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New approach to Pier's woes has much going for it, but it's not perfect

ST. PETERSBURG — Underpinning the Pier are more than 1,000 concrete pilings that are crumbling against a crushing tide.

If the city rebuilds the Pier the way it is now, this condition will persist and cost taxpayers about $500,000 a year to maintain — just so the city landmark doesn't tumble into Tampa Bay.

It's a 1,440-foot stretch of trouble that's one of the most nagging issues facing a task force charged with considering ways to remake the Pier. In an era of shrinking finances, should the city bother to spend millions on a structure that will leak revenue for future generations?

No easy answer there, which is why a recent idea floated by the task force's chairman, former Mayor Randy Wedding, could gain momentum in the coming weeks. Yet, like any potential solution to the Pier's woes, Wedding's idea comes with its own raft of issues.

Wedding, an architect, says that instead of rebuilding the Pier bridge, the city should consider replacing it with a causeway — a seawall that would better brace against battering waves. Gone would be the hefty annual maintenance fees.

The causeway could be wider than the current 100-foot width of the approach, leaving enough room for a linear park and entertainment. Long walks to the Pier would be more engaging, luring even more visitors.

An added benefit to Wedding's plan is that the seawall would break the waves, allowing boats to dock on at least one side. The slips, which are noticeably absent now, would produce revenue for a facility that costs taxpayers roughly $1.5 million a year to operate.

"It's just a thought I had to resolve a long-standing problem," Wedding said. "It's a half a million every year; it's a big hit. The only way to deal with that, assuming the building remains out there, is to get rid of the bridge."

While it sounds radical, the concept of a Pier causeway has been rattling around City Hall for a few years.

Former City Council member John Bryan asked engineers to look at whether it was practical in 2006, said public works administrator Mike Connors.

The result was a 41-page report by the engineering firm Parsons, Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas that raised a number of environmental issues. Unlike the current bridge, which allows water to flow through it, a concrete seawall would disrupt the natural tidal flow. The wall would destroy sea grasses and possible habitat for manatees and sea turtles.

Dredged soil would have to be dumped between the concrete walls. Building a seawall of that length would require vigorous environmental reviews that would add to an estimated $30 million cost, the report concluded. Connors said the project would be a "permitting nightmare."

"You take away the sea grasses, and there's a natural flushing of the bay that you'd interrupt with a seawall," said Chris Ballestra, the city's director of downtown enterprise facilities. "It could be done, but it would take a long time to review."

The agency that would review the concept is the Army Corps of Engineers. Charles Schnepel, the agency's chief of Tampa's regulatory section, said the causeway approach would be interesting.

"I don't see a lot of sensitive environmental areas immediately adjacent to this, but there is a potential you'd trap debris along the shoreline with the seawall," Schnepel said. "That wouldn't work next to expensive boats."

Schnepel said it's possible to drain the debris away so it doesn't get trapped. But because of where the Pier is, it would be reviewed closely.

"I can't tell you if those objections would be insurmountable," he said. "How much does the city want to spend? If the surveys determine there's environmentally sensitive areas, we'd have to talk with the city about avoiding these areas."

The task force has its third public hearing at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the J.W. Cate Center. The 20-member task force will hold another meeting on March 5 in an attempt to whittle the choices to four before the City Council weighs in.

In other words, there's a long way to go and many more opinions to consider, Ballestra said. In addition to the task force, about 1,000 people have answered an online survey on what to do with the Pier, Ballestra said.

"I respect (Wedding's) opinion," he said. "But he's one man, one vote."

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

>>If you go

Want to weigh in on the Pier?

The Pier task force will hold its third public hearing at 7 p.m. Tuesday at J.W. Cate Center, 5801 22nd Ave. N, St. Petersburg.

New approach to Pier's woes has much going for it, but it's not perfect 02/13/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 13, 2010 10:28pm]
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