ST. PETERSBURG — Tom Lambdon, who graduated from the same high school as Mayor Bill Foster and now lives in Safety Harbor, says he has sunk $5,000 of his money into a grass roots campaign to save the city's iconic inverted pyramid pier.
"I believe if the Pier is to be demolished, it should be in the hands of the 160,000 registered voters and the people who have to pay for it and are anticipated to use it for generations to come,'' said Lambdon, who heads the group voteonthepier.com.
The Northeast High graduate and his volunteers have collected more than 13,000 signatures, 3,000 or so short of the number that could put a question on the ballot asking whether St. Petersburg should preserve the current Pier. Lambdon expects to gather the required signatures within the next couple of months.
His effort raises a thorny question: What if residents vote to preserve the 1973 structure after the city has signed a contract for its replacement?
Negotiations are moving ahead with Michael Maltzan Architecture, designers of the new $50 million Pier. An architectural and engineering design services contract is expected to be signed within weeks.
Should Lambdon's group get its way, the city will be able to terminate the contract with Maltzan, city attorney John Wolfe said.
"The city will have spent a lot of money, which it will not be able to recover, several hundred thousand dollars for the work they have done till then. But we could stop it,'' he said.
"We are looking at a phased contract so that we could stop it at any phase,'' he said. "Now, (Maltzan and his team) haven't agreed to that yet, but that's what we're looking at."
There's another twist. Legally, said Wolfe, the city does not have to hold an election, regardless of how many signatures Lambdon might amass.
"The way the petition is phrased, we don't see a state law or a charter requirement to put it to a vote,'' he said.
The city's charter addresses petitions only for a proposed ordinance or repeal of an ordinance, while state law refers to petitions only in relation to changing a charter, Wolfe said.
Voteonthepier.com's petition "would have no binding effect on the city," he said.
But the mayor says he is prepared to put Lambdon's question on the ballot if the group gets the required number of signatures, which would be 10 percent of St. Petersburg's registered voters.
If residents vote to keep the inverted pyramid, "Then I personally would view that as a mandate,'' Foster said.
Foster said he would want the City Council to add its own questions to a ballot, "just for clarity."
"Do you want to spend $50 million to save a 40-year-old structure that has 10 to 20 years of life left on it?" he said.
"I feel that our council members are getting beat up in the community and I haven't properly given them all of the bullets to defend themselves. … The voteonthepier people are doing a great job getting a lot of information out, and none of it is correct. I want to make sure that the correct information gets out."
Lambdon's group has come up with an alternative, at just under $50 million to Maltzan's "Lens" design, with its looping bridges, underwater garden and area for shops. Tampa architect Kenneth Kroger's drawings of an ultramodern, renovated inverted pyramid were unveiled in February at the Pier.
"I just believe that the city should look at that option to let voters decide whether they like it,'' said Lambdon, 59, who runs an Internet business that sells dust covers for turntables and lemonade stand kits for kids.
Unlike the current Pier, the fifth floor of the proposed renovation would be fully enclosed. An observation deck three-quarters of an acre in size would top the structure, partly covered with the same material used at Tropicana Field, said Lambdon, who is donating his time for the effort.
The facility would have room for restaurants and an art gallery and space for dances and meetings. The Pier's stores would be moved to the south side of the new Pier bridge.
If there's one thing on which the opposing sides agree, it is that the Pier approach and the area surrounding the five-story facility need to be replaced. Constructed in 1926 as the Million Dollar Pier, the approach and Pier head are at the end of their lifespan. Garbage trucks are too heavy for the deteriorating approach. The foundation supporting the inverted pyramid was built in 1973, but that reaches the end of its life in 2020.
The voteonthepier.com proposal calls for replacing pilings that date back to the 1920s and shoring up newer ones from the 1970s.
The city has said repairing and maintaining the current Pier is not cost-effective. More than $6.2 million was spent to repair and replace decking, beams and piles from 1991 to 2003. Additionally, said public works administrator Mike Connors, the inverted pyramid needs hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of upgrades, from painting to lightning protection to plumbing and electrical work.
"We have identified immediate needs close to $300,000, with longer-term needs approaching $2.4 million over a 10-year period. Those are considered the most minimal needs,'' he said.
Two years ago, St. Petersburg City Council members, except for Wengay Newton, voted to get rid of the aging Pier. Newton, who supports the effort by voteonthepier.com, scoffs at any suggestion that a new Pier can be built for $50 million.
Renovating the current structure is not a sensible option, Connors said.
"We could spend $50 million … and we would have nothing more than what we have today, with millions of additional monies necessary to keep the inverted pyramid in minimal operating condition, while still maintaining an operational subsidy of $1.6 million per year, with that figure to increase over the next 10 years,'' he said.
"When I go to the Pier, I see opportunity,'' Lambdon said. "When (city officials) go to the Pier, they see how much it costs to subsidize it."
The inverted pyramid is set to close May, 31, 2013. The new Pier is expected to open two years later.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.