ST. PETERSBURG — In an era of shrinking pensions, canceled high-speed rail projects and rising government deficits, St. Petersburg officials hoped Thursday night would inspire some civic enthusiasm for one of its most ambitious public works projects ever.
The city invited residents to an evening forum at the Coliseum to discuss ways to overhaul the Pier, the city's iconic tourist destination that has struggled to remain viable. The city has $50 million in tax revenue to spend on it. For the past month, city officials and a private developer have unveiled grand concepts of how the linchpin of the city's waterfront could be transformed into a world-class architectural wonder.
Thursday night was one of the last opportunities left for the public to weigh in before the project gets bid out and the City Council votes on a design.
So as Catherine Harrison scanned the crowd of about 100 people, most of whom were past age 50, she wondered why the project didn't seem more exciting.
"There's nobody here," said Harrison, conservation chairwoman of the Suncoast Sierra Club. "I feel like the city has been circling around this project, being really general about it. I'm not feeling it. It needs some pizzazz."
Indeed, if city officials hope new plans for the Pier will draw families and younger generations of local visitors for years to come — that crowd was noticeably absent Thursday night.
Mayor Bill Foster and his staff promise that the excitement is still to come. The City Council is expected to approve — as early as this spring — a final concept for the Pier that was designed by a consultant who is getting paid $418,000.
Architectural and engineering firms would then compete to design the project. Foster, who has spent the last month coping with three police officer killings, seemed relieved to be talking about the possibilities.
"The Pier, now that I can talk about," he laughed after giving the crowd a pep talk.
He told them to "think outside the pyramid," referring to the design of the terminus building at the end of the 1,000-foot long sea wall approach. "Tonight is all about what you want."
After an hourlong presentation by city staffers and the consultant, Miami engineer Luis Ajamil, residents signed up to talk about their ideas. One talked about building another pyramid, and sticking it on top of the existing inverted pyramid. Another spoke about turning the terminus into an interactive "healing fun house."
"I'm impressed that the city is going out of its way to listen to us," said Doug Richter, 62, an Old Northeast resident who visits the Pier about once a month, but dislikes its current design.
Not everyone in the audience was pleased. Thomas Lambdon, a Gulfport resident who likes the pyramid design, is collecting signatures to get the Pier issue on the Nov. 8 ballot. He thinks residents, not the City Council or Foster, should decide whether to demolish the pyramid.
In August 2010, Foster persuaded the City Council to approve a planning and competitive design process that assumes the 38-year-old pyramid would be demolished.
To challenge that decision, Lambdon's group, voteonthepier.com, must persuade the council to reconsider, or collect 15,647 signatures from registered city voters, which is 10 percent of the number of voters in the 2009 election. Lambdon said he already has 5,000 signatures and is certain he'll reach the total needed by July. But the last time a group collected enough signatures to put a referendum issue on the ballot in St. Petersburg was 1993, which changed the form of government to its current strong-mayor format.
"The demolition of the Pier is clearly being pushed by the mayor and a couple of council members," Lambdon said.
"The people of St. Petersburg should be the ones who decide if this gets saved or not," he said.
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or firstname.lastname@example.org