Tampa Bay real estate boom and climate change: 5 big insights

Fourth in a series.

“As sea levels rise, how and where are we going to build in the future?” 

That’s one of the first questions Mark Hafen, Assistant Director of the School of Public Affairs at the University of South Florida, asked during a recent conversation about the future growth of the Tampa Bay region in a time of rising sea levels.

The question of how to rethink and retrofit cities for climate change -- and sea level rise in particular -- is an increasingly critical one for public and private sector leaders alike. Asking it can open the door to a wide range of conversations and topics about Tampa Bay area cities, from the highest levels of regional planning, where decisions are made about how and where an entire metropolitan area will grow for decades, all the way down to the scale of individual buildings and their sustainability and resilience in a time of changing climate.

This week, 83 Degrees brings together perspectives from two local thought leaders who are currently working at the opposite ends of that spectrum to see what common trends, challenges and opportunities they see as climate change thinking begins to be incorporated into how and where the region grows in the future. 

Bringing more of a regional perspective is Mark Hafen, who teaches urban planning at USF and is also a member of the Tampa Bay Climate Science Advisory Panel, Taylor Ralph, head of REAL Building Consultants in Tampa and Chair of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Florida Gulf Coast Chapter, chimes in from the perspective of the region’s real estate and building development community. 

Here are five big insights that shined through both interviews:

1. Now that Tampa Bay’s real estate market is booming again, climate change may be getting lost in the shuffle.

When regional scientists decided to form the Tampa Bay Climate Science Advisory Panel in 2014, they hoped to seed a “more regional conversation” about how complex climate changes will impact local cities and neighborhoods in coming decades, says Hafen. The group made a collective decision to start that conversation by creating a clear set of sea level rise projections for the region, “regionally corrected” using local tide gauge data. That first report was adopted by the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council late last year. 

What happens next?  “What local cities do is anyone’s guess,” says Hafen. Looking to the region’s largest city, he says, “Tampa is focused on development and growth, so there hasn’t been much conversation yet.” 

Real estate is Florida’s single largest economic sector, accounting for at least 20 percent of the state economy, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Affairs. Now that the boom’s back on, attention is being focused on the shorter-term horizon of getting projects out of the ground. 

Across the region, downtown and suburban areas are seeing big growth. But most of that development is “pretty standard stuff” when it comes to sustainability and climate-smart thinking, Ralph says. Why “has a lot to do with developers and the type of people executing these projects.” 

“We have a shorter-sighted investment community when it comes to real estate, and that drives the limitation of how much innovation they’re willing to pursue on a building,” he adds.

Both Hafen and Ralph agree that there are a wide range of cutting edge projects completed and underway across the region that embrace smart growth and sustainability principles, but there’s “not a groundswell of activity you’d like to see in a progressive region,” Ralph says. 

What design and building innovations that are happening may be a byproduct of other factors, like site-specific constraints or a drive for project cost savings through energy efficiency measures, rather than a reflection of a more concerted focus on climate change. Ralph says that Tampa Bay developers have a “general mindfulness” around those issues, but that awareness hasn’t translated into their “day to day” practice just yet.

2. Incorporating climate resilience thinking into our city planning requirements and building codes is starting to happen, but real barriers to action still exist.

Tampa Bay area local governments could encourage more innovative development through policy levers, like planning requirements and building codes, say both.

Hafen says that in some corners of the Tampa Bay region, there is “still an ideological challenge that sea level rise and climate change isn’t happening.” When the Climate Science Advisory Panel was putting together its first report on sea level rise, “some participants were a little hesitant about how to word things” for certain elected officials, he adds. 

“The reality is, we cannot deny what we’re seeing,” he says, referring to the long-term rise in sea level tracked by the St. Petersburg tide gauge. 

The challenge of planning for climate change isn’t just a local political challenge, says Hafen, pointing to the state government. In 2011, the Florida Legislature “gutted” the 1985 Growth Management Act. That move “eliminated the Department of Community Affairs, which oversaw community and regional planning. Now there’s limited oversight in the Department of Economic Opportunity. Local counties and municipalities are on their own and don’t have to go through a very rigorous process of state review,” explains Hafen.

He says that the rationale behind those reforms was to “stimulate growth by relaxing rules” on developers. At the time, the Florida real estate and construction economy was still struggling to climb out of a recession. The 2011 Growth Management Act also eliminated concurrency, a requirement that local counties coordinate infrastructure projects, which has added an extra layer of complexity in getting Tampa Bay counties to tackle climate change issues collectively, when political perspectives on climate change vary widely.

On a smaller scale, Ralph thinks that local building codes are the single most important lever for encouraging more sustainable growth, but they haven’t been as innovative as they could be. In the case of Tampa, he says that the code “tells you the worst you can do.” 

He argues that local governments need to “move from a code minimum” to one that encourages long-term sustainability from the very start of the development process, whether by mandate or incentive. He points to Tampa’s green building ordinance: “Today, the only perk is receiving fast track permitting -- not much. We can do more to balance incentives and requirements.” 

