ST. PETERSBURG — They came in slogan-bearing T-shirts. "Stop the Lens," the red ones blared. "Make Lens not War," those of turquoise pleaded.
Some who packed the City Council chamber Thursday to have their say used words like malfeasance, debacle, world-class centerpiece, referendum. There was passion. A few tears.
In the end, city leaders gave each side a bit of what they asked. The project for the Lens, St. Petersburg's would-be 21st century Pier, will continue — but with speed bumps along the way.
Facing both an ongoing petition drive aimed at getting residents to vote to stop the new $50 million Pier and a legal challenge demanding a referendum on the fate of the current one, council members voted 7-1 Thursday to appropriate money for the next phase of the project, though with conditions for its spending.
Council member Wengay Newton, who has been resolute in his opposition to the project, was the sole dissenter. Council member Karl Nurse, who pulled his support from the project two months ago, went along with the reined-in spending plan.
Passed was a resolution to appropriate $4.7 million for Michael Maltzan Architecture to continue designing the Lens and Skanska USA Builders to continue preconstruction services. Only $1.7 million will be released, however. City staff must return to council for authorization to spend any more money.
"The end result of today was to anticipate the worst-case scenario, which would be the referendum," council member Charlie Gerdes said later.
"So we spend only just what's necessary, up until that event happens or doesn't happen. So the schedule continues, but we've got a strictly controlled money spigot, because we may end up having to stop."
Just one day earlier, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Amy Williams ordered mediation in a lawsuit filed by former City Council member Kathleen Ford seeking a referendum to save the 1973 inverted pyramid. The suit asks for an injunction to stop demolition pending the court's ruling and outcome of a vote. Mediation could take place within 60 days.
Additionally, the group Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg recently launched a petition drive to stop the new Pier.
Speaking at the public hearing before council members made their decision, Fred Whaley, Concerned Citizens' chairman, urged them to halt the project.
"If you do not, Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg will bring it to a vote and the people of St. Petersburg will cancel it for you," he said.
"We will be launching our direct mail campaign shortly," William Ballard, president of the group, said after the meeting. "With the help of the people of St. Petersburg that feel the way we do, there will be a referendum, and if we are correct, the Lens project will be stopped. We are not going to lose sleep over that because we stopped a bad project, the city will be without a Pier for a year or two."
The City Council vote came after discussions about changes to the Lens' design, financing and talk of delaying the appropriation. Council member Jim Kennedy expressed disappointment that motor boats were not going to be accommodated in the reworked marina. Council member Steve Kornell wanted more information about the change from concrete to aluminum for the Lens' iconic canopy. He asked for warranties for the aluminum panels.
But the main concern was about continuing to spend money on the project, though the contract with Maltzan allows the city to suspend or terminate work at any point.
"What I'm trying to grapple with is how do we prudently continue the momentum," Gerdes told his colleagues.
"All the money that is spent, we can't get it back," Newton said. He made a motion to postpone any action for 60 days until after mediation on the Ford suit.
But council member Jeff Danner said he did not think the legal issues will be cleared up by then.
The surprise of the hourslong session was Nurse's vote.
"I was trying to figure out what was possible. I couldn't get it delayed," he said.
"By the way we were able to get the money chopped up, it really provides for a logical stopping point when the Concerned Citizens group gets their signatures. And I don't have any doubt that they will get them."
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.