ST. PETERSBURG — An organization whose members include two past mayors and those who trace their heritage to early St. Petersburg families objects to a plan to install one of Janet Echelman’s world famous, aerial net sculptures at Spa Beach.
The Waterfront Parks Foundation laid out its position last week in a four-page letter to Mayor Rick Kriseman and the City Council. They’re not against the renowned artist or her work, the group says, just intent on protecting St. Petersburg’s "precious waterfront views and passive green space."
Specifically, the foundation’s 24-member board believes that allowing a piece "of this scope on designated waterfront parkland is inconsistent with the great vision of our city’s Founding Fathers ... when they purchased and mandated a downtown waterfront primarily reserved for green space."
The group’s declaration that "it is time to draw a line on further relinquishment of park land for unintended uses," could presage a new battle for the city’s waterfront.
"I don’t think there’s a compromise that would make them happy," said Kyle Parks, who supports the Echelman piece and the city’s plans to have it soar above Spa Beach.
Parks, principal of B2 Communications, a firm that is donating its expertise to boost support for the $2.8 million public art project, sent the Tampa Bay Times a point-by-point response to the issues the foundation raised.
"The sculpture does not interfere with the use of the land as a passive park area," Parks said. "The whole point of an aerial sculpture is that the entire grassy ground plane is preserved for all manner of uses."
Parks called the foundation "a bit out of touch" and said St. Petersburg has changed since the days of its founding fathers. The 26-acre Pier District will feature several focal points, he said, one of which will be the Echelman piece that will draw people to little-used Spa Beach.
Another supporter, Jay Miller, president of J Square Developers, wrote to Kriseman saying that the city’s "spectacular downtown waterfront deserves a signature piece of public art that can be enjoyed by city residents ... and will become a dynamic symbol of the city for our many visitors."
Even as city officials will be forced to acknowledge the influential parks group, they also are trying to raise about $600,000 in private funds needed to give St. Petersburg the bragging rights of owning one of Echelman’s ethereal, undulating pieces. Wayne Atherholt, director of cultural affairs, said in an email last week that the city continues "to work on raising funds and should be able to make an announcement in the coming weeks."
That timeline adds extra pressure to an already tight construction schedule for the $76 million Pier District, which the city hopes to open in the fall of 2019. Chris Ballestra, the city’s managing director of development coordination, had said he hoped the Echelman funds would be secured by June 1. He said it would take the Boston-based artist three months to design the sculpture and eight to nine months to fabricate it.
Meanwhile, the parks foundation is leaning on the city charter to bolster its case against an Echelman installation at Spa Beach. The organization says that while the charter does not specifically mention art, it does address "elements that could negatively impact" parks. Echelman’s sculpture, with its supporting columns, is art, the group concedes, but it also is "a formidable structure and the size and appearance ... should be considered" in the city’s decision.
The group’s letter, signed by its president, Phil Graham Jr., a descendant of one of the city’s earliest settlers and landscape architect of the Dalí Museum, also emphasizes the expected 25-year lifespan of the Echelman piece.
The point was raised by lawyer Harvey Ford at a recent Chamber of Commerce meeting. Spa Beach is officially a passive park, Ford said, which means that permanent structures, that is, anything that will be there for more than six months, is not allowed.
City Attorney Jackie Kovilaritch has said that "a substantial change of use" ordinance will be introduced to cover the Echelman piece and other elements of the pier project. For now, an ordinance related to the Pier District’s "gateway," where a vehicle roundabout is planned at Second Avenue NE and Bayshore Drive, is set for public hearing on July 12. The change will affect a portion of Soreno/Straub Park.
The foundation sees a problem with similar action at Spa Beach, saying the city’s plan to accommodate the Echelman sculpture "seems to challenge the Charter’s intent to protect our parkland from major construction without a referendum."
Other concerns of Graham’s group include the project’s towering support poles and its daytime appearance. It notes that the sculpture’s netting is translucent by day, according to the city, "but unfortunately the structural poles, cables, lighting elements and required support utilities are not."
So, where should Echelman’s billowing sculpture go? The foundation envisions it rising above the plaza, a central area in the Pier District.
"I think in that location it would just be the center focus of the plaza and at night it will be an attraction to lead your eye to the Pier," Graham said.
Other places suggested include the area between the Dali Museum and the Mahaffey Theater, or, offers the group, even floating from the city’s downtown buildings.
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.