The city of St. Petersburg will spend $300 million over five years to address the city’s long-neglected sewer system, and likely will need to spend up to $1 billion to fix all the problems, according to Mayor Rick Kriseman.
“The reality is, as much as I would like to go like this [the mayor snapped his fingers] and it be fixed, that’s not going to happen. It took us years and years and years to get to the place where we are at. It’s going to take time for us to completely fix this system,” Kriseman said at an Urban Land Institute meeting Thursday morning.
In a wide-ranging question-and-answer session with Jason Mathis, CEO of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, Kriseman addressed issues ranging from infrastructure and downtown development to housing and transportation.
Here are some highlights from the conversation.
Sustainability and infrastructure. Forty percent of St. Petersburg is in the coastal high hazard area and there are laws that say density, or the average number of units or dwelling per acre, cannot be increased in a coastal high hazard area, Mathis said.
The challenge is balancing growth with sustainability, Kriseman said.
“We’re working with City Council to try to put us in a position where we can still have development happen in the coastal high hazard area but do it in a way that is resilient, that is sustainable,” he said. “We’re looking for opportunities to address through zoning and through rules and regulations how building is going to take place in those areas, and what it’s going to look like. It can’t be built in the same manner it historically has been.”
Kriseman also acknowledged that whenever he talks about development, critics on social media take him to task for the city’s sewage crisis. In 2015, during heavy rainstorms, the city released and discharged up to one billion gallons of wastewater. The City Council voted last year to settle a lawsuit with environmental organizations.
Although the release occurred in the early part of Kriseman’s administration, he said the problems had been building for years.
“We are addressing this issue. We are not kicking the can down the road. We are going to fix it. We are committed to it, and we’re going to leave our system in a better place for whoever comes after me,” he said.
The city already has spent about $215 million on sewer issues, a spokesman for the mayor said. In addition to the money spent to date to address the problems, the city is in the final stages of completing its first wastewater treatment master plan and an update to the 20-year-old stormwater master plan.
“My suspicion is, and I haven’t seen any of the rough drafts or anything yet, but if I had to guess, I’m guessing it’s going to cost us $1 billion to implement everything those plans are going to tell us we need to do. And guess what. We’re going to need to do it,” Kriseman said.
Downtown development, including the St. Pete Pier and Tropicana Field.
The new pier, expected to open next spring, will be unlike its predecessors, which, the mayor said, all featured a long road that led to a structure over the water.
“We wanted to transform the whole thing and create an entire district,” Kriseman said. “From the time you enter the Pier district coming off Bayshore to the time you get out to the Pier head itself, there’s going to be things to engage you along the way.”
There will be green spaces, an open air market with local shops, a $1 million children’s playground and a splash pad to attract families, the Tampa Bay Marine Watch Discovery Center, a great lawn for concerts and three dining concepts — a café, a full-service restaurant and a rooftop bar. “The community has no idea what is coming and will be blown away by what they see,” he said.
The Pier and waterfront are at one end of downtown, and with a planned redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site, Kriseman sees downtown extending to 18th Street.
The city has two master plans for the Trop site — one with a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays and one without. Both plans include office, hotel and conference space, a university and research presence, parks, restaurants and small stores, and up to 3 million square feet of housing that’s affordable at all levels.
Redevelopment will also honor the legacy of the site. Residents, overwhelmingly African-Americans, were displaced when their neighborhoods were razed to make way for the Trop and promised jobs were not delivered, Kriseman said.
“We have to make sure that we complete those long-made promises that were never delivered on — job creation, career development, job training,” Kriseman said.
Housing. Critics also have said that downtown development has made housing unaffordable.
“If you look at a map of the city and where a lot of our housing that’s affordable is located, it’s actually located downtown. But having said that, a lot of the new developments that are downtown are luxury and they’re expensive,” Kriseman said. “Downtowns that are thriving typically are the most expensive places to live.”
Kriseman said he doesn’t like to use the term “affordable housing,” because everyone seems to define that term differently.
“Often times, especially neighborhoods, the first place that they go when they hear ‘affordable housing’ is Section 8 and crime and drugs and all the things they have on their mind is affordable housing. Instead I like to talk about housing that’s affordable,” he said.
Kriseman unveiled a 10-year housing initiative, “For All, From All,” in July. He said Thursday morning that one key to making the plan work is to make city-owned land available to developers at a price that allows them to build housing that is affordable.
Another key is education and dispelling the “not in my backyard” syndrome.
“This isn’t going to work if neighborhoods are all NIMBYs and say, ‘we need affordable housing, but not here.’ It’s not going to work that way. So part of our plan is to educate the public about what it really means to have housing that’s affordable that might be right next to you,” Kriseman said.
As an example, he mentioned Burlington Post, an affordable housing community for seniors in Kenwood. Area residents love that development, according to Kriseman.
Housing also is linked to business recruitment and retention.
“I’ve gone out on some recruiting missions to attract businesses and if those businesses don’t feel like they can hire people and attract talent here, they’re not coming here. And if their talent doesn’t have a place to live, they’re not coming here,” he said.
Transportation. In response to a question from the audience, Kriseman said there is no one mode of transit that will solve the city’s transportation issues.
A variety of approaches are needed, including the bus rapid transit planned for 1st Avenues North and South from downtown to the beaches, a premium BRT line from Wesley Chapel to downtown St. Pete, and a more robust regular bus service, as well as the trolley system.
The planned Virgin Trains’ high-speed rail between Orlando and Tampa will benefit St. Pete, Kriseman said, because it will help visitors get to the Pinellas beaches more easily.
The city is considering an ordinance that will allow electric scooters, and the Cross-Bay Ferry between downtown St. Pete and downtown Tampa will be back for two more years, starting Nov. 1. Kriseman said he is talking to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority about permanent ferry service with multiple boats.
He’s also looking at the new Walt Disney World Disney Skyliner, an aerial gondola system that recently opened.
“I think that could potentially be something. It’s something we’ll be studying through TBARTA [Tampa Bay Regional Transit Authority], to look at cable-based transit in the city,” Kriseman said.
Another audience member asked about closing part of Central Avenue downtown to traffic.
“We may test it on a weekend. Actually I’d like to close a big stretch of Central. If you’ve been to Denver, the only thing that’s allowed on 16th Street are the buses that stop every block. There’s no other motor vehicles that travel along that, and I think it’s pretty cool. That stretch is so walkable. Don’t be surprised if within the next two years you see us test that out over a weekend and see what the response is,” Kriseman said, adding it would simply be a test and saying with emphasis, “I am not closing Central Avenue.”