ST. PETERSBURG — City Council members handed supporters of the proposed $50 million Lens a victory Thursday when they approved funding to allow the project to continue moving forward.
The decision came despite an almost certain voter referendum in August that could halt the project.
"The project is completely on track," said Anthony Sullivan, a TV pitchman and founder of WOW Our Waterfront St. Pete, which backs the Lens. "We are in campaign mode. We have a lot of support."
Council members voted to authorize $869,421 — less than the $1.5 million originally requested for the next phase of the project slated to replace the inverted pyramid. The decision followed a two-week delay after council members requested additional information about the controversial project.
Council chair Karl Nurse, who supports the efforts of Lens opponents Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, voted against spending any more money, as did Wengay Newton, who has long opposed plans to replace the current Pier.
Council member Charlie Gerdes emphasized that he has not pulled his support from the project but said he didn't think it was fiscally responsible to spend money that could not be recouped if voters rejected the Lens at the polls this summer.
"I really wish we were voting for something rather than against something," he said of the upcoming referendum. "I don't think this is going any place good."
Council members Jeff Danner, Leslie Curran, Bill Dudley, Jim Kennedy and Steve Kornell voted to move ahead.
"I'm all about what we're doing," Mayor Bill Foster said. "We're moving forward."
Responding to pleas to keep the current Pier open until residents vote, Foster said doing so would cost the city another $400,000 in subsidies that it cannot afford.
"It's a business decision. It's just that," he said.
Thursday's critical vote came a day after Concerned Citizens handed in more than 20,000 petitions demanding a referendum to cancel the contract with the Lens' designer, Michael Maltzan Architecture.
The group had been saying for weeks that it had gathered more than the required number of signatures to force a vote, but reached an agreement with Foster to time their submission to save the city the costs of a special election.
"We did our best to cooperate with the mayor and the city so they could be certain we had our petitions," said Bud Risser, a leader of Concerned Citizens. "I understood that would help convince City Council not to rush to spending more money, so I guess since they are only spending half the money, I am half-satisfied."
The council's decision was preceded by exhortations from speakers for and against the Lens. Mostly they were made by the same people who have been appearing before the council in past months as the debate has grown increasingly vitriolic.
Thursday, though, there also was levity, quotations from Shakespeare, a storytelling video and applause.
Hugh Tulloch, part of the Concerned Citizens group, said he had been thinking of new ways to say the same thing. Now is the time "to man up," he told council members. "Put on big girl panties," he said. "Stop the Lens. Stop the process. Take a pause."
Hal Freedman, who supports the Lens, told council members not to be influenced by "a very small group" of wealthy people who want to maintain the status quo and are "stirring up the city to get their own way."
He accused Concerned Citizens of buying votes by hiring a company to gather petitions and for disseminating false information about the Lens.
Environmental activist Lorraine Margeson, wearing a red anti-Lens T-shirt, told the mayor and council that the city will probably not get the permits it needs to demolish the Pier in August as planned.
"Therefore, the only sane thing to do for a true representative of the people is to hit the pause button, keep the Pier open in a limited manner to preserve the current jobs and tourist destination that our waterfront currently enjoys, and wait, as the various permitting agencies will wait, for our vote," she said.
Allowing the project to continue will help provide answers to questions that voters might have, some council members said. The money will be used for, among other things, detailed drawings of the project and testing the durability of the building materials.
"What you want in a referendum is an informed voter," Danner said.
The current Pier is scheduled to close on May 31, followed by demolition sometime in late summer. Public works administrator Mike Connors declined to guarantee that the city will get a demolition permit by then, but said he is "comfortable saying we expect to get the permit in August."
Maltzan will now proceed with a portion of the design development phase and Skanska USA Builders with preconstruction services for the new Pier.