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Inverted pyramid at the Pier in St. Petersburg headed for wrecking ball

The iconic design of the Pier in St. Petersburg has been around since 1973, but it is showing its age and it costs too much to fix.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

The iconic design of the Pier in St. Petersburg has been around since 1973, but it is showing its age and it costs too much to fix.

ST. PETERSBURG — For nearly four decades, the Pier's inverted pyramid has served as the city's instantly recognizable landmark.

In a Wednesday workshop that lasted less than two hours, the City Council endorsed Mayor Bill Foster's recommendation to demolish the icon and start from scratch.

"Now we get to rebrand our trademark for the next 100 years," Foster said. "Or 50 years. We won't be around. That's a pretty awesome responsibility."

Foster coaxed the decision from a council that has been hesitant to make a call on what to do with $50 million that will be made available to overhaul the Pier, which is entering its latest chapter in redevelopment.

The city opened the Mediterranean-style Million Dollar Pier in 1926 but demolished it in 1967 when it slid into disrepair. The exotic and some say funky upside down pyramid pier opened in 1973, but its condition has declined. For more than a year, a task force has discussed options but didn't narrow down what to do next.

On Wednesday, Foster described the indecision as "analysis-paralysis." He pushed council members to support his recommendation not just for scrapping the existing building, but its base, too. He said the Pier needs to come closer to shore.

While the council voted in a straw poll 5-3 to support the demolition, it's not binding or official. But it does indicate, for the first time, the direction the council wants to take.

Not all council members supported the decision.

"Underwhelming" is how Bill Dudley described it. He said the residents he has talked to told him they want to keep the Pier as is.

"St. Louis didn't decide the (Gateway) Arch was too old and they were going to replace it," Dudley said. "The idea of that pyramid, it's very identifiable, people recognize it. I don't like reinventing the wheel."

Wengay Newton, who described his own emotional attachment to the design, said the Pier shouldn't be changed either.

"Not only is the Pier historic, it is St. Pete," Newton said. "We have a pier that the world recognizes. I think with $50 million, we can go in there and renovate that building, make it more cost efficient."

But Foster convinced other council members it was time to do away with the upside down design.

"Everyone I've talked to said it's a waste of money to spend $50 million on what we have now," said council Chairwoman Leslie Curran.

"I'm as strong a preservationist as anyone," said Jeff Danner. "But preservation has chapters. The Pier's history is in its location."

Council member Jim Kennedy wanted to salvage the Pier's base because he thinks it can still be used for several more years. Studies have shown that the concrete pilings under the base of the Pier and the approach have been degraded and are increasingly unstable.

Because of that, he didn't join Curran, Danner, Herb Polson, Steve Kornell and Karl Nurse in voting to support demolishing the Pier and to bring it closer to shore with a new base and approach. They all ruled out building it on land.

The city will next draft a request for qualifications that will be sent to engineering and architectural firms from around the world. Bids are scheduled to come back to the city next summer, when three to six firms will be chosen as finalists for a design competition.

The winner will design the new pier by 2012.

After the meeting, Foster said the inverted pyramid will hardly be missed.

"People still talk about the Million Dollar Pier," Foster said. "My parents still talk about it. I'm not sure in 30 years people will miss the inverted pyramid."

Word of the vote spread quickly to the Pier on Wednesday, where parking attendants waited for long stretches between customers as a stiff breeze offset 95-degree heat. Inside, shoppers barely outnumbered employees.

Rameh Baydoun scowled from behind the counter of Burger Bay, the first-floor restaurant he has maintained for 23 years, when told of the council's decision.

"We don't see locals here anyway," said Baydoun, 51. "Zero."

Uncertainty has spread through the building in recent months.

"It seems like everyone is asking us what's going on, and we don't know ourselves," said Rebecca Holdick, 28, an employee of the Pier Aquarium.

"I've heard a lot of people disappointed thinking it won't be here anymore," she added.

Danny Lopez, her co-worker, said local residents do swing by before or after Rays games. But he worries that could stop as long as its demise looms.

"They're going to stop showing up," said Lopez, 31.

Talk of the Pier's closing already has hurt business, said Nathaniel Pyle, who manages the Pier Winery.

"People think it's already closed," he said.

Even after the city rebuilds, Baydoun said he will not be back.

"I don't want to start from scratch again," he said.

Ditching the Pier's distinct look may prove costly, said Will Michaels, who sat on the task force and is the former president of St. Petersburg Preservation.

"My first preference was to save the building," said Michaels, who is president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations of South Pinellas County. "It's the city's logo. It's become the brand of our community. But each pier building represents a generation. So maybe there's a new look that will reflect St. Petersburg's heritage and past, while also representing its future."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

What's next?

The city will next draft a request for qualifications that will be sent to engineering and architectural firms from around the world. Bids are scheduled to come back to the city next summer, when three to six firms will be chosen as finalists for a design competition.

The winner will design the new pier by 2012 with demolition to follow in 2013 or 2014.

Inverted pyramid at the Pier in St. Petersburg headed for wrecking ball 08/18/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 19, 2010 11:58am]

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