ST. PETERSBURG — After a decade of planning and four years of delays, the city's iconic Pier started coming down in chunks as crews began its demolition Tuesday.
A large backhoe tore into the southwest corner of the Pier's first floor retail section that was added in a major 1980s renovation. Another backhoe scooped up the debris, which was later hauled away.
The work marked the beginning of the two-month demolition of the inverted pyramid, which opened in 1973, as well as the start of its $46 million redevelopment as Pier Park. By February, the Pier approach and the Pier head, the area that surrounds the inverted pyramid, will be taken out.
Last week, workers began removing light bulbs and thermostats, foreshadowing the wreckage to come. But it wasn't until Tuesday that the public realized the demolition was under way. City officials had not disclosed when it would begin.
By 4 p.m., a steady stream of news trucks joined a small knot of people watching from the parking lot across the water as crews worked. A news helicopter buzzed overhead, drowning out the faint sounds of demolition.
Kathleen Ford, a former mayoral candidate and prominent opponent of the Pier's destruction, said she was concerned that proper environmental protections weren't in place.
"Where are the turbidity barriers? Where are the floating booms?" Ford asked, referring to equipment used to keep debris and other contaminants from leaking into Tampa Bay.
The project has long been mired in controversy. A study done more than 10 years ago said that the Pier approach and area around the pyramid had deteriorated and needed to be replaced. In 2010, council members voted for demolition and to build a new Pier, but thousands of petition signers had other ideas. A subsequent voter referendum in 2013 rejected a proposed design known as the Lens and temporarily halted plans to replace the inverted pyramid.
Besides facing a delay, the city has spent about $4 million of its $50 million Pier budget. Of the $46 million that remains, money for construction is set at $33 million. Recently another $20 million in tax revenues have been targeted to link the project with the city's downtown.
David Dziedzic, 53, readied his bucket of bait fish by the water's edge. He's fished within view of the Pier for about five years.
"I hate to see it go," Dziedzic said. "There wasn't anything wrong with it. To me, it's all about the money."
Susan Robertson, 65, the Pier's former marketing director, said she saw footage on television and hurried down. She said she felt unexpectedly emotional at the Pier's demise.
"I know it's progress," Robertson said. "I know we have to move on. But there are a lot of memories."
The debris was trucked to demolition contractor Sonny Glasbrenner's recycling facility in Clearwater to be sorted and recycled, said Tom Gibson, the city's director of engineering.
"They recycle everything they can, so it's kind of a slow process," Gibson said.
"Safety is a concern. The men out there on the machines are sorting materials before they load materials into different trucks."
The city is paying Sonny Glasbrenner Inc. of Clearwater $3.2 million for the job.
One of the bait shops, a masonry building, will be relocated. No decision has been made about where it will go, Gibson said.
Mayor Rick Kriseman is planning a formal farewell to the iconic pyramid Friday at the Dolphin Parking Lot, near to the St. Petersburg Museum of History. The program will begin at 5 p.m.
Kristin Brett, hired by the city to help market the Pier project, said the event will provide an opportunity for people to say goodbye.
"We are also going to have 250 commemorative brick pavers from the Pier itself that we will be handing out to the public on a first-come, first-served basis. Each will have a stamped image of the inverted pyramid," she said.
The cost of this goodbye?
"We have no budget," Brett said, saying that preparation for the event has been done in-house, including the commemorative bricks.
Kriseman will make a brief presentation at 6 p.m. and recognize the committee that selected Pier Park to replace the inverted pyramid — members of the Pier working group, which sought to decipher what residents want — and the City Council, Brett said.
Work to tear down the structure was to begin shortly after July 9, after the council's approval of $5.2 million for initial work on the new Pier Park project.
A construction fence quickly went up, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the city needed a permit to tear down the entire structure — including the inverted pyramid — because it sits in navigable waters. The city had said it didn't require a permit to demolish the pyramid.
The city eventually obtained that permit about a week ago, allowing work to begin. The construction of the new Pier will begin early in 2017 and continue into 2018.
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.