Lens critics deliver more than 20,000 petitions to St. Pete City Hall to force a referendum

05/15/13 Janelle Irwin
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 it’s not hard to get that many people to sign a petition.

“What it’s hard to do is get 20,000 of them to do it and I guess it was a daunting task that we didn’t realize how long it would take. We’re glad we got to this point.”

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.

“Well, I asked the question and I have yet to get an answer to it. My question at the last council hearing was, “How 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.” And we know the outcome of that vote. I haven’t 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.”

City Council will decide Thursday how to proceed with funding.

“At council’s direction, we’re going to provide kind of an à 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.”

That’s St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster talking to reporters after the petitions were turned in.

“I think what you’ll see tomorrow is that we continue to move the process forward.”

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 won’t happen. Concerned Citizens chair Whaley said it’s important to wait because a separate one would cost taxpayers too much money.

“The turnout, probably in special election is higher, but there’s no reason to have one when we’re that close to a regular election. There’s 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.”

The group isn’t proposing an alternative to the Lens; nor are they advocating saving the existing Pier. Bud Risser is a Concerned Citizens board member.

“We 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.”

City officials concede that voters will have the chance to decide whether or not the city will ultimately build the Lens. But that doesn’t mean they have to stop moving forward. There’s at least two council members who will vote to suspend spending – 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.

“When twice voters have signed over 20,000 petitions, I think it’s pretty obvious that we need to let voters decide this.”

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.

“They’re 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 they’ve promised because the budget constraint is iron clad.”

“But the price hasn’t gone down?”

“No. Every time they take something away the price doesn’t go down. They do that to stay in the budget … ”

“Would you argue that the architects proposed a glamorous project at first and that’s why it was approved through the process that the city laid out and now they’ve 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?”

“I doubt that anyone would have accepted it because it’s 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 – it just doesn’t fit in the budget.”

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 doesn’t see any fundamental design flaws with the project.

“I 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 there’s not a mini-mall out there doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a function.”

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.

“So their grassroots effort would have died naturally, but it was artificially inflated by some deep pockets.”

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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The Lens...Shortsighted Round two, here we go again... The "new and improved" lens pier changes are just cosmetic and do not really address all the convenient parking spaces they took away from the original pier. Will there still be a tram or trolley for the old and the handicapped to get to the pier…how about some Segways? Not everyone visiting the new pier will want to eat at a restaurant. Why did they nix the ice cream shop(s)? The monstrous and useless kite like cement crown is still in place overpowering and over shadowing the new pier. Now that the so called artificial reef idea has been nixed how about putting in its place some dazzling lighted dancing waters like the fountains of The Bellagio inside the lens? This alone would bring in the crowds at night to downtown St. Petersburg like no other attraction there now. There seems to be an entrenched and egocentric maniac anal reluctance to consider any other improvements or changes by the St. Petersburg city council, the mayor and or the architects to the new pier.