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Concept of new Pier won't come until St. Petersburg decides how it will be used

ST. PETERSBURG — The Pier is dead. Long live the Pier.

A new Pier will rise from the ashes of the iconic inverted pyramid, but before it does, the city needs to figure out how it will be used.

Should there be more retail space or restaurant space? Should visitors be able to park their cars or their boats? Does the city want to attract older folks or young families? Locals or tourists?

Will a new Pier help or hurt tony Beach Drive and the rest of downtown? And can it avoid the predicament of the current Pier, which for many local residents lost its novelty long ago?

"We want to make sure that the Pier is not only integrated with downtown," said Ed Montanari, vice chairman of the Pier Advisory Task Force, "but more importantly that the Pier is a destination, something that people would want to come back to."

The City Council voted 5-3 in a straw poll Wednesday to tear down the Pier and replace it with a new landmark — one that's more modern than the decades-old Pier eroded by natural elements and human apathy.

Piers have come and gone in the city's history, and the upside-down pyramid won't come down until 2013 at the earliest. The council's vote is not binding. It is a big first step in a new direction.

• • •

The city knows this much about the next Pier: It will be closer to shore, a smaller structure erected atop a new base.

That was the judgment made by five council members Wednesday after months of analysis.

Engineers and architects will be invited to reimagine the next Pier. The subsequent redesign for the $50 million project is set for a 2012 unveiling.

But form must follow function. The size, shape and parameters of the next Pier won't be determined until the mayor, the City Council and the public decide how it will be used.

"Drawing a picture of what the Pier could look like is almost a disservice to the process," said Chris Ballestra, director of downtown enterprise facilities. "You need to answer the hard questions first and the rest flows from there."

Consultant Paul Lambert studied economic and demographic trends in St. Petersburg and Pinellas County for the task force, which spent 18 months analyzing the issue. His report holds some insights for the next Pier:

• Retail won't drive traffic to a new Pier. The big movers in retail — big box stores, grocery chains, pharmacies — won't fit there. The best bets for future uses are restaurants and entertainment.

The report recommends a mix of "grab-and-go" quick dining, high-end restaurants and banquet space and bars.

In fact, restaurants have become one of downtown's strongest features. There are more than 122 downtown from Fifth Avenue N to Fifth Avenue S and from Beach Drive to 16th Street, but Ballestra said the market can support even more.

"One thing we know that works downtown and on the waterfront is restaurants," Ballestra said. But the challenge, he added, is not to let new Pier eateries "cannibalize" the restaurants that have sprouted up along the city's hottest destination spot, Beach Drive, which is across from the Pier.

• The next Pier should tap into the need for more boat slips. Boat ownership is growing and boaters are running out of places to dock downtown. Slips could make the Pier a popular destination for Tampa Bay's boating crowd.

• There may also be a market for a midsize concert venue. The 1-800-ASK-GARY Amphitheatre and the St. Pete Times Forum both seat around 20,000. Jannus Live, downtown's popular outdoor concert spot, holds 2,000. That means there could be a market for a midsize outdoor venue that can hold up to 5,000.

• Pinellas County lacks family-oriented entertainment. The Lowry Park Zoo, the Museum of Science and Industry and the Florida Aquarium, for example, are all in Hillsborough County.

"You have to go across the Howard Frankland Bridge to find something to do with your children and your grandchildren," said former Mayor Randy Wedding, who chaired the task force.

The report warns, though, that such facilities are expensive. A cheaper answer might lie in playgrounds and water parks.

• But that raises another issue: whatever is built cannot survive on tourists alone, the report said. Locals must support the next Pier, and family amenities are a key way to bring them downtown.

"I've always asserted that tourists will come regardless," said Mayor Bill Foster. "But this thing has to be supported by the locals."

• • •

Part of the problem with the current Pier is that it has failed to consistently attract locals. In that respect, it's been unlike its predecessor. That was the Million Dollar Pier, built in 1926. The Mediterranean-style Pier was popular as a social center for senior citizens but was demolished in 1967.

It had amenities built on the upland area of the waterfront that led people to the Pier's entrance: tennis courts, a swimming pool, boat docks — even a solarium for nude sunbathing.

No such amenities exist to lead anyone to the current Pier. All that awaits visitors is a long hike through parked cars.

In fact, the ideas for an outdoor theater, the family water park and playgrounds, spots to walk and jog along Spa Beach, are actually meant for land along the shore leading to the new Pier (no one has proposed bringing back the solarium). The hope is those additions will keep visitors coming back.

"This thing needs to start at Bayshore Drive and end at the Pier," said Wedding. "If it doesn't, it will continue to be what it is now: A long wasteland that doesn't go anywhere."


What's next?

The current Pier won't come down until 2013 at the earliest. The next step will be for officials to draft a request for qualifications to determine which design firms are best suited for the project. The City Council will begin weeks of public talks about the direction of the Pier. The subsequent redesign for the $50 million project is set for a 2012 unveiling.

Concept of new Pier won't come until St. Petersburg decides how it will be used 08/19/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 20, 2010 7:00am]
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