ST. PETERSBURG — More than its looping bridges, the most striking aspect of the proposed design of the city's replacement Pier is its tiara-like canopy — rising bright, white and shiny above Tampa Bay.
Almost a year ago, judges in an international competition chose the Michael Maltzan Architecture design as St. Petersburg's next icon, with city leaders envisioning it in the same vein as the Eiffel Tower, Sydney Opera House or St. Louis Gateway Arch.
Back then, the Maltzan team said the iconic canopy would be constructed of precast, white, concrete panels. Fast-forward a year, however, and economic reality, in the form of an immovable $50 million budget, has forced change.
Rather than expensive concrete panels, Maltzan, the construction manager hired to keep costs in check and others involved with the project are proposing aluminum panels over galvanized steel.
Critics of the new Pier, known as the Lens, are aghast.
F. Carter "Bud" Karins, chief executive officer of Karins Engineering Group in St. Petersburg, likened the end product to a Yugo, the much-ridiculed European car of the 1980s.
"They were really cheap to buy, but they weren't cheap to keep," he said.
"The basic materials they are talking about using don't make sense in our environment,'' he said. "That's why when we use steel in a bridge, we encase it in concrete, because the concrete protects it. … They are mixing up a brew that is very likely to be very expensive to maintain and will have a very short life."
Mike Connors, the city's public works administrator, said the city is working on the issue with Skanska USA Building — hired as the construction manager at risk to bring in the project within budget — to discover what extended warranties and enhancements are available for the proposed materials. That means, he said, investigating details such as the degree of galvanizing, grade of aluminum and paint finishes so taxpayers get their money's worth.
The cost to support a concrete canopy, with the required columns and beams, would be "excessively expensive," he said, adding that the current proposal is innovative and might actually look better.
Anthony Brennan, a professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Florida, questions the choice of materials for Florida's climate. He said the state, which is a leader in civil engineering designs for structures in the marine environment, uses concrete "because it has strength, durability and cleanability."
The new canopy materials were revealed a few days ago in a document the City Council will review Tuesday. The report proposes an aluminum alloy with "very good corrosive resistance in harsh seawater environments," along with "a high grade coating" that promises "a minimum 20-year, as much as 30-year warranty."
"Therein lies the big problem," Brennan said.
"These companies guarantee their paint for 20 to 30 years, but they don't last that long,'' he said. "The reality is they require extensive maintenance to keep them clean. Most paints contain an algaecide to prevent algae and other marine organisms from fouling their surface. As rain and seawater interact with these paints, they leach these agents into the water, which complicates your local marine environment."
Brennan also spoke of the high corrosion risks of the metals being proposed.
"This looks to me like you've got limited funds up front, but you are pushing your maintenance costs out into the future, which most likely will outweigh the costs of using concrete structures initially," he said.
Raul Quintana, the city's architect, defended the decision made by the architect and others he described as experts.
"Their recommendation is based on a significant amount of effort and I would suggest that they be allowed to explain it on Tuesday at the City Council workshop," he said.
"They wouldn't have recommended it if they had not done a lot of research and analysis into the suitability of the system. The structure is being designed for a 75-year life expectancy."
The city decided to replace the current Pier after studies showed that the supporting concrete superstructure — built in the 1920s — is badly deteriorated. The inverted pyramid itself needs extensive repair. Additionally, in the past decade, the city has had to kick in about $1.4 million every year to subsidize operating expenses. But critics, such as the group Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, whose battle cry is "Stop the Lens," question the new Pier's ability to reduce the subsidy.
Citing the new materials, Karins, a board member of Concerned Citizens, said the new subsidy will be the high cost of maintenance.
"I don't see the Florida Department of Transportation building any bridges, except for special purpose bridges, out of galvanized steel, and the reason is, this stuff doesn't last," he said.
Alberto A. Sagüés, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of South Florida in Tampa, admits he has taken only a superficial look at the Lens report.
Ideally, he said, the city should have an independent panel evaluate all aspects of the project, including the materials being used.
"For the Florida Department of Transportation, whenever they make a bridge, at this time, they have a 75-year service life goal," he said.
He added that he was "a bit intrigued" with the 20-year to 30-year warranties being discussed.
"What does that mean … 30 years maintenance-free? I would say how durability is defined is an important issue,'' he said. "My overall attitude, if they are using materials that have had demonstrated adequate durability performance in comparable environments and that structure lasted and it has held up, then that would be very encouraging," he said.
"Concrete, I would feel somewhat more confident as to what to expect. However, the price tag is another issue."
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.