aging buildings that could be affected by Florida’s new condo safety legislation.
 
Engineers hired to inspect Bayfront Tower, in downtown St. Petersburg, discovered a host of major issues, including possible problems with post tension cables, the metal framing and stucco on the outside of the building, the garage concrete and the roof. The repairs could cost millions.
Engineers hired to inspect Bayfront Tower, in downtown St. Petersburg, discovered a host of major issues, including possible problems with post tension cables, the metal framing and stucco on the outside of the building, the garage concrete and the roof. The repairs could cost millions. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Aug. 9, 2023|Updated Aug. 13, 2023

A luxury condominium on the affluent stretch of Beach Drive in downtown St. Petersburg that’s been home to some of the city’s most prominent residents, including former Gov. Charlie Crist, is facing millions of dollars in repairs after engineers discovered a host of major issues.

The Bayfront Tower Board of Directors ordered an inspection of the building following the 2021 Champlain Towers South Building collapse in Surfside. That disaster killed 98 people and compelled state lawmakers to overhaul condo safety rules, raising the bar for building inspections and upkeep.

The reforms have prompted a painful reckoning at condos across the state where routine maintenance has been neglected for years. As condo associations scramble to bring buildings up to the new standard, many residents will be forced to pay up — or move out.

The bill, already due at Bayfront Tower, will be steep. Though the building was deemed structurally sound, construction will cost between $30 million and $45 million and owners may be forced to vacate their units and the parking garage while the work is being done, according to engineers.

They discovered problems with post tension cables, the metal framing and stucco on the outside of the building, the garage concrete and the roof. That’s according to an FAQ document and a summary of the inspection that the board of directors sent to residents and reviewed by the Tampa Bay Times.

Condo owners will pay special assessments to cover it all.

The 29-story Bayfront Tower, built in 1975, boasts a rooftop pool, fitness center and easy access to shops and restaurants in downtown St. Petersburg.
The 29-story Bayfront Tower, built in 1975, boasts a rooftop pool, fitness center and easy access to shops and restaurants in downtown St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The board didn’t respond to specific questions about the cost or timeline of repairs. But according to the documents, additional testing will be done on the building and the board will seek out other expert opinions before finalizing a plan.

The Tampa Bay Times called more than 100 current and former unit owners in the building over several weeks. All declined to speak publicly. Some said that negative publicity could lower their property values. Others said they feared retribution from their peers in the building.

The Times filed a public records request with the city of St. Petersburg to obtain a copy of the inspection. But the city said the board had not yet submitted one.

Slider Engineering Group, the firm that performed the inspection, declined to comment and deferred to the board.

“Bayfront Tower, like hundreds of other high-rise condominiums in the state of Florida, has retained an engineering and construction team to opine on the structural conditions of the condominium building, and to provide recommendations for improvements that will ensure that Bayfront Tower remains one of the most desirable waterfront high-rises in Florida,” the board wrote in a statement to the Times.

Tampa real estate agent Alyssa Stone, on the top floor of the Bayfront Tower in downtown St. Petersburg, looks north at the view along Beach Drive. [SCOTT KEELER  |  Times]
Tampa real estate agent Alyssa Stone, on the top floor of the Bayfront Tower in downtown St. Petersburg, looks north at the view along Beach Drive. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

Now, aging condos across the state will face the same scrutiny as Bayfront Tower thanks to Senate Bill 4-D, which the Florida Legislature passed unanimously in a special session last year. Another bill that made slight changes to the law passed in April.

Under the new rules:

  • Condos three stories and higher must undergo an initial milestone inspection after 30 years and every 10 years thereafter. This will determine whether the building is structurally sound and if it needs any repairs.
  • Buildings that are already 30 years or older must have milestone inspections completed before Dec. 31, 2024.
  • Condos three stories and higher must perform a study of reserve funds before Dec. 31, 2024, and every 10 years thereafter. This will determine how much condo associations must save to properly maintain the building.
  • Condo associations will be barred from waiving or underfunding reserves.

Prior to the collapse of Champlain Towers South, unit owners in that building faced steep special assessments after they had postponed major repairs. The condo association had just over $777,000 in reserves to pay for an estimated $16.2 million in repairs.

“Moving forward, the structural integrity of a condominium will be reserved, they will be maintained, and they will be kept up to par so that future condominiums never have to worry about another Surfside taking place,” said Rep. Danny Perez, R-Miami, following the passage of the bill.

The land that housed Champlain Towers South in Surfside was sold for $120 million to a billionaire developer from Dubai, Hussain Sajwani of DAMAC Properties.
The land that housed Champlain Towers South in Surfside was sold for $120 million to a billionaire developer from Dubai, Hussain Sajwani of DAMAC Properties. [ PEDRO PORTAL | El Nuevo Herald ]

Dimitri Karides, a broker associate with Sand Key Realty in Clearwater Beach, said Champlain Towers South was not an anomaly. Many condos across the state have neglected routine maintenance for years to keep costs low for owners.

“They might only fund 25% of the real work that needs to be done each year, whether it’s rebar, the pool, the roof, the concrete,” he said. “Now those buildings are going to have to play catch-up.”

“The cost of living in a safer building will place a burden on some of our owners,” said the FAQ document that was sent to Bayfront Tower residents. “We are sympathetic to those owners, but this is something we must do. Each owner will need to evaluate their ability to handle the special assessments.”

Eight Bayfront Tower residents the Times spoke with said they are willing to pay additional fees to keep the building in good shape.

Greg Main-Baillie, executive managing director for the Florida Development Services Group at Colliers, oversees construction projects for condos across the state. He said that until the board comes up with a final scope of work, it will be hard to determine an exact price for assessments. Assessments for owners will also vary based on the size of their units.

Bayfront Tower residents already paid a special assessment in 2022, according to the FAQ document reviewed by the Times. That fee was levied to cover rising insurance costs, litigation fees from a lawsuit against the building and an operating shortfall caused in part by rising water costs.

Though Bayfront Tower was deemed structurally sound, repairs could cost millions and take years to complete. Condo owners will pay special assessments to cover it all.
Though Bayfront Tower was deemed structurally sound, repairs could cost millions and take years to complete. Condo owners will pay special assessments to cover it all. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

In 2014, Bayfront Tower began a $10 million renovation project that included updating the exterior and adding a new roof to help it compete with newer, flashier buildings on Beach Drive.

Annie Fleeting, the broker and owner of NextHome Beach Time Realty in St. Pete Beach, said most Bayfront Tower residents are wealthy enough to afford these kinds of steep assessments. But those who can’t come up with the cash may be forced to sell their units below market value.

“They’re going to have to disclose that information to buyers,” Fleeting said. “Who is going to want to buy that condo at full price when they’re looking at potentially thousands of dollars in special assessments?”

Completing the required inspections is just a start. Over the next year, Main-Baillie said condo associations will embark on a lengthy and expensive journey that involves securing loans, hiring engineering firms and contractors and completing several rounds of safety testing before renovations can begin.

“The risks are huge if your construction project is not managed well,” he said. He noted that it’s easy for condo associations to be taken advantage of since “the contracts technically give (engineers) a blank check.”

In the short term, “The cost of condo ownership is going to increase dramatically,” Karides said. But as condo associations adapt to the new rules and start to better plan for the future, “I think it’s going to lead to more financial stability and safer buildings down the line.”