ST. PETERSBURG — Nearly eighteen months ago, the City Council applauded an ambitious plan to transform bus shelters and stops along Central Avenue into a unified artistic vision.
That plan is now headed back to the drawing board.
The city staff was authorized in July 2014 to begin negotiations on the $2.3 million "Arts in Transit" project with the artistic team of Carol Mickett and Robert Stackhouse.
Mickett and Stackhouse's concept envisioned about 16 stops with lighted colored-coded columns built along the city's primary east-west corridor.
But in late December, the city's cultural affairs director, Wayne Atherholt, ended negotiations with Mickett and Stackhouse.
"They just weren't able to provide what we normally get from those types of projects," said Atherholt. "We didn't get what we needed."
City officials decided that it needs a team that has more expertise in public works and engineering. Artists aren't usually in charge of these types of projects, he said.
Atherholt's comments rankled Stackhouse and Mickett, who have completed large public art projects in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Richmond, Va.
"Why say something that will be on the Internet forever that will sully some artists' professional reputation, especially when what was said was false," Mickett said.
Added Stackhouse: "We just completed a project in Richmond where we assembled and worked with teams of engineers and fabricators at a similar cost, scope and magnitude to the Central Avenue project."
Atherholt said he was familiar with Mickett and Stackhouse's work in Virginia, which involved a unified James River theme, including a 73-foot mosaic and a steel and glass sculpture in the lobby of a high-rise downtown Richmond office tower completed last summer.
"That was a much different project," he said.
The city's decision surprised many in the city's arts community.
Dalí Museum director Hank Hine said he didn't know the details of what happened, but defended the reputations of Mickett and Stackhouse on previous large-scale projects, including one in Chattanooga.
"Everything I have seen from this team have been scrupulously and expertly pulled off," Hine said.
Jeff Danner, a former City Council member who was working with Mickett and Stackhouse, said he was frustrated by the city staff seemingly uninterested in helping the team negotiate complex federal and county regulations.
"They just kept saying, 'Look it up.' This wasn't Mickett/Stackhouse's fault," he said.
Instead, Danner thinks, the project "got lost in the bureaucratic shuffle."
Mickett and Stackhouse were selected during the final months of former mayor Bill Foster's administration in 2013. Subsequent turnover of the city staff, including former cultural affairs manager Elizabeth Brincklow, rendered the project an orphan lacking an influential patron, Danner said.
Another former council member, Leslie Curran, said she was dumbfounded by the news. Mickett and Stackhouse have an international reputation with shows in museums all over the world, she said.
"It just boggles the mind that this project was ended," Curran said. "This was a signature project not just for St. Petersburg but this whole area."
Atherholt said the city remains excited about the project, which may or may not involve multiple artists. He hopes to rebid the project in the next month or so.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this article. Contact Charlie Frago at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.