St. Petersburg has learned a few lessons since it last demolished and replaced landmark Pier

The Million Dollar Pier was torn down in 1967 before any plan was set for a replacement. Times files
The Million Dollar Pier was torn down in 1967 before any plan was set for a replacement.Times files
Published January 17 2012
Updated January 17 2012

ST. PETERSBURG — More than four decades have passed since city leaders demolished the Million Dollar Pier without an inkling of what would replace the once proud icon that had deteriorated into a ramshackle albatross.

For several years, except for a small waterfront park, the pier head stood naked. Business leaders, anxious about the loss of tourist dollars, clamored for a replacement. City leaders entertained more than 40 proposals, among them a $20 million development that promised private financing and such attractions as a large manmade island beyond the pier head, a restaurant for 3,000 with floating dining areas over a live coral display and a protected water area for recreation and oceanographic experiments and water ballet theater. A well known architect broached the idea of berthing the retiring Queen Mary, now in Long Beach, Calif., at the vacant spot.

It would take more than five years after the famed Million Dollar Pier was demolished — amid outcry that it should be restored — for the inverted pyramid to rise in its place.

The city may have learned a lesson or two since.

• When the wrecking ball falls on this Pier, plans are almost certain to be in place for its replacement.

• Funds have already been set aside — $50 million — for the new Pier project, unlike the last time, when the City Council held out hope for private funding and eventually allocated $1.2 million with no plan or cost estimates in sight.

• Residents have been invited to weigh in long before demolition of the current Pier and public input was part of the Pier Advisory Task Force meetings. More than 3,000 people completed comment cards after viewing models of the three competing designs for the new Pier. Almost 2,000 posted opinions at a special online site.

Discussions that eventually produced the inverted pyramid appear to have had a less formal system for public input. Along the way, the local architects' association offered advice and development plans encompassing the uplands. Council eventually asked then-St. Petersburg architects Harvard Jolly to come up with a plan. To some, their inverted pyramid was brilliant. To others, bewildering.

Today's City Council has cast far afield in its search for a pier for the 21st century, but the three finalists have many yearning for the Million Dollar Pier.

Although architect and former St. Petersburg mayor Randy Wedding — elected shortly after the inverted pyramid opened in 1973 — understands the nostalgia, he pointed to "a pretty significant shift in the use of the Pier" toward its latter days.

"The Pier had been a gathering spot for local people. It was also used by the state societies,'' he said of the groups of seasonal Northern residents that met there.

"Maybe 80 percent of the activity was from that source, with the rest of it being from people fishing. The whole state society thing was fading away. So, (the Million Dollar Pier) just sort of outgrew its era. So down it came. . . . The old building was kind of a big barn, to tell you the truth, but it had a piece of St. Pete's heart buried in it."

The city has learned nothing from its last Pier project, Wedding said, "and we are not learning anything this time." The inverted pyramid, he added, "wasn't supposed to do anything other than being new."

In fact, a member of the City Council labeled the old Pier "a useless antique" in a 1967 speech. Just a few years earlier, a Times editorial declared "the pride of a generation ago" had become "a drab eyesore."

The lesson learned from the current Pier, Wedding said, is that retail does not work. Former Mayor Corinne Freeman, who moved to St. Petersburg in 1969, two years after the Million Dollar Pier was demolished, said, however, that the inverted pyramid once served a purpose.

"But they've taken away what people went there for,'' she said.

"When SPIFFS was in the building, the shops were fun. . . . It's a different world. I don't think people want to see the designs they are proposing.''

The project to replace the current Pier dates back to 2004, when an engineering study showed that the concrete substructure of the pier head and approach, dating back to the 1920s, was badly degraded and could not be repaired.

A Pier Advisory Task Force was established and a Miami engineering firm hired to develop options for replacing the Pier. The city decided to hold an international design competition that would result in a show-stopping icon.

"We didn't look back at previous piers, but how competitions are conducted,'' said Raul Quintana, the city's architect.

Since the new Pier calls for tearing down the pier head and pier approach, Quintana said, the project "became an opportunity to think of ways it can be improved upon without the constraints of having to build within the footprint of the 1926 Pier." The current Pier is scheduled to be demolished in 2013 or 2014.

There could be a wave of nostalgia for the inverted pyramid, said Will Michaels, who sat on the Pier Advisory Task Force and is a former director of the St. Petersburg Museum of History.

"Five, 10 years ago, there was still a lot of hostility to the pyramid," he said, but many on the task force wanted to save it.

Michaels, who came to agree with them, said he believes the city demolished the Mediterranean-style Million Dollar Pier to create a more youthful image. "It was about that time we were removing the green benches,'' he said.

Now, he said, "Probably the major lesson to be learned is to make sure you've got a good plan" (for replacing the current Pier).

"We don't want a park out there for a couple of years. If, in fact, we do accept one the new proposals, I hope that we are going to be in the position to start construction."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this article. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.