Lens lovers emerge victorious after contentious St. Pete Pier funding decision

05/17/13 Janelle Irwin
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St. Pete officials are moving forward with plans to build a new pier despite objections and a probable referendum. During a meeting Thursday, city council members approved more than $800,000 in scaled-back funding for the next design phase for the Lens.

Two weeks ago, city council put off deciding whether or not to allocate $1.5 million for the next step in replacing St. Pete’s iconic inverted pyramid. Instead, they asked for the funding request to be broken down into how the money would be spent. During the meeting Thursday, St.Pete Mayor Bill Foster said he wants to move forward, but also make sure the city doesn’t waste any money.

“I like the a la carte options and going forward and spending only that which is necessary to obtain approvals for demolitions – address questions of the public.”

Those questions will need to be answered now that opponents of the Lens have turned in more than 20,000 petitions which could force a referendum on the August 27 ballot asking whether or not the city should cancel its contract with Michael Maltzan Architects to build the Lens. An opponent of the design, Mark Ellis, said the city can do better.

“We had Baywalk and that was a total debacle, total disaster, the taxpayers were stuck with it and look at it now, they’re tearing a lot of it down. It just wasn’t economically viable. And where I want to go with that is translate it to the new design of the Pier. I just took my girlfriend down to the existing Pier. I took her to my friend’s club, bought her a nice dinner. There were things to do there. There are common areas where people could congregate, listen to a band, dance. The current – the Lens proposal – there’s nothing to do out there. Ok, there’s an ice cream shop; I don’t like ice cream. Are you going to have a café? Can I get a latte, maybe a hot dog? A lot of this hasn’t been addressed.”

Many critics of the new design wore red shirts that said “Stop the Lens.” But there were almost as many residents packing city council chambers wearing blue shirts that said “Make Lens Not War.” Tampa Bay area pitchman Anthony Sullivan took has taken many a break from hawking Oxi Clean on infomercials to get behind the push to build the Lens.

“Do you ever have that teacher in class – there’s some kids here – that always gives you an F? No matter what you do, you get them. I believe the opposition group, honestly, they’re that group that just gives you an F regardless. No matter how hard you try, no matter what you put forward, it [isn’t] good enough, it’s going to be a wind tunnel, it’s going to fall down, it’s going to rust, nobody likes it, it’s a $50 million sidewalk to nowhere – the list goes on and on.”

The kids Sullivan referred to were Boy Scouts putting in time to earn their government participation badges. City Council Wengay Newton has been a booming voice of opposition to the Lens.

“First of all, I think using the Boy Scouts was a new low. I’ve been here going on almost six years, I’ve never seen them come in and speak pro or con on anything and they come in to get their merit badges. I didn’t know there was a merit badge in exploitation.”

Newton was one of three council members to vote against spending more than $800,000 to move forward with the Lens. He was joined by Karl Nurse, who has recently sided with Lens critics and Charlie Gerdes. But longtime St. Pete resident Steven Ergo cautioned council members about the implications of hitting the pause button.

“What architectural firm is going to want to spend the time and money to design preliminary plans only to have them rejected by yet another referendum. Residents will now have the right to vote on this, but the council also has the right to vote and the authority to approve and continue this project.”

Some critics of the Lens talking amongst themselves before the meeting started had already resigned to the fact that a portion of the money was going to be approved. But that didn’t stop them from trying. Howard Taylor was among one of the first to speak during nearly two hours of public comment. He showed a satirical video chastising the design using photos of angry mobs from the movie Young Frankenstein.

“But many of the drawings had no basis in reality such as an amphitheater, draw bridge and energy islands with crystal clear water both in the bay outside and inside the Lens. You see, it was called the Lens because it would be a window into the underwater world beneath and provide views of the bay below. Villagers were surprised at this because everyone except the architect knew that the water was too dark for that sort of visibility. However, the name stuck.”

Other critics suggested Mayor Foster keep the existing Pier open until after the August 27th referendum. Foster said that’s not an option because it’s too expensive.

“It’s just 90-days. It’s just $400,000. Where do I get that? You take the subsidy of $1.4-1.5, you remove your anchor tenants in Columbia and Cha Cha’s and you leave the existing tenants on the first floor with an elevator up to a roof without any vending up on the top – that’s where you get that and it’s probably – I don’t know how many businesses would remain, but if it’s 15, it’s in excess of $20,000 in subsidy per business. That is not a wise decision and use of taxpayer money.”

The vote to approve additional funding means Michael Maltzan Architecture can move forward with a portion of the design development phase and Skanska, the construction company, can go ahead with pre-construction plans.

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Long time resident Steve Urgo? He has lived here 3 years!

I thought he said 2 years, but many years "in the area"