Still, progress is being made across the region to improve building codes and requirements from a sustainability perspective. Pinellas County is currently updating its green infrastructure requirements, while the City of St. Petersburg has become aggressive about incorporating sustainability principles into their long-term development goals, as we highlighted in an earlier feature on preparing for climate change.

3. There are innovative development projects happening across the Bay Area -- now it’s time to make them the new norm.

Ralph is nevertheless quick to point out that the region is making “great progress” on several fronts, reflected in several innovative projects that “have design features that promote certain environmentally friendly features that can promote all sorts of environmental benefits.” 

Although some projects -- like the world famous architect Santiago Calatrava’s new Science, Technology, and Innovation Building at the Florida Polytechnic University campus in Lakeland, or Anna Maria Island’s Historic Green Village project, which retrofitted old Florida houses into 21st century, “low impact” businesses -- have attracted global and regional recognition, Ralph insists that innovation doesn’t always look glossy. He points to everyday projects that equally improve the sustainability, comfort and cost efficiency as worthy examples, too, like a recent project he completed with Metropolitan Ministries in Tampa.

“For Metropolitan Ministries, it was clear after some discussions with their leadership that they found huge value in energy/water savings as it relates to their operating costs of the building -- anything they can do to reduce their operating costs expenses means more families they can feed,” says Ralph, who also volunteers for the organization.

“There are individual stories that can be innovative flagbearers for the region, but we’re ready for more. We need to encourage developers and show benefits of going the extra mile,” he argues.

Hafen says that most Tampa Bay counties have adopted smart growth measures, which try to encourage “infill” growth in areas with existing development, walkability and other measures. But the region as a whole is “still lacking things like public transportation to anchor those efforts, which make the region very car development.” 

The current focus on roads limits the region’s ability to redirect growth in a way that’s more sustainable, as Hafen sees it. Today, public transportation is a hot topic across the region, as in the Florida Department of Transportation’s proposal for Tampa Bay Express. Recently, 83 Degrees featured perspectives for and against that project.

4. Other cities offer good examples of transformational change that can inspire Tampa Bay.

Hafen points to Seattle back in the 1980s and 1990s, when local governments worked together to overhaul their regional plan with a view toward climate change. “They took responsibility for everything within their jurisdiction that was contributing to greenhouse gasses and made that the lens for their planning.” 

“That’s the kind of sea change that we haven’t seen in Florida,” he adds. But he also notes that South Florida local governments have been effective at starting a regional conversation around sea level rise and climate change adaptation, pointing to the Southeast Florida Climate Compact as an example. 

The Compact details 110 different measures that South Florida governments can pursue to become more resilient to climate change, ranging from building codes and public transportation planning to water management and energy use. 

In South Florida, “there is a recognition that sea level rise doesn’t respect political boundaries. They’re all working together, all agreeing on a common problem and uniting in their approach,” he adds. Ralph also points out that much of South Florida has adopted more proactive green building requirements: “We’re behind here in Tampa Bay.”

5. The seeds of change are already planted. Now it’s time to cultivate them.

When it comes to changing course to accommodate climate change, Hafen believes that the Tampa Bay area is making progress. “Even if we can’t agree where to put the baseball stadium,” he adds with a laugh.

He says that the policy tools, know-how, and much of the desire to channel the region’s future development in a more climate resilient way are all there, and now it’s time to make it the centerpiece of local and regional planning efforts. “What we’re hoping is that with conversation we’ve started with CSAP, we can have more regional conversation.”

For Ralph, the big key lies in tweaking those local building codes and incentives so that developers can “benefit the community and their bottom line” at the same time. 

Beyond the real estate and building industries, Hafen says that Tampa Bay residents can help move the conversation forward by showing up at their local government meetings. Change, he says, “is about that community groundswell of desire to participate in that process and communicate that urgency.”

Links to 83 Degrees Media's series of stories on climate change:

Part 1 -- Tampa Bay Area scientists, policymakers plan for rising sea levels

Part 2 -- Preparing for climate change: Pinellas County, local towns take steps to get ready

Part 3 -- Is the global reinsurance industry making Florida more resilient to climate change, hurricanes?

Part 4 -- Tampa Bay real estate boom and climate change: 5 big insights

Part 5 -- Climate change: Across Tampa Bay, environmental organizations mobilize around sea level rise

Part 6 -- Rethinking Tampa Bay's water resources as the climate changes

Part 7 -- Retrofitting Tampa Bay for climate change: From understanding to action

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Read more articles by Zac Taylor.

Zac Taylor, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow at KU Leuven in Belgium, where he studies climate change adaptation in cities, with a focus on real estate and finance. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Leeds in the UK and holds degrees in urban planning from U.C. Berkeley and the London School of Economics. You can reach him on twitter @zacjtaylor.