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Carillon developer makes a bold bid to build new Pier

ST. PETERSBURG — Out with the inverted pyramid. In with a large sand bar that would become downtown's first functional beach in generations.

Out with a current design that cedes much of its space to cars. In with more parkland, an amusement ride, a tram and a lush green lawn for an amphitheater.

In a hastily announced presentation Tuesday at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort, developer Darryl LeClair unveiled his vision for a new $50 million Pier, which has struggled in recent years to remain a viable draw for tourists and residents alike.

The city plans to spend at least $50 million in tax money for the project in the coming years. LeClair, the president of Echelon, a residential and commercial developer that helped build Carillon, made his bid for the project in a splashy presentation that lasted more than two hours and drew raves from some of the 120 people who attended the event.

It was a gutsy, unsolicited bid — City Council member Wengay Newton likened it to a party crashing — by a developer who is widely known for being a major player in high-stakes real estate.

LeClair's presentation cut ahead of the city's own unveiling of Pier conceptual plans, scheduled for Thursday. Bermello Ajamil & Partners, an engineering consultant, will make that presentation. The firm is getting paid $418,0000 to help redesign the 38-year-old Pier.

"The city has invested $418,000 so far, but this is the best I've seen yet," said Newton, who was the lone dissent against voting to demolish the Pier in August. "This was mind blowing. They took everything into consideration. I liked what I saw."

LeClair's version includes an expansive beach of five acres, much bigger than the nub of sand there now.

Along the upland area, the amount of space dedicated to cars would shrink by 12 percent. Two parking decks would pack in 820 spaces, and they'd be hidden by ground-floor retail that would wrap around the buildings.

No cars, except for emergency vehicles, would be allowed on the approach. Walking toward the Pier, park space would jut out along both sides. A splash pad and a beach bar would be tucked between where the beach and the approach intersect.

The approach itself would be 50 feet wider, leaving room for space that could host morning markets, a rubber-wheeled tram like the ones at Disney World and a carousel.

The platform supporting the Pier would be kept the same size and the same distance from land — about 1,028 feet — as it is now.

A green lawn would lead up to a three-story pavilion that could host evening symphonies and Shakespeare in the Park-type performances.

"This is the first plan that's really stitched everything together," Bill Walsh, a St. Petersburg resident who was invited to the event, told LeClair. "This really starts the conversation. Thanks for taking a leadership role on it."

LeClair said other options, if more tax money is set aside for parking projects, could increase the amount spent on the project up to $69 million.

Under that scenario, a water park, resort-style pool, a bridge to Vinoy Park, boat slips or an iconic amphitheater building could be added as well.

At times, the presentation by LeClair's development team, Cityscape, drew applause from the crowd, which included Mayor Bill Foster and four other members of the City Council: Bill Dudley, Jeff Danner, Karl Nurse and Chairman Jim Kennedy.

The beach was one of the best ideas, Kennedy said, because it would draw more people.

"(Cityscape) has to be commended for doing this on their own dime," said Kennedy, who estimated it cost $1 million to put the presentation together. Foster estimated it cost in the six figures.

Danner, however, sounded skeptical of the plan.

"I'd like to see how we can squeeze all that in for just $50 million," he said.

Foster demurred when asked for a reaction.

"Something of that scale takes time to digest," Foster said. "I'll reserve comment until the nuances can sink in."

There should be many of those. Some audience members raised questions about environmental considerations, like how the new beach and marina slips would affect the various sea grasses. Also, it wasn't clear how LeClair's team was calculating costs.

LeClair wouldn't say how much it cost him to put on the presentation or that he even believed he stood a chance by making the first move in a process that will take many more months. The city will eventually conduct a design competition to choose the architect and engineering firm.

"You want my bet?" LeClair said. "We won't get it. But the reason I did this was that I think it was the best way to engage the city and get it thinking about what it can do with $50 million."

As far as job interviews go, LeClair's won't soon be forgotten.

"He played his hand first," Foster said. "And now he wants to see how his hand fits into the big picture. I appreciate it when a corporate citizen like Echelon spends their own resources to make a bold move in the game."

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

Carillon developer makes a bold bid to build new Pier 02/15/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 16, 2011 9:55am]
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