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How much dense development can St. Pete’s infrastructure handle? More than you think

Megan Holmes

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St. Petersburg City Council, convened as the Community Redevelopment Agency, gave unanimous final approval last week to what will soon be the tallest building in St. Petersburg.

The $300 million development, which will come in at 515 feet, includes two buildings. The 45-story condominium tower will include 300 market-rate condos between one and four bedrooms. The 20-story building will feature a full-service luxury hotel with 225 hotel rooms and 15,000 feet of meeting space.

Also included in the project is 20,000 square feet of much-needed Class A office space, 25,000 square feet ground-level retail and commercial space for bars, restaurants and stores. Finally, the project includes a 842-space parking garage, some of which will be open to the public.

When the St. Pete Catalyst story on the project hit social media, a common development complaint was raised. “That’s a lot of toilets in an area where we can’t keep up already,” said one reader. “Our sewers – water system – roads can not handle more development downtown,” said another.

“Where is the water coming from??? And are the SEWERS fixed YET???” one particularly punctuation-happy reader responded.

With each story of new development in downtown St. Petersburg, comments arise about the city’s water and sewer infrastructure. Some residents believe, or adhere to the anti-development argument, that the city is not equipped to handle denser development that puts more people in the downtown core.

According to the City of St. Petersburg Public Works Administration Claude Tankersley, that argument is simply not true. In fact, Tankersley said, as far as infrastructure is concerned, high density areas are not only advantageous but preferable to low-density areas.

“If you can serve 1,000 people on one mile of piping, versus 1,000 people on five miles of piping, the advantage is that you have less of an opportunity for that infrastructure to degrade,” Tankersley explained.

“It’s a lot easier and less expensive to maintain one mile of pipe than it is to maintain five miles of pipe. The more infrastructure that you have, serving low density population, the more opportunity you have to not spend enough to maintain it, the more opportunity for the system to fail.”

Left to right: Gary Mitchum, USF College of Marine Science; Jason Mathis, St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership; Claude Tankersley; City of St. Petersburg; Sri Sundaram; USFSP Kate Tiedemann College of Business

The water and sewer systems in St. Petersburg were designed about 100 years ago. According to Tankersley, water usage per person at that time was nearly double the usage of today. One hundred years ago, the average person used between 120-150 gallons of water each day. Today, thanks to conservation efforts, low-flow toilets and energy efficient appliances, the average person in St. Petersburg uses just 78 gallons. “Therefore,” Tankersley said, “our system has plenty of capacity in it, not only to serve the population we have now, but to grow.”

Our system is so large, said Tankersley, you could lay the pipe under our streets end-to-end from here to Philadelphia. The sewage system was designed to treat, on an average day, 56 million gallons of sewage. With our current population, the system treats just 28 million gallons on an average day. Therefore, the city’s sewage system could actually handle, on a daily basis, double the population the city currently has.

“I recognize that people use this argument because they’re against growth,” said Tankersley. “That’s the issue. They just don’t want to see growth, which is okay, that’s a fair argument and I don’t hold it against them for having that opinion. But they’re trying to justify their opposition to growth by using information that is not true and not correlated to growth. That weakens their argument.”

The 400 Central site plan, like every large-scale development, underwent meticulous review by many city departments, including departments under the Public Works administration: water resources; stormwater, pavement and traffic; engineering and capital improvements.

“The infrastructure that we look at is pretty much the utilities,” said Tankersley. “Water, sewer, stormwater and reclaimed water. What we look at is whether or not the proposed development is going to add additional demand to our systems, and whether our systems can handle that demand or whether our systems need to be modified to keep up with that demand.”

Tankersley’s team doesn’t just operate on gut feelings, as they go through the approval process; their engineers will actually simulate and model how the existing facilities in that area will be able to handle the new demand of the development.

“My staff and engineers are very, very careful not to approve something if they think our system can’t handle it,” said Tankersley.

Rather than an overpopulation issue, the problems with St. Petersburg’s sewage infrastructure typically occur because of rainwater. St. Petersburg, like cities across the country, is dealing with long-neglected infrastructure. With aging pipes, the joints that connect them begin to rust and corrode, causing leaks. Because our pipes operate on a gravity system, this doesn’t mean sewage is leaking out of them, but rather that rainwater and ground water is leaking in.

These problems are not unique to St. Petersburg, but they are exacerbated by heavy rainfall events that are occurring more often because of climate change.

“Whenever we’ve had problems with overflow, it’s because we’ve had significant rainfall that has allowed water to leak into the system,” said Tankersley. “For instance, during Hurricane Hermine, we had a peak day flow of about 150 million gallons.”

“How did we go from 28 million average to 150 million? Did we import thousands of people into the city to all flush their toilets at the same time?” Tankersley said. “No. It’s because of rainwater.”

