Mayor talks up St. Petersburg Pier process, but council has own ideas

St. Petersburg's mayor urges the hesitant City Council to support the selection panel's decision.
Published April 9 2015
Updated April 10 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — Facing disillusionment about the process he set in motion almost a year ago to reboot the city's hopes for a new or renovated pier, Mayor Rick Kriseman took his case to the City Council on Thursday.

Stick with the process, he urged council members. And go with what a volunteer selection committee decides.

"There are three very good designs," he said. "Each of them has merit."

But a majority of council members signaled this week that if the committee's recommendation differs from the public's No. 1 pick in an informal poll, they'll have difficulty supporting it. If they don't support it, the process will have to start again.

"Why did you ask my opinion, if you didn't want it?" council member Karl Nurse said people keep asking him.

Kriseman, in addressing the council, praised his Pier Selection Committee's effort to choose a pier concept and emphasized the state law and criteria that will govern the decision about which one of three design teams and their projects — Destination St. Pete Pier, Pier Park or Alma — will snag the $46 million project.

The selection committee indicated it was leaning toward the Alma proposal in March. A poll showed Destination St. Pete Pier as the public's favorite.

The selection committee is expected to make its decision on April 23. The council's role will be key in the next step. Members will have to authorize contract negotiations with the top-ranked design team. If they decide not to, the project cannot go forward.

"This will be your opportunity to move the city forward," Kriseman urged.

"Not everyone will like final design," he later tweeted. "Most residents just want their elected officials to do what they elected them to do; build a damn pier."

But the council is facing pressure from other, more vocal residents. Destination St. Pete Pier, the top vote-getter in the nonbinding poll Kriseman promised would let the public have a say about what is eventually built, seemed to be heading to defeat when the selection committee tried to make a decision in March.

"He sort of painted himself into a corner, as far as I am concerned," Nurse said of the mayor. "I have to assume that all of the remaining choices meet the criteria. … If they do choose Alma, it would have to be radically clear as to why they think it is better."

"Frankly, it would be difficult to vote for approving negotiations with Alma," council member Darden Rice said this week. "The selection committee would have to present smoking-hot fatal flaws with the other designs to justify going with Alma."

The plan for Alma requires demolishing the inverted pyramid pier and putting a tower in its place. Destination St. Pete Pier would renovate the iconic structure.

Council member Steve Kornell would agree to let the city negotiate to build Destination St. Pete Pier. "If it's one of the others, I would have to think about it, " he said.

But council member Wengay Newton, who fought the previous pier redevelopment plan under former Mayor Bill Foster, is firm. "I will support what the people want. I think that's the only clear way through," he said.

Council chairman Charlie Gerdes offers a more conciliatory tone, saying the first thing he would do is listen to "whatever justification" the committee offers for its choice.

"I don't know how I'm going to vote until I'm presented with the underlying analysis," he said. "If they are all even, then I think the public vote should be the tie-breaker."

By state law, municipal and other government bodies are required to hire architects and engineers based on qualifications. Criteria established for the pier project include how the concepts conform to the $33 million construction budget. Permitting issues, operating and maintenance costs and the new pier's amenities are also among the factors the selection committee will consider, along with the controversial poll.

Referring to Michael Connors, the city's public works administrator and selection committee chairman, Newton said residents are upset that the pier process has been turned over to "long-term city employees" who are "guiding this shipwreck and … have personal agendas."

At the committee's March meeting, Connors angered Destination St. Pete Pier supporters by strongly advocating for Alma and dismissing Destination from serious consideration. Nurse sees Connors as the mayor's proxy in this issue.

"I assume when Mike Connors opens his mouth, that Rick Kriseman's words are coming out," he said. "I'm assuming that he is speaking for the mayor."

Residents are simply frustrated, council member Bill Dudley said. "They're saying, just build something," he said, adding that starting over "would be a slap in the face of everybody."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.