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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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