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Daniel Ruth: To build or not to build a St. Petersburg pier

By Daniel Ruth

It's not very often a place like St. Petersburg gets an opportunity to ask itself a simple but very profound question.

What truly defines a city's identity?

Paris, of course, has its Eiffel Tower. London has Buckingham Palace. Or perhaps Trafalgar Square. New York? Where to begin? Central Park, to be sure, and a glorious skyline. Some cities really have nothing. Los Angeles is really just more and more and more of Los Angeles. Chicago has Grant Park, Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue.

I grew up in Akron, Ohio, where the big claim to fame was an enormous hangar to house the Goodyear blimp. Very exciting stuff.

And now St. Petersburg faces its own interesting conversation. What does it want its front lawn to look like? The Tampa Bay Times Perspective section has raised a simple issue: "Do We Still Need A Pier?"

It's a fair point.

The inverted pyramid on the city's pier is long and gratefully gone.

This probably qualifies as one of those "it seemed like a good idea at the time" moments.

In its original form, the design selected to replace the old pier looked reasonably spiffy.

But time and rising costs have led to a budget crunch for the new design. What's left of the original concept is slowly dwindling to only the basics and none of the charms.

That raises two points. First, should the city move forward and build a reduced version of the original concept in the hope that future enhancements could gussy the whole thing up?

Or second — do nothing?

St. Petersburg already has a lovely, elegant, spacious waterfront. It is already a welcoming destination regardless of the presence of a pier.

And there is this. St. Petersburg rightfully enjoys an international reputation as a cultural enclave. The city prides itself as a centerpiece of the arts, a place where creativity and vision are prized and respected.

So the awkward question has to be raised.

Why would St. Petersburg move ahead with a functioning public arts project that fails to meet the city's widely regarded reputation for the highest standards of cultural expression? Simply because the city has a pot (albeit too small) of money to spend on a new pier is not an excuse to spend it if the result fails to measure up to St. Petersburg's legacy of quality.

Good enough should not be good enough.

This is a difficult conundrum for the city. It is a pretty unique thing, given the community-wide interest and the money already expended for a new pier, to suggest St. Petersburg's leadership hit the pause button and wonder aloud: "Wait a minute! If we can't deliver on the original design concept do we really want to continue to move ahead with a new pier when the end result could well be the architectural equivalent of rusting Ford Pinto sitting on blocks sticking out into Tampa Bay?"

That is a very tough call, rife with the potential for some political consequences at City Hall.

Unfortunately the pier's fate is one of those issues that simply can't be kicked down the road for future mayors or city councils. There are too many moving parts, too many timelines unfolding to dawdle.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and the City Council are confronted with every politician's worst nightmare: the pressing need to make a decision. And they should remember a stripped down, on-the-cheap, less than memorable structure will always have their name on it.

At least future generations will know whom to blame.