Supporters and critics of The Lens jab as city council approves multi-million dollar appropriation for new pier design

12/06/12 Janelle Irwin
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St. Pete City Council approved spending almost $5 million to move forward with plans to build a new pier during a meeting packed with concerned residents today. Council member Wengay Newton was the only no vote. Supporters of the new pier design equaled opponents who said they’re not giving up.

“If you close the Pier down and you try to demolish it, I will be there standing in front of the equipment and you will be arresting me every time I get back out of jail.”

Tyler Mitchell hates the Lens. The tiara-shaped pier design has been called a lot of things by critics. Awful. A gamble. But the bottom line is, Mitchell and at least 20,000 other people who have signed a petition to stop the Lens from being built don’t think the design is what St. Pete needs.

“This Pier is not something that works for the people of St. Petersburg and if you continue to throw money at this knowing that we will win no matter how much money the Chamber of Commerce has, no matter how many propaganda videos you guys make, no matter how many concert events you have, we’re still going to win because we have people, we have numbers and we will take this thing down.”

The distaste for the design by Michael Maltzan Architecture has paved the way for a grueling battle between citizens and city council members. All Lens critics want is a chance to let voters decide whether or not the tiara-shaped pier design gets erected or the inverted pyramid and approach get repaired. Now critics led by former city council member Kathleen Ford are suing the city for that chance. City Council members scheduled a closed session with their attorneys next Thursday to hash out mediation plans. That led Wengay Newton to try to stall a decision on whether or not to fork over $5.4 million to architects to proceed with the project.

“In light of the attorney client session that is scheduled and not having enough factual information to go forth … I would move that we defer this procedure of spending any more money until after our closed session to be advised as to what our position is if we will prevail in this lawsuit or just lose the money that we appropriate today.”

His problem wasn’t so much with the pier debate as it was about the money. If the anti-Lens group gets their way and the new Pier isn’t built, the city will likely lose a hefty chunk of change. Regardless, Mayor Bill Foster and all of council except for Newton want to forge on. And city attorney John Wolfe assured the body that even if they approve this installment of the $50 million project, some money can be recouped if the project gets axed.

“It’ll depend on how far we are into the process. We can suspend the work at any time and they will get paid up to that time for the work that they have done.”

Critics of the Lens have bombarded city council meetings since the design was chosen in February, but today they were met equally by people who want the project to get started. Willi Rudowsky said people who are trying to drag out the process are being selfish.

“Failure to move ahead on the Pier project will lead to a pad locked gate leading to a desolate building at the end of a long road on our prized downtown waterfront. Is that really the image we want visitors to see when they come to St. Petersburg? What happens when the current roadway collapses under the weight of our collective indecision and civic dispute? Do I want our visitors to know that we can’t get out of our own way to move ahead in a way that will ultimately benefit us all?”

The packed city council chamber was split in a sea of red and blue shirts. People in red want to stop the Lens, as the white lettering on their shirts declares. The blue shirts simply said, “Make Lens Not War.” Anthony Sullivan, a prominent infomercial pitchman skipped the blue shirt in favor of a suit, but gave an impassioned first speech during public comment urging council members to keep the ball rolling on the Lens project.

“I don’t think the Lens is about what I want or what you want or what anyone in this room really wants, it’s about what we do for our children and it’s about the legacy we leave behind for our children. I know it’s a big decision – it’s a $50 million decision, or two easy payments of $25 million as I would say in my business. I’ll pay the first one for you. Let’s honor the past and shape the future.”

The red shirts argue that the inverted pyramid is an iconic part of St. Pete’s waterfront. It’s been there since 1973. Most think the $50 million set aside for the project would be better spent repairing what’s already there. Fred Whaley chairs the group Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg which has been active in efforts to put the Pier debate up for referendum. And of course, he’s one of the many who just really, really don’t like the Lens.

“It is a park built out over the water for $50 million. The only difference between that park out over the water and North Shore Park is a gelato stand.”

Others in the group pleaded with city council members to consider hidden costs. Bill Ballard is a retired Navy submarine engineer. He said the materials Michael Maltzan Architecture is planning to use to build the over-water loop could require a lot of maintenance.

“Who pays if the metal canopy begins to need hundreds of thousands of dollars of annual maintenance a few years after it’s built? Or who pays if it needs a substantial rebuild due to corrosion within 20 years of being built or both of these processes occur?”

If city council decides or is forced to put the issue on a ballot, the earliest a decision could be made is November. The current pier is scheduled to close to the public on May 31st. Retailers will then have 60 days to remove their items before demolition. City council approved demolition this August because engineering reports showed that the road leading to the inverted pyramid was falling apart.

WMNF's previous pier coverage

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