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Fight over building in St. Pete’s flood-risk neighborhoods gets delayed again

The question has drawn a battle line between people with differing visions for how the city should plan for climate change.
A view of the downtown St. Petersburg skyline and waterfront from just north of the North Shore Aquatic Complex. The view is looking south toward Albert Whitted Airport.
A view of the downtown St. Petersburg skyline and waterfront from just north of the North Shore Aquatic Complex. The view is looking south toward Albert Whitted Airport. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times (2016) ]
Published Jun. 12, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — A plan to allow more development in parts of the city most at-risk to storm flooding, under the condition that buildings meet tougher standards, hit another setback this week.

Mayor Rick Kriseman asked the City Council to defer discussing the matter to allow for “more public education and conversation,” according to a spokesman. Council members, with little comment, unanimously approved sending the concept back to a committee, further slowing a process that started in 2017.

Related: As flood risk rises in St. Petersburg, city weighs whether to allow increased development in flood zones

The question has drawn a battle line between people with differing visions for how a growing, waterfront city should plan for higher tides under a changing climate. The dispute involves what is called the Coastal High Hazard Area, which covers places that federal scientists say could be flooded in a Category One hurricane.

Florida law says local governments should be careful using public dollars to support development in such risky zones. St. Petersburg’s rules block increases in density there, like opening up a single-family lot to construction of a multi-family condominium.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman [ SCOTT KEELER ]

Kriseman’s administration wants to relax that order, allowing builders to request higher density in certain areas while requiring they use enhanced construction techniques, including wind-resistant materials and elevating structures several feet above base flood standards. The new rules would demand developers plan for hurricane evacuations and consider sustainability measures like reflective roofs and energy efficient-cooling systems. The idea, supporters say, is to grow dated sections of St. Petersburg in a way that will better withstand a storm.

“It’s important that residents understand we are working to build a more resilient St. Pete, not the opposite,” Kriseman’s spokesman, Ben Kirby, wrote in an e-mail. “This is in keeping with the mayor’s agenda and preparing our city for the future.”

Environmentalists, led by the Suncoast Sierra Club, say the idea is shortsighted. James Scott, director of the club, wrote to Kriseman this week and said if approved, the revamped approach “will hold future consequences of undeniable harm and undue safety risks to our citizens and infrastructure."

An initial vote on the matter this week, which could have teed up a final debate in August, was put off the night before the City Council meeting. Former council member Karl Nurse, who is on the Suncoast Sierra Club’s executive committee, said he was surprised by the late withdrawal.

“It’s not very complicated,” Nurse said. “Let’s increase the density in the areas most at-risk. The public doesn’t need any more education about that. We get it.”

Council member Darden Rice, who opposes the amendment, said “they didn’t have the votes.”

City council member Darden Rice
City council member Darden Rice [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]

“More committee meetings will not change the fact that the people who are the most informed and concerned about climate change impacts to our city feel deeply betrayed by this administration’s efforts to increase building efforts exactly where the science informs us not to,” Rice wrote in a text message to the Tampa Bay Times.

The proposed changes are split into three parts — including revisions to the comprehensive plan, land development regulations and building code. Councilors could support tougher construction while voting down the density increase.

Council member Gina Driscoll said she planned to split her votes that way.

City council member Gina Driscoll
City council member Gina Driscoll [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]

“We have our hands full as it is with upgrading our infrastructure to meet today’s needs,” Driscoll said. “We need to be looking at ways that we can encourage and welcome development on higher ground.”

St. Petersburg’s struggle is that a lot of the city — including prized tracts along Fourth Street N, Carillon Town Center and the Skyway Marina District — bump into the Coastal High Hazard Area. In 2016, new maps more than doubled the vulnerable zone to encompass about 40 percent of the community.

Opponents say local officials should pursue development outside the risky zone, in less expensive neighborhoods that might offer more affordable housing. Flooding, they say, will continue to pose a threat.

A fiscal impact statement, completed by an outside firm, found the stricter construction requirements could increase costs for builders by about 8 percent for high-rises and 5 percent for smaller projects.

Council member Robert Blackmon, who supports the Kriseman push, said he believes without a rule change in the Coastal High Hazard Area, builders will be forced toward the neighborhoods where generations of St. Petersburg’s black residents have lived, like Midtown and Childs Park, bringing “massive development and gentrification.”

City Council member Robert Blackmon
City Council member Robert Blackmon [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]

“You’re going to see a horrible, horrible impact on a lot of our communities,” Blackmon said.

The council plans to next discuss the issue at a committee meeting July 30.

“At this point we just need to get it done with,” Blackmon said.

Times staff writer Josh Solomon contributed to this report.