For the last four years, following the sewage crisis of 2015-2016, the City of St. Petersburg has allocated $326 million to a five-year plan for upgrading its sewage system to handle peak flows of 150 million gallons.

“We wouldn’t be able to handle [150 million gallons] day after day after day after day,” said Tankersley. “Just like your car can’t handle driving 150 miles per hour day after day, it would eventually wear out. It’s the same with our system … We can accelerate really quickly to handle those peak flows, but we can’t do it on a day-to-day basis.”

“If we can continue to reduce the amount of water leaking into our system, and we have seen a reduction in that, that is what will keep us from having overflows in the future,” Tankersley added, “not the number of people.”

Four years into that five year plan, Tankersley said around $250 million of the $326 million allocation has been spent. He expects the city to come in with around $300 million in total repairs, and says the city has accomplished more with less funds than expected. But that’s just the beginning, he said. Following those repairs will be a 20-year infrastructure plan, called the Integrated Water Resources Master Plan, which is expected to come before City Council later this year.

Tankersley’s biggest concern in developing the master plan is that people are starting to become complacent again with regard to the need to make significant investments in water, sewer, stormwater and reclaimed water infrastructure. “We’re going to have to continue to spend, because we didn’t in the past. We’ve got to not only play catch up, but we’ve got to continue to do the right thing to prevent future generations from having to deal with the spills that we’ve had to deal with.”

“The further we get away from that crisis, my fear is that people are going to fall into that complacent attitude. We’ve been focusing a lot of the sewer systems mainly, but we haven’t been focusing that much – because there hasn’t been a crisis yet – on the water, reclaimed water and stormwater. I don’t want us to wait until there is a crisis.

“Just like your doctor will tell you, either you can spend the time now to eat better to avoid a heart attack or you can have the heart attack later, which is going to be a hell of a lot more expensive, more painful, and you might die … It’s the same thing with our water, reclaimed water, stormwater and our sewer system. We cannot stop investing. That’s really the thing that worries me.”

 

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15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. Avatar

    JOHN DONOVAN

    January 28, 2020at4:49 pm

    Good story. Lots to recommend. Not worried about growth in St Petersburg. I welcome it. Where is the proof regarding the statement that “climate change” has contemporaneously caused heavier rain episodes in St Petersburg?

    • Avatar

      Michael Burton

      January 28, 2020at5:59 pm

      Great story as you show that St Pete is on top of what is needed for this growth spurt and many more to come. So glad that the city understands climate change is real and needs to be addressed today if we are to have a future.

    • Avatar

      Claude Tankersley

      January 29, 2020at7:53 am

      The amount of water vapor the air can hold is directly related to temperature. Warmer air allows more water vapor to accumulate before it condenses and falls out as rain. That’s why rainfall events are so different between tropical locations (fast intense thunderstorms) versus cooler locations (long gentle drizzle). There is scientific data that show atmospheric temperatures can lead to more extreme short-term rainfall intensity:
      – Lenderink, G., and E. van Meijgaard (2008), Increase in hourly precipitation extremes beyond expectations from temperature changes, Nat. Geosci., 1, 511–514.
      – Haerter, J. O., and P. Berg (2009), Unexpected rise in extreme precipitation caused by a shift in rain type?, Nat. Geosci., 2, 372–373.
      – Lenderink, G., and E. van Meijgaard (2009), Unexpected rise in extreme precipitation caused by a shift in rain type? Reply to comment by Haerter et al., Nat. Geosci., 2(373).
      – Haerter, J. O., P. Berg, and S. Hagemann (2010), Heavy rain intensity distributions on varying time scales and at different temperatures, J. Geophys. Res., 115, D17102, doi:10.1029/2009JD013384.
      – Berg, P., C. Moseley, and J. O. Haerter (2013), Strong increase in convective precipitation in response to higher temperatures, Nat. Geosci., 6, 181–185.
      – Westra, S., J. P. Evans, R. Mehrotra, and A. Sharma (2013b), A conditional disaggregation algorithm for generating fine time‐scale rainfall data in a warmer climate, J. Hydrol., 479, 86–99.

      • Megan Holmes

        Megan Holmes

        January 29, 2020at11:02 am

        Thanks Claude. I appreciate the assist.

        • Avatar

          Craig Gormley

          January 29, 2020at12:29 pm

          So am I to presume with all the new growth creating a heat island affect; it doesn’t directly effect the temperature? I feel the response above is just cut and paste that doesn’t really address the problem. If you’re going to use climate change, maybe you could produce some data on historical rain fall to back it up.

