The Saint Petersburg City Council is about to open the floodgates. And it flies in the face of the many good initiatives previously taken to ensure our city’s future health.
This Thursday, October 8, the Council has its final vote to allow dense development in flood-prone areas of the city. While I believe Council members are voting with the best of intentions, pressure is originating from the Mayor and city officials who back a Miami developer’s push to build a massive $2 billion project just south of downtown.
In a nutshell, the vote would amend the existing Comprehensive Plan governing development in the Coastal High Hazard Area (CHHA), which prohibits outsized building in an area likely to flood in a serious Cat 1 hurricane. This, after we narrowly dodged an even worse scenario in 2017 when Irma roared through.
While the amendment adds a few improvements in building standards, which could be a step in the right direction, it opens the door to building in this vulnerable area without placing any limitation on how large, how dense, or how incompatible a project may be with the social needs of our citizens or with future environmental realities. Proposed projects would only be evaluated later—after plans are set in motion—and then with few parameters defined.
It seems the Mayor, some city officials, and real estate interests are pressuring Council members to approve this, and are choosing a time when citizens are coping with a pandemic to move it through. The lure of future tax revenue and the “shiny object” of large-scale development has overshadowed the essential planning and research needed to ensure safety, fiscal integrity, sustainability, and growth that serves all citizens.
The existing CHHA plan was put in place so that we, as the sixth most vulnerable U.S. city to flooding (that’s right—number six out of the top 25!), can avoid huge unforeseen infrastructure costs, increased risks during evacuations, flooding in neighborhoods adjacent to newly-hardened coastal buildings, loss of FEMA insurance discounts, business failures, and much more.
Advocates of these amendments claim a “no” vote will restrict housing options, cause neighborhood displacement and limit affordable housing. This is a distraction meant to instill fear over issues of great importance to our city. But it’s a false choice given that luxury developments like the one proposed will likely benefit only the privileged few while greatly increasing risk.
Has the building of thousands of new units downtown, most of them premium priced, turned the tide for affordable housing? I can find no data to substantiate that. So why claim that doubling down on these types of developments will be any different?
Let’s promote sustainable development in the CHHA. It’s great that developers seek profitable investment in our city, but let’s ask something in return. The Council should reject the current amendment, and instead draft one that embraces much of the advice the Council and City have already garnered from experts in the field.
Multi-family and commercial projects can be promoted in the flood plain if specific criteria are met: building codes are thoughtfully updated; there’s a provision/set aside for the preservation of natural areas that can ameliorate flooding; new development won’t cause us to lose our 25% FEMA discount on flood insurance; community resiliency is enhanced in a flood event; there is provision for affordable and workforce housing. Amending the CHHA plan with these and other provisions would merit a “yes” vote.
Since the Council’s first vote in August to advance this amendment, real estate interests immediately renewed their scramble to assemble some 40 acres south of downtown…a huge tract that will define the future of this area. They are reportedly offering a minimum of $5 million per acre to commercial properties. This project will be worth hundreds of millions to developers, thus the rush. And yet, with all this money changing hands, there are few prerequisites that must be met.
What kind of city do we want to be? Will we drift into the future, focused on short-term growth, and kick the can down the road forcing our children to cope with rising seas and social inequity? Or will we have the courage to address the real risks our city faces, listen to the experts, and shape a future that is sustainable, more secure, and guaranteeing that chasing billions in development doesn’t sideline concerns about neighborhood health and flood risks. We can—and must—do better.
I urge that, this Thursday, the Council vote “no” on the CHHA amendments, complete the needed Assessment & Comprehensive Plan for Infrastructure and then draft a more prudent alternative that would merit support.