Interest expected to be high among architects vying to build St. Petersburg a new Pier

ST. PETERSBURG — City officials have met more than 70 times since 2009 to discuss what to do with the Pier, the aging tourist landmark.

So if you've lost track of where we are, or what it is that the City Council and Mayor Bill Foster will talk about today, relax. Here's a recap of what has been done, and what's to come.

Why so many meetings?

Built as the "Million Dollar" pier in 1926, the Pier was noted for its Mediterranean revival architecture. It was demolished in 1967 to make way for the current modernist inverted pyramid structure, which opened in 1973. Now openly reviled by many, including the mayor, city officials are understandably reluctant to move too quickly in giving it another facelift. A pier task force met 63 times before the council and Foster decided last year to demolish it and build anew. "There's a lot of vetting that has to take place on such a big project," said Chris Ballestra, director of the city's downtown enterprise facilities. "It's a 50-year to 70-year decision."

What will Thursday's meeting decide?

Council members will discuss how the architect will be chosen to design the Pier's approach and terminus structure. Foster is recommending that a jury be created that will include someone he appoints, a council member, and experts in design, academia and planning from outside of Tampa Bay. The jury will whittle the architects to three, subject to council approval. The finalists would compete in a design competition from August to December. The three finalists would submit models, drawings, narratives, cost estimates and development schedules that the jury would then rank. The council would then vote on the jury's recommendations in December. The council could agree today with this approach, or decide on another one.

Are famous architects going to be designing it?

Architecture's high-fliers — think along the lines of Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, Robert A.M. Stern — are expected to show an interest. "You should expect a good response," Ballestra said. "The benefit of having a jury narrow it down to three firms is that they know they'd have a legitimate shot at winning. That tends to get the best and the brightest. There's already a lot of buzz out there." Given the construction slump, expect local interest as well. Echelon's president and CEO in February unveiled his vision for the project, and said he'd develop it, if given a chance.

Won't this be expensive?

Well, yeah. The city already has $50 million in tax increment financing it will receive from Pinellas County next year. It's part of $95 million approved by the Pinellas County Commission to renovate several downtown projects in St. Petersburg. It comes from future property taxes. The project, however, will cost more than $50 million. Design, architectural and engineering costs alone will be $5 million. So the City Council would have to shift some of the money dedicated to other downtown projects to the Pier to help pay for anything above $50 million, Ballestra said.

Hold on. What's wrong with the Pier in the first place?

How much time do you have? One, there's the cost of running it, which was $1.4 million in 2010. This year, it's expected to cost the city $1.25 million. The 86-year-old pilings that support the Pier are crumbling. Did we mention how many people don't like its current design?

How are they going to tear down the Pier?

We won't know that until a construction company is chosen. At first, it was considered a good idea to keep the Pier open and tear down the structure piece by piece. But Ballestra says people tend to stay away when big cranes loom, so it might come down all at once. Demolition was expected to cost more than $10 million, but in today's post-bust economy, city officials are hoping to pay half that. The best time estimate for when the demolition will happen is 2013, after the new Pier has been designed.

Do we know yet when construction can begin?

City officials estimate a construction contract will be awarded in 2013, and, after all the necessary permitting is obtained, the project will break ground in 2014. They hope it will be completed by 2015.

Wow. This is huge. Why aren't more people talking about this?

Who knows? Maybe the project's construction is too far away for the public to visualize. The last public meeting, on March 3, drew fewer than 100 people, most of them elderly retirees. "The last meeting was not well attended," Ballestra said. "I don't know if the community is burning out on the project. I think they will get excited again when they start seeing the designs for it coming in."

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

.If you go

Discussing the Pier

The Pier workshop will begin immediately after the regular City Council meeting at 8:30 a.m. at City Hall, 175 Fifth St. N, St. Petersburg.

Interest expected to be high among architects vying to build St. Petersburg a new Pier 05/04/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 4, 2011 11:17pm]

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