Lens critics deliver more than 20,000 petitions to St. Pete City Hall to force a referendum
WMNF Drive-Time News Wednesday
A group opposing plans for a new St. Petersburg Pier delivered more than 20,000 petitions to City Hall Wednesday to force a referendum in August. During a press conference calling on city council to stop spending money on the project until after the election, Fred Whaley responded to claims by critics that itâs not hard to get that many people to sign a petition.
âWhat itâs hard to do is get 20,000 of them to do it and I guess it was a daunting task that we didnât realize how long it would take. Weâre glad we got to this point.â
Opponents of the design chosen by the city to replace the iconic inverted pyramid have been flooding city council meetings for more than a year. Last month, speakers during public comment asked city council to put off any further spending on the Lens because they said a referendum was imminent. Some city council members put off a decision on the next round of funding. St. Pete City Council member Wengay Newton has sided with critics of the Lens since the beginning.
âWell, I asked the question and I have yet to get an answer to it. My question at the last council hearing was, âHow much money was spent by the last administration, the last leadership that wanted to tear down Albert Whitted Airport before the people met the burden and got the opportunity to vote on an asset that belonged to them.â And we know the outcome of that vote. I havenât gotten that dollar amount yet, but hopefully some day they will give it to me. But now I know that it was over, almost north of $5 million that we will never get back; never.â
City Council will decide Thursday how to proceed with funding.
âAt councilâs direction, weâre going to provide kind of an Ã la carte list of things that we think need to be done between now and August and things that need to be done to really justify whether or not this new St. Pete Pier can even be built.â
Thatâs St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster talking to reporters after the petitions were turned in.
âI think what youâll see tomorrow is that we continue to move the process forward.â
The group Concerned Citizens wants the issue on the August 27 municipal ballot. But if the petition signatures are certified by the Supervisor of Elections prior to the end of the month, that could require a special election. Foster has given his word to the group that collected the petitions that that wonât happen. Concerned Citizens chair Whaley said itâs important to wait because a separate one would cost taxpayers too much money.
âThe turnout, probably in special election is higher, but thereâs no reason to have one when weâre that close to a regular election. Thereâs no reason to get in a hurry about one of the most beautiful waterfronts in the world that we have here in St. Petersburg today.â
The group isnât proposing an alternative to the Lens; nor are they advocating saving the existing Pier. Bud Risser is a Concerned Citizens board member.
âWe think that part of the process that got us in trouble is five people made a decision for the entire city. If we had engaged all of the city in the solution, we think it would have been a much better solution. So, it would be wrong for us to suggest anything at this point. This is something that all the citizens in St. Petersburg need to participate in.â
City officials concede that voters will have the chance to decide whether or not the city will ultimately build the Lens. But that doesnât mean they have to stop moving forward. Thereâs at least two council members who will vote to suspend spending â Wengay Newton and Karl Nurse. Nurse recently sided with Lens critics when it became apparent to him that residents want a vote in this case.
âWhen twice voters have signed over 20,000 petitions, I think itâs pretty obvious that we need to let voters decide this.â
During an April workshop, engineers from the city defended the use of galvanized steel for the majority of the structure against claims that the material would deteriorate over time. A marine engineer working with Concerned Citizens, Carter Karins, argued their examples only showed open-air structures where sea spray gets washed away by rain. The Lens would collect salty condensation under the canopy at the end of the pier and Karins says it would cost too much to maintain. He also argues architects keep taking components out of the plan.
âTheyâre now wanting to deliver a Yugo in place of the 2006 Corvette that we bought at the same price as the Corvette. So, it continually gets less and less of what theyâve promised because the budget constraint is iron clad.â
âBut the price hasnât gone down?â
âNo. Every time they take something away the price doesnât go down. They do that to stay in the budget â¦ â
âWould you argue that the architects proposed a glamorous project at first and thatâs why it was approved through the process that the city laid out and now theyâve just slowly been whittling away at it? Do you think that it would have been approved if it had been presented as it is now?â
âI doubt that anyone would have accepted it because itâs nothing like what they showed. What they showed is very graceful and a very iconic structure. The only way you can do it is reinforced concrete. They found out very early on that that is extremely expensive â it just doesnât fit in the budget.â
There is a group called WOW St. Pete that likes the Lens. Neil Irwin is new to the cause. He works in real estate and plans to offer space to Lens proponents. Irwin said he doesnât see any fundamental design flaws with the project.
âI mean, calling it a sidewalk to nowhere is ridiculous. All piers are sidewalks that take you out over the water and back. Sidewalk to nowhere is their big propaganda message and just because thereâs not a mini-mall out there doesnât mean it doesnât have a function.â
Irwin also argues the group was only able to get enough signatures to force a referendum because they hired a California-based firm to help.
âSo their grassroots effort would have died naturally, but it was artificially inflated by some deep pockets.â
Both WOW St. Pete and Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg plan to send supporters to city council for the meeting Thursday at 2 p.m. The group in favor of the Lens will wear blue shirts. Opponents will wear red creating a visual divide that has become common at St. Pete City Hall.
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