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St. Petersburg condo may need costly fixes, post-Surfside review finds

It’s been two years since the Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside collapsed in the early morning hours, destroying half the building’s units instantaneously and killing 98 people.

The tragedy forced a legislative overhaul of condo safety rules that raised the bar for building inspections and maintenance. As condo associations across Florida scramble to bring buildings up to the new standard, many residents will be forced to pay up.

People look at the rubble at Champlain Towers South condo in Surfside. The building’s partial collapse on June 24, 2021, killed 98 people.

[ DAVID SANTIAGO | Miami Herald ]

Bayfront Tower is one of several luxury condos that line the affluent stretch of Beach Drive in downtown St. Petersburg. Built in 1975, the 29-story building boasts a rooftop pool, fitness center and easy access to shops and restaurants. Sleek floor-to-ceiling windows provide sweeping views of Tampa Bay. It’s been home to some of the city’s most prominent residents, including architects, judges, entrepreneurs and former Gov. Charlie Crist.

But Bayfront Tower, with its million-dollar units and upscale amenities, is facing growing pains as a result of the new condo legislation.

Engineers hired to inspect the building discovered a host of major issues, including possible problems with post tension cables, the metal framing and stucco on the outside of the building, the garage concrete and the roof. That’s according to an FAQ document that the board of directors sent to residents and was reviewed by the Tampa Bay Times.

Though the building was deemed structurally sound, the document said repairs could cost millions and take years to complete. Condo owners will pay special assessments to cover it all.

Greg Main-Baillie, executive managing director for the Florida Development Services Group at Colliers, oversees construction projects for condos across the state. He said repairs of that magnitude could cost as much as building a new tower.

The 29-story Bayfront Tower, built in 1975, boasts a rooftop pool, fitness center and easy access to shops and restaurants in downtown St. Petersburg.

[ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The board did not respond to specific questions about the cost or timeline of repairs. But according to the document, additional testing will be done on the building and the board will seek out other expert opinions before finalizing a plan.

The Times called more than 100 current and former unit owners in the building over several weeks. All declined to speak publicly. Some said that negative publicity could affect their property values. Others said they feared retribution from their peers in the building.

The Times filed a public records request with the city of St. Petersburg to obtain a copy of the inspection. But the city said the board had not yet submitted one.

Slider Engineering Group, the firm that performed the inspection, declined to comment and deferred to the board.

“Bayfront Tower, like hundreds of other high-rise condominiums in the state of Florida, has retained an engineering and construction team to opine on the structural conditions of the condominium building, and to provide recommendations for improvements that will ensure that Bayfront Tower remains one of the most desirable waterfront high-rises in Florida,” the board wrote in a statement to the Times.

Tampa real estate agent Alyssa Stone, on the top floor of the Bayfront Tower in downtown St. Petersburg, looks north at the view along Beach Drive. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

Now, aging condos across the state will face the same scrutiny as Bayfront Tower thanks to Senate Bill 4-D, which the Florida Legislature passed unanimously in a special session last year. Another bill that made slight changes to the law passed in April.

Under the new rules:

  • Condos three stories and higher must undergo an initial milestone inspection after 30 years and every 10 years thereafter. This will determine whether the building is structurally sound and if it needs any repairs.
  • Buildings that are already 30 years or older must have milestone inspections completed before Dec. 31, 2024.
  • Condos three stories and higher must perform a study of reserve funds before Dec. 31, 2024, and every 10 years thereafter. This will determine how much condo associations must save to properly maintain the building.
  • Condo associations will be barred from waiving or underfunding reserves.

Prior to the collapse of Champlain Towers South, unit owners in that building faced steep special assessments after they had postponed major repairs. The condo association had just over $777,000 in reserves to pay for an estimated $16.2 million in repairs.

“Moving forward, the structural integrity of a condominium will be reserved, they will be maintained, and they will be kept up to par so that future condominiums never have to worry about another Surfside taking place,” said Rep. Danny Perez, R-Miami, following the passage of the bill.

The land that housed Champlain Towers South in Surfside was sold for $120 million to a billionaire developer from Dubai, Hussain Sajwani of DAMAC Properties.

[ PEDRO PORTAL | El Nuevo Herald ]

Dimitri Karides, a broker associate with Sand Key Realty in Clearwater Beach, said Champlain Towers South was not an anomaly. Many condos across the state have neglected routine maintenance for years to keep costs low for owners.

“They might only fund 25% of the real work that needs to be done each year, whether it’s rebar, the pool, the roof, the concrete,” he said. “Now those buildings are going to have to play catch-up.”

“The cost of living in a safer building will place a burden on some of our owners,” said the document that was sent to Bayfront Tower residents. “We are sympathetic to those owners, but this is something we must do. Each owner will need to evaluate their ability to handle the special assessments.”

The Times spoke with eight Bayfront Tower residents. All said they have not been given an estimate for how much new assessments might cost but that they are willing to pay additional fees to keep the building in good shape.

Main-Baillie said that until the board knows what exactly needs to be fixed it will be hard to put a price on assessments. Condo owners are typically assessed differently based on the size of their units.

Bayfront Tower residents already paid a special assessment in 2022, according to the document reviewed by the Times. That fee was levied to cover rising insurance costs, litigation fees from a lawsuit against the building and an operating shortfall caused in part by rising water costs.

Though Bayfront Tower was deemed structurally sound, repairs could cost millions and take years to complete. Condo owners will pay special assessments to cover it all.

[ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

In 2014, Bayfront Tower began a $10 million renovation project that included updating the exterior and adding a new roof to help it compete with newer, flashier buildings on Beach Drive.

Annie Fleeting, the broker and owner of NextHome Beach Time Realty in St. Pete Beach, said most Bayfront Tower residents are wealthy enough to afford these kinds of steep assessments. But those who can’t come up with the cash may be forced to sell their units below market value.

“They’re going to have to disclose that information to buyers,” Fleeting said. “Who is going to want to buy that condo at full price when they’re looking at potentially thousands of dollars in special assessments?”

Completing the required inspections is just a start. Over the next year, Main-Baillie said condo associations will embark on a lengthy and expensive journey that involves securing loans, hiring engineering firms and contractors and completing several rounds of safety testing before renovations can begin.

“The risks are huge if your construction project is not managed well,” he said. He noted that it’s easy for condo associations to be taken advantage of since “the contracts technically give (engineers) a blank check.”

In the short term, “The cost of condo ownership is going to increase dramatically,” Karides said. But as condo associations adapt to the new rules and start to better plan for the future, “I think it’s going to lead to more financial stability and safer buildings down the line.”

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