ST. PETERSBURG — After years of infighting and false starts, St. Petersburg is preparing to build a new pier to carry on a tradition that goes back for more than a century.
City Council members voted Thursday to authorize contract negotiations with the designers of Pier Park, a concept that will pay little homage to the inverted pyramid that has stood since 1973 and still engenders deep passion among some residents.
But, said council member Steve Kornell, every generation deserves its own pier.
Thursday's vote was a significant benchmark in the once moribund effort to redevelop the signature waterfront attraction. It was more than a decade ago that a study revealed that the pier approach and the area around the inverted pyramid — relics from the 1920s Million Dollar Pier — were deteriorating and had to be replaced.
Visioning sessions, a Pier Advisory Task Force and a vote in 2010 to demolish the pyramid followed. As did public anger.
For former Mayor Bill Foster, it became a political liability. His attempt to replace the pyramid with an avant-garde design called the Lens sparked petitions, lawsuits and a referendum in which voters rejected the design.
This week's decision to proceed with another plan will not make everyone happy, Mayor Rick Kriseman acknowledged, but added, "We'll unite, we'll celebrate and we'll enjoy a new St. Petersburg pier."
The 7-1 vote to move forward with Pier Park came after residents spoke for and against Pier Park and the runner-up for the $46 million project, Destination St. Pete Pier.
The one dissenting vote came from council member Wengay Newton, whose request to table the vote and schedule a special election so residents could choose between Pier Park and Destination St. Pete Pier was rejected.
Council Chairman Charlie Gerdes did not hide his irritation.
"What you want is to put off today's vote," he said, adding that Newton wanted an election "because the process didn't come to the answers you wanted them to."
Newton had also stood with Kriseman when the mayor announced the new process that would lead to a new or refurbished pier, Gerdes reminded him.
"Everybody got behind the process. . . . Nobody said anything about an election," Gerdes said.
Kriseman had stood on the waterfront, with the inverted pyramid in the background, to introduce his new plan. In the months since, though, an invitation to "Help Pick Your New Pier" in an online poll drew votes from only about 4 percent of the 229,780 residents eligible to do so. It angered Destination St. Pete Pier supporters when the concept, the favorite in the nonbinding poll, was ranked behind Pier Park by the Pier Selection Committee, formed by Kriseman to recommend a top pick for council members.
Thursday, council members, most of whom had already signaled that they would authorize contract negotiations with Pier Park's designers, sought clarification about the project. Council member Karl Nurse raised a concern about the durability of Pier Park's floating docks and their ability to survive a major storm.
The design team, ASD, Rogers Partners and Ken Smith Landscape Architect, vouched for the docks, saying similar docks have been built in Florida. In response to similar concerns from the Pier Selection Committee, the team had pointed to a Category 4 storm design in Crandon Park in Miami that has been in service for more than 20 years and to the Fort Pierce Marina that was recently completed and is rated to withstand a Category 5 storm.
Nurse also questioned the wisdom of Pier Park's "coastal thicket," which will include trees and shrubs planted in 3- to 3.5-feet of soil.
"The roots will spread horizontally," John Curran of ASD said. Later, Gerdes, who said he wanted "to manage expectations," asked about the maturity of the trees that will be planted. The area would include different sized plantings, said Smith, the landscape architect.
Michael Connors, the city's public works administrator and chairman of the Pier Selection Committee, praised the concept. He acknowledged that permitting through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could "take some work," but expressed confidence that it can be done.
Former City Council member and mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford called the selection process a travesty and said Connors had an "obvious bias against the inverted pyramid."
Ford, who referred to the inverted pyramid as "a significant asset," sent an eight-page letter to the council outlining "the many problems we observed with the process" that led to the selection of Pier Park. Destination St. Pete Pier "clearly met every one of the criteria" the city requested, she said.
Ford hinted that the council's decision will not be taken lightly. She mentioned a petition, giving out the website voteonthepier.com. About four years ago, the grass-roots group Vote On the Pier ignited a fight to save the inverted pyramid, collecting more than 20,000 signatures.
But there was also plenty of support for Pier Park on Thursday.
Chris Steinocher, chief executive officer and president of the St. Petersburg Chamber, urged the council to stay the course.
"I'm filled with hope today," he said. "We want you to stay on this timeline."
The American Institute of Architects' Tampa Bay chapter, which had urged Foster after the Lens failure to embark on "a clear, transparent and inclusive design selection process moving forward," weighed in again. This time, it sent a letter urging the council to follow through with the current process.
"Our beautiful and vibrant city needs to move on," council member Darden Rice said.
"I do not have pier fatigue. I'm excited about this design. . . . I am very happy to vote for the Pier Park design today."
A grand opening of the new pier is scheduled for the spring of 2018.
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.