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Community Voices: A better way to develop the CHHA

Roger Telschow

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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.

 

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6 Comments
here we go

6 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Mario Farias

    October 5, 2020 at 6:57 pm

    What neighborhood does the writer of this opinion live? What qualifications does he possess to offer it? Dozens of professionals have poured into this amendment to insure it be a viable plan to protect our environment and allow smart growth in 41% of our city. I urge council to move forwards and not let the voices of a few disgruntled living in a single neighborhood sway what’s right for our city.

  2. Avatar

    Victoria VanHoose

    October 6, 2020 at 11:11 am

    Thank you Robert Telschow for your detail and informative piece. You’re an expert on our city because you live in it day in and out. You and I now the different neighborhoods and work in the area. You made your research and provide solutions too. I do agree with you and for the time been the amendment should be voted down.

  3. Avatar

    Charlie Guy

    October 6, 2020 at 1:35 pm

    I have lived in Old SE since 2003 & I agree with everything that this gentleman has said. If where a person lives is so important to you, why did you not share with us where you live? I will live 2 blocks where the “condo canyons” will be built. We who live here value greatly our community passive park for our children to have safe place to play & experience the nature of Tampa Bay. Also, this park is the closest beach that the children of our good neighbors in Bartlett Park can visit. Please also explain more clearly just how having more million dollar “condo canyons” will be of any immediate help to the many struggling families in our neighborhood?

  4. Amy Baxter

    Amy Baxter

    October 6, 2020 at 4:49 pm

    That’s not what is happening here, Mario. The city’s own local planning agency, CPPC, says don’t do it. The Sierra Club says it is a bad policy and another environmental scientist came out today with a ton of questions the City needs to answer. How about we don’t let the voices of the few who stand to gain monetarily from this massive rezoning sway what is right for the future of our city? You, in particular, publicly stated you represent Harborage in the South side deal with Royal Palms. Royal Palms can’t move forward with their 50-acre redevelopment master plan without this policy.

  5. Avatar

    Andrew F Foertsch

    October 7, 2020 at 1:05 pm

    If you don’t live in the neighborhood you have no right to determine what happens in the neighborhood . I have been here forty years and have watched the neighborhood go from a deteriorating area to an integrated, vibrant, community where people work together. Now comes Kriseman and his cronies to tear it down for what? All I see is some greedy Miami developer who wants to make bucket loads of money along with all the local leeches who will be following behind him to pick up the scraps. What happens to seniors who planned on finishing their lives here? They’ll be tossed aside to find some roach ridden apartment or an overpriced condo that will suck up their life savings. What about the young people who have invested in building houses and renovating properties to raise their families? Will they be displaced too after investing all their time and money? I don’t see that anyone who would move into the future monstrosity will have any connection to the community. St. Petersburg will lose its soul.I have already sent my comments to the City Council and the mayor. I would suggest that everyone who hates this should make themselves heard.

  6. Avatar

    Donna Marie

    October 7, 2020 at 3:11 pm

    I remember a time when government officials served their nation or their community first, and then sought to share their expertise by seeking public office. Once, when our neighborhood was under attack by commercialization,Mr. Kriseman was an advocate for the OSE. Today some people seem to seek office as a means to financial security.

    Experts say no hospital, ACLF, nursing home or Mobil home park may be built in CHHA, but along comes Miami developer Don Kodsi with his carpet bag containing $2.5 billion. Suddenly, the Mayor is drooling and the council members getting election support from the realty industry, are suddenly “weary” of the CHHA discussion.

    We are in the middle of a pandemic. Postpone this vote You will all be out of office, this monstrosity will have destroyed the OSE, no affordable housing will have been built, and the uninformed persons living in these deluxe apartments in the sky, will be in grave danger.

    Council, I urge you to cast a NO vote. You are public servants. Most of you sought office to help the greater good and service the public. This development flies in the face of the experts. It is wrong ! The neighbors in OSE do not want this. Do the right thing! Vote NO!

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