St. Pete's iconic Pier still set to close on May 31 despite objections

04/19/13 Janelle Irwin
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The St. Pete Pier will close at the end of May despite numerous objections. In a city council meeting Thursday, all but one council member refused to consider keeping the pier open until residents vote on the Pier’s future.

Council member Wengay Newton made a motion to stave off the lock and chain, but it died for a lack of a second. Newton wanted to keep the Pier open to save jobs. During a workshop earlier in the day city staff were charged with answering technical questions about plans for the new Pier. Newton pressed for the need to wait until voters decide. He also contended that the city was no longer getting what it agreed to pay for.

“As things go away like an underwater garden where you can go out and experience the sea life in and motorized boats – when all that stuff goes away, shouldn’t the price come down too? I mean, I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but the price is still $50 million dollars.

Critics of the new Pier design called the Lens presented a host of problems they found with proposed plans. That includes numerous fire code violations like narrow pathways. But the thing they were most hung up on was the plan to use galvanized steel and aluminum materials. Carter Karins heads a local engineering company and specializes in marine engineering.

“We’re talking about a coated system in this case – coated with a product that’s generically called Kinar and the Kinar finish isn't intended to protect the aluminum, it’s intended to make the product look good. It’s very susceptible to filiform corrosion at the edges which disfigures the material and ultimately leads to pitting corrosion of the aluminum.”

Engineers for the city told council members that the Kinar finish would protect the pier from the elements. It was one of several claims by the city critics begrudged as misleading. St. Petersburg’s director of engineering, Tom Gibbons, rifled through a list of structures already in place that are made of galvanized steel and doing just fine.

“This is Gandy Boulevard on the North side. This is a radio communication tower, or TV tower. It’s been there as long as I can remember – I've lived here all my life. It’s painted steel. I’m pretty sure it’s galvanized underneath. On Gandy Boulevard, there must be five or six galvanized towers in, around or near the water. This is a galvanized open-web truss on the Howard Franklin bridge approach. It’s directly in the spray zone. There’s one on either side of the bridge. DOT has used these galvanized steel structures for thirty, forty-plus years.”

But Karins argued those structures aren't comparable to the Lens design.

“The canopy structure is not an open-air, galvanized steel structure supporting an open-air sign or other device. What you see in those presentations are things that do indeed have long service lives. They have long service lives because they’re not continually subjected to salty moisture. They’re out in the air after the rain washes the salt off them, then they dry out. So, I have no doubt that one can design a highway sign that will last a significant length of time.”

Karins explained why the city’s expectations are wrong.

“It’s going to inhale warm, salty air in the morning and the afternoon and in the evening, the water’s going to condense out of that and collect in the bilges. Over time, you’ll get an accumulation of salt and other debris in there that will bridge the proposed separations between steel and aluminum.”

Karins is with the group Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg which is working on a petition drive to force a referendum in August. That would give voters the chance to scratch the Lens and send the city back to the drawing board. According to the group, they already have enough signatures to do that, but are playing it safe by getting extras. Despite the likelihood of a vote, city council is poised to keep the ball rolling. But the group did make headway on some design flaws. Engineers have increased the width of the main approach to the pier by two feet. The revisions also would widen and the over-water pedestrian path to accommodate emergency vehicles. Raul Quintana, the city’s head architect, said they have also made sure first responders could safely respond to an incident.

“At the end of the pier, at the promontory, there’s a 70-foot diameter clear turn around with a 20-foot clearance horizontally so that that fire engine can make its turn around and it meets the turn around radius that’s required for that engine. At the welcome mat, the radius is 120-feet so the fire department can bring the latter truck up to the welcome mat and meet their turn around requirements.”

One of the defenses of the Lens presented by city staff was that no design has been finalized yet. Instead, it’s just a concept. The fire department confirmed that nothing has been submitted to them for approval, but chief of prevention for the St. Pete Fire Department Michael Domante said staff has been consulting the department.

“They have accepted our input and we have talked about a lot of significant issues regarding building the building safety, our egress issues, our life safety concerns, our ability to effectively fight fires and handle emergencies and disasters out there. So, I just want to offer that as we move forward here. I have yet to see any official plans that have been developed and turned in for review – we’re way too early for that – but I just want to let you know that I’m very comfortable with working with the team that we have so far, that they’re taking our suggestions to heart and really doing the best they can to put forth a very safe and well-designed facility.”

The Pier is set to close on May 31. City council members will discuss and vote on the next phase of the Lens project including future funding on May 2.

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