ST. PETERSBURG — For months, the group VoteOnThePier.com has been trumpeting a plan to renovate the Pier for less than the city says it will spend for a replacement.
Mayor Bill Foster recently ordered his staff to respond. City engineers have called the group's proposal questionable and declared that any attempt to restore the almost 40-year-old inverted pyramid would exceed the new Pier's $50 million budget by tens of millions.
Not so, the group's architect quickly replied.
As the two sides parry, a City Council member says he has learned from the construction company that gave Vote OnThePier.com its quote that its proposal is far from firm. When contacted by the Tampa Bay Times, the firm declined to be drawn into the controversy and said further that it had submitted a formal proposal to St. Petersburg to construct the very Pier that VoteOnThePier.com opposes.
Add to the mix, others —- among them respected businessmen and influential St. Petersburg residents such as Bud Risser of Risser Oil Corp., retired construction and banking lawyer William Ballard and restaurateur and investor Dan Harvey — now urging the city to scrap plans for the new Pier, known as the Lens. They cite cost, saying interest on the $50 million the city must borrow will add many more millions to the project. They also express distaste for the design featuring looping bridges and a tiara-style canopy and say people will have no reason to visit what they envision will be a useless monument. They, too, are demanding a vote on the project.
In a four-page letter to the mayor, Ballard, a former commodore of the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, prodded him to halt the project.
Seeking the world's attention "through placement of a huge abstract art object in Tampa Bay as a replacement for our signature pier will get us attention — in the form of ridicule," he wrote.
"The world of art endeavors is strewn with failure. It is a high-risk world in which the wealthy can play because they can afford to lose. Can we? If we lose we can't sell the Lens at a loss or put it in a closet. We will have to look at it for our lifetimes."
Amid accusations of hyperbole and misinformation and calls for truth telling, there appears to be one area in which there is some agreement. The city says the superstructure of the Pier approach and Pier head — the area surrounding the five-story structure — are crumbling. Constructed in 1926 for the former Million Dollar Pier, the superstructure can no longer support heavy vehicles such as garbage and beverage trucks. Additionally, says the city, the foundation that supports the 1973 inverted pyramid reaches the end of its service life in less than 10 years. City officials say ongoing repairs and maintenance are costly and renovation, prohibitive.
VoteOnThePier.com's plan would replace the 1920s Pier approach and Pier head, and protect the 1970s caissons from further deterioration.
In the past few weeks, Foster and council members have gotten an earful from residents, some of whom have spoken at meetings to say what they'd like to see at the new Pier.
"What was striking at these public meetings was that very few people spoke in favor of the Lens," council member Steve Kornell said.
Late last week, VoteOnThePier.com mailed almost 40,000 petitions to residents as part of its campaign to force a vote on the project. The group is about 1,000 petitions short of the almost 16,000 it needs, said Tom Lambdon, the Safety Harbor businessman who says he has sunk about $5,500 of his own money to lead the effort. His goal is to deliver the petitions to City Hall before July 4, he said.
Lambdon said he sought out Archer Western Contractors, "the second largest bridge contractor in the country," in a bid to save the iconic inverted pyramid.
"I have personally met with them on several occasions at the Pier — and they have provided me with an itemized budget proposal — based on what I asked them to provide itemized pricing for," he wrote in a May 17, 2011, letter to the city's Charter Review Commission.
Archer Western's $59.9 million proposal included $4.5 million in what Lambdon referred to as "add-ons," such as an air-conditioned electric people mover, 18 freestanding retail modules "to be placed up and down the pier bridge and pier head," a fishing pier and a floating dock for about 20 small vessels.
Curious about the proposal, Kornell called Archer Western's Tampa office and spoke with manager Brian Sparks.
"They said that it was not a firm quote. Mr. Sparks said there would have to be a lot more research into it, that engineering studies would have to be done,'' Kornell said.
In a telephone interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Sparks said the company had submitted a proposal to the city to be the construction manager at risk for the new Pier.
"I don't want to be in the middle of any controversy," Sparks said. "I can't comment right now, since we've submitted that proposal."
Responding to VoteOnThePier.com's renovation estimates, Rick Mussett, the city's senior administrator of development, said an analysis showed that any effort to restore the current Pier "would exceed the $50 million budget" by $20 to $30 million.
Tampa architect Kenneth P. Kroger, who said he has donated about $35,000 in billable time to the VoteOnThePier.com effort, responded that the group has made "numerous adjustments as result of the conversations that we have had with the community" and brought the costs down to under $50 million.
Money was among Risser's talking points as he spoke during last week's public input session at Lake Vista Recreation Center.
He said borrowing the money could drive the cost above $80 million.
"If the city had the full $50 million currently available, we could avoid the financing costs," Joe Zeoli, the city's managing director of development administration, said in an email. "But, much like a home purchase for an individual, it is normal for governments and corporations to fund a large project by incurring debt —- which requires that we pay interest."
The city, meanwhile, has signed an initial contract for the project with Michael Maltzan Architecture, the Los Angeles-based designer of the Lens. Demolition of the inverted pyramid is expected to occur in August 2013, with construction of its replacement to begin in 2014.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.