ST. PETERSBURG — What a difference a year makes.
During an August 2010 workshop, in what seemed like yet another meeting to discuss what to do about a long planned $50 million renovation of the Pier, Mayor Bill Foster issued a challenge.
The city was bedeviled by "analysis paralysis," and the council needed to vote — now — on whether to demolish the Pier and build anew. It was either that or continue to drift.
The council voted that day 5-3 to plan for the demolition, allowing the city to embark on the design phase of a new Pier.
Fast-forward to Thursday night's City Council meeting. By a vote of 6-1, the council approved three finalists in the city's competition to design a new Pier. In the next six months, the Pier project enters its most interesting phase yet, when some of the world's top architects will submit their visions for how the iconic landmark should be refashioned for future generations.
Vying for a job that could capture the city's imagination in this era of diminished expectations are: BIG from Denmark and New York City; West 8 Urban Design in New York City; and Michael Maltzan Architecture of Los Angeles.
"This is exactly what I wanted," council member Steve Kornell said. "When people see the actual designs, they'll get really excited. Everyone I'm talking to is really excited."
Council member Leslie Curran, who often criticizes Foster for inaction, is on the jury that will pick the winning firm in January. Even she gushed as she cast her vote.
"From the beginning, this has been an outstanding process," she said.
Agree or not with the decision to spend $50 million on a new Pier, or to knock down the 1973 inverted-pyramid, it's hard to ignore Foster's deft handling of what could have been a testy battle over one of the city's most high-profile landmarks.
In winning near unanimous support from the council, Foster credited his staff and reports from the city's Engineering Department. A 2006 report concluded demolition of the Pier was the cheapest and most practical option.
"I just presented the evidence," Foster said. "It was important to take any emotional attachment out of it and present the evidence that it was too costly to keep. By starting with a clean slate, you allow for the creative juices to flow with real design professionals."
The lone holdout was council member Wengay Newton. He voted against the three finalists, but that's because he objected to the process, not the firms. He believes the city will spend much more than $50 million on a new Pier, and that it should be residents who decide whether the current Pier should be replaced.
He supports a group that is gathering petition signatures that would require approval of the demolition to be voted on by residents. Newton said the group has collected 10,000 signatures. If they get 6,000 more, they can force a special election.
"Those who are hooked on the inverted pyramid are beholden to it because they fear the unknown," Foster said. "But as I keep telling everyone, this city needs to think outside the inverted pyramid. It's going to be spectacular."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or [email protected]