Despite objections, St. Pete officials move forward with plans to replace the Pier

06/14/12 Janelle Irwin
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City officials in St. Petersburg are moving closer to finalizing plans to replace the pier and its iconic “inverted pyramid.” Thirty-five people showed up Tuesday night in South St. Pete to one of several information-gathering public meetings about the future of the downtown pier.

After years of consideration, St. Pete City Council voted in May to approve a contract with Michael Maltzan Architecture for the construction of an all-new structure. Jason Jensen, an architect with the company, said the new design falls more in line with a city park.

“The Lens re-imagines the notions of a traditional pier and provides twin overlapping bridges that create a looping circuit that encircles the water allowing a wider variety of experiences as visitors travel out, around and back.”

The Lens would create an area meant for walking and sightseeing and eliminate much of the current inverted pyramid’s retail space. That commercial use costs the city a $1.5 million annual subsidy and it’s one of the reasons officials are poised to see it go. But not everyone sees it that way. Michele Owens likes the new design, but asked Chris Ballestra, managing director of city development, if the new pier would also have a subsidy.

“Net of the capital costs to maintain it, $1.4-1.5 million a year. So, not unlike any of our city parks. All of them are subsidized. People don’t complain about subsidizing a city park and the fact is….

“…which is what the pier is considered. The people did not do that. The people in charge did.”

“As noted in the presentations though, just the physical asset alone is smaller than – in terms of the over-water coverage, the requirements to maintain that.”

And Raul Quintana, an architect with the city, said even though the inverted pyramid’s foundation is OK, a chemical in salt water has, over time, corroded steel rods that hold the Pier’s bridge together. Those damages have been repaired over the years, but Quintana said it’s really just a Band-Aid.

“Tests have shown that high chloride concentrations exist well inside past repairs indicating that these repairs provide no long term protection of the reinforcing steel. By repairing the pier by applying gunite or cement patches really does nothing to stop the corrosion or increase the load-carrying capacity of the bridge.”

City officials are also hoping to create an area residents will actually use. St. Pete City Council member Steve Kornell acknowledges that the inverted pyramid building at the end of the Pier is an iconic image of St. Petersburg’s downtown waterfront.

“But when people aren’t going to it, that speaks volumes and so the fact that people aren’t going out there makes me feel that it’s time to try something new which is not unprecedented in our history. People were quite upset when the Million Dollar Pier gave way to the inverted pyramid and there were others before the Million Dollar Pier. I think council has made a thoughtful decision, a very thorough decision.”

Architect Raul Quintana thinks that the current Pier is under-utilized because it was designed in the mid 1920s with the growing automobile industry in mind. There’s four lanes of vehicular traffic along the Pier’s approach and another for an electric trolley car. Quintana said not only is that not an appropriate use of space today, it also presents some environmental concerns.

“Over 80% of that current pier is dedicated to vehicular use. That’s nearly 200,000 square feet which is essentially this large funnel for the collection of oils, petroleum products, nutrient pollutants and other toxins that dump directly into the bay.”

But a group called Vote on the Pier is fed up with the city making decisions for them. Tom Lambdon, director of the organization, just wants city officials to let voters decide.

“I guess conversely you could say, why is it so important for the city to deliberately go out of their way not to let the voters decide. This is a $50 million long-term decision. It changes the downtown waterfront forever and the way that it’s been gone about with the city is to silence the voters and all the council members are all the sudden specialists in what can and can’t be done, yet they didn’t seek a single outside bid.”

The group is gathering petition signatures to put the matter on the ballot. St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster imposed a deadline on the 16,000 needed signatures that passed this week. But according to the Supervisor of Elections office, the city has until August 3 to submit language for a referendum. Lambdon claims the group already has more than 14,000 signatures and is pressing forward despite the Mayor’s deadline. But council member Steve Kornell said even if they get the signatures, he’s not sure he’d go back on the contract to demolish and rebuild that he approved.

“So, I’d have to think very careful about whether I would vote to put the issue to a referendum whether they get the signatures or not. Which, by the way...there’s zero certified petitions.”

Lambdon claims the city hasn’t looked at other options for the Pier. A letter to city officials last week cited a $59 million bid from bridge architect Archer Western. Lambdon said that number can easily be worked with to accommodate the city’s strict $50 million budget, but city officials aren’t considering it.

“I don’t know how the city can dispute that since the city never, to this day, has solicited a single outside proposal to see what could be done.”

Despite some opposition, architect Jason Jensen is excited about the Lens design. During the series of public meetings, Jensen has gathered information about what residents want in their Pier.

“The boating community feedback was that the current docks were unprotected and could be dangerous. Residents looking for boating destination can now moor safely inside the Lens’ protected harbor.”

So now the plan includes 20 transient boat slips. Other residents have asked about the view from the terminus of the Lens which looks in drawings like a princess tiara. Jensen said the views from his company’s design will be even better than what are available now from the roof of the inverted pyramid.

“You’re at approximately 75 feet to the observation point right now and at the new pier you would be close to 90 feet above the water looking back to the city.”

Plans for the Lens also include a so-called Hub on the uplands portion of the design. It’s expected to have restaurant space right next to Spa Beach. Jensen hopes that it will revitalize the area in a way similar to beach-front cafes in Pass-a-Grille and Sunset Beach. Two more meetings are being held for the public to talk to city officials and architects. One will be tonight at 6 p.m. at the J.W. Cate Recreation Center on 22nd Avenue North and then another next Tuesday at Lake Vista Recreation Center on 62nd Avenue South.

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