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Is it past time to tear down St. Petersburg's Pier?

St. Petersburg Pier’s iconic inverted pyramid building remains rock-solid, but the 83-year-old half-mile roadway leading from the mainland is on its last legs and will have to be replaced.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times (2008)

St. Petersburg Pier’s iconic inverted pyramid building remains rock-solid, but the 83-year-old half-mile roadway leading from the mainland is on its last legs and will have to be replaced.

After a year of study, a city task force appears heading toward a tough conclusion: Tearing down the Pier must be part of any solution for St. Petersburg's most familiar waterfront icon.

It's a notion members of the city's Pier Advisory Task Force said all their friends urged them to forget. But an informal consensus last week said it's willing to risk touching this third rail of St. Petersburg politics.

"Virtually every option we are looking at requires tearing down the Pier," said Leslie Curran, a City Council member.

Their sales job would be easier if they had some "wow" option lined up as a replacement. But the group is hoping something compelling emerges when their deliberations get serious in January, then are tossed to the City Council in February.

There's no urgency beyond engineers' warning that the crumbling 83-year-old pier must be rebuilt soon.

The inverted pyramid Pier building, an imposing example of the 1970s brutalist style of poured-concrete architecture, remains rock-solid if functionally obsolete. So it could escape with only cosmetic changes.

But the quarter-mile of bridge decks leading to and surrounding the pyramid are on their last legs. Replacing them will eat up most of the $50 million that becomes available in 2012 to give the Pier a new lease on life. The tab just to level the whole thing for a fishing reef is $6 million.

Ideas range from a steel roller coaster looping through the building and out over the bay, to keeping landmark restaurants intact, to leaving a scaled-down observation tower that preserves the downtown skyline view at the end of a narrowed or shortened Second Avenue approach.

Studies of city piers and waterfront entertainment centers across the country have yet to find one not subsidized by taxpayers. And experts confirmed the Pier's design flaw.

It's a long half-mile hike from Bayshore Boulevard to get there. Once there, dwindling numbers of visitors find little to occupy their time, much less to buy. Shops would have a better chance closer to the mainland.

Some new developments:

• Some members want to dramatically expand the Pier's modest aquarium. Others question competing for tourist dollars with top-tier aquariums in Tampa or at SeaWorld.

"Whatever we put out there should be the biggest and the best of its kind, like the Dali Museum," said committee member Brad Bell.

• Adding more retail space to reduce the $1.4 million operating subsidy courts financial disaster. Coaxing tourists to pay for parking or hike a half mile from the Museum of Fine Arts for tourist trinkets is hard enough. An analysis says more retail at the Pier would require somehow tripling the rents and sales from the current anemic $263 a square foot to $1,000. So some want to move shops to new buildings on the mainland.

• To lure locals, some suggest the city move staged events from congested Vinoy Park to what are now the Pier's parking lots.

"I cannot imagine this city without a Pier," said member Ed Montanari. "It is the defining statement of our waterfront."

But merely rebuilding the bridge-like piers promises to leave taxpayers wondering just what they got for their money.

Got any ideas?

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Is it past time to tear down St. Petersburg's Pier? 12/07/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 8, 2009 12:25am]
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