          • Megan Holmes

            Megan Holmes

            January 29, 2020at12:37 pm

            Here is a link to information from the EPA: https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-08/documents/climate-change-fl.pdf

            It reads: Changing climate is also likely to increase inland flooding. Since 1958, the amount of precipitation during heavy rainstorms has increased by 27 percent in the Southeast, and the trend toward increasingly heavy rainstorms is likely to continue. More intense rainstorms can increase flooding because rivers overtop their banks more frequently, and more water accumulates in low-lying areas that drain slowly.

          • Avatar

            Claude Tankersley

            January 29, 2020at5:27 pm

            We have over 50 years of rainfall data for the Albert Whitted rain gauge that shows the intensity of rain storms in St Petersburg has increased 12% over the past 50 years. This is St Petersburg historical specific data that is free to the public. The raw data can be found at https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cdo-web/datasets/LCD/stations/WBAN:92806/detail.

        • Avatar

          Craig Gormley

          January 29, 2020at3:35 pm

          https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/145185/major-greenland-glacier-is-growing Here is a NASA link that disputes that link you provided.

          • Avatar

            Claude Tankersley

            January 29, 2020at5:39 pm

            The ability of warm air to hold more water has nothing to do with a glacier in Greenland growing in recent years due to a shift in the North Atlantic Oscillation bringing cold water to Greenland’s coast. The NASA story doesn’t even address air temperature, it examines water temperature near Greenland’s coast. Therefore, the NASA link neither supports nor disproves the other links. That’s like saying a study of cold orange juice disputes the finding that hot coffee can burn your tongue.

  2. Avatar

    Georgia Earp

    January 28, 2020at4:50 pm

    Thank you, Megan Holmes. I finally understand what the problem and solution are with our sewage infrastructure. Mr. Tankersley’s explanation makes perfect sense. My concerns about more high rise buildings downtown are somewhat allayed.

    I still worry about carbon and congestion from more cars. And, I don’t like to see historic buildings torn down, like the bank and hotel that were under the “cheese grater” on Central where the 515 foot high rise will be built. It would have been nice to have seen those buildings preserved and integrated into the new building.

  3. Avatar

    Thomas Zozzaro

    January 28, 2020at5:11 pm

    I’m not asking the water department about any weather changes but to know that capacity won’t really become an issue for the area for probably all my career in Commercial Real Estate working the entire state of Florida in Land Development Site Acquisitions for buyers and sellers and all in between JV. BUT HAVE HAD A BIG FOCUS ON ST.PEETE BEING ITS RIGHT HERE IN MY BACKYARDNANDNALL. ITS A REALLY LOVELY CITY AND THE WAY ITS GROWING IS THE ONLYN THING BETTER THEN THE CITY!! St. Pete and really loving being a part of something so special, great and for the future of this city it’s so exciting and memorizing.

  4. Avatar

    Andy Evans

    January 28, 2020at5:49 pm

    When you compare the tax foot print of these large downtown building compared to what stood there before the City is bringing in a significant amount of tex funds. It is important that these funds, or a part of find there way to continued infrastructure expansion, improvement and maintenance. Groth will power this City for the good and whilst that might not sit easy with some generations it is inevitable. Megopolis’s like New York are seeing entire organizations no longer needing to be resident there, and quality of life in places like Downtown St Pete is a huge draw, the big push will be for more Class A office space, and there are customers look for 100,000 sq ft +

  5. Avatar

    Corbin Supak

    January 28, 2020at6:27 pm

    The problem I see is 800 more cars. That’s a disaster for everyone. No more parking, please. The city sells parking space too cheP, non-car folks subsidize it through hogher costs and our climate and culture suffer.

  6. Avatar

    Brenton Everett

    January 29, 2020at11:40 am

    Excellent and informative article. Thank you

  7. Avatar

    Greg Davidson

    January 29, 2020at4:37 pm

    Good points regarding adequate parking, and more efficient use of public utilities. I want to read more on what is Public Utilities doing to repair/replace aging pipes from owners’ homes into the streets; and what studies are happening regarding rising sea-level? I hope City Officials and Planners will consider, and Catalyst will report on all this and on: will there be street level and above green space/plants to help lessen urban heat zones, how will the new tax revenue be used and what percent can be used to create low-income housing in the city, what if anything can the city do to help preserve the quasi-historic areas on Central Ave (where there are lower rise commercial buildings with unique usually locally owned businesses) say from 5th St N to 31st? I’m especially concerned with the small businesses from 19th to 31st. I hope city Planning and Zoning can retain the lower 1-4 stories on Central, then perhaps encourage in the same building higher floors set back. The challenge is the lots may not be deep enough to accommodate such structures. I also fear as more larger, national/international property owners buy lots, they’ll continue raising rents thinking they’ll attract more Gap or Willaims Sonoma-type retail stores. I hope not! Please keep St Pete local !

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