Thursday, April 26, 2018
News Roundup

St. Petersburg's Pier might not meet wrecking ball, mayor says

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Bill Foster now says the Pier may not meet the wrecking ball after all.

Foster said Wednesday that a new task force he created can consider whether the Pier should be saved, and questioned whether the city could even get the necessary approval to demolish the 40-year-old inverted pyramid before the Aug. 27 election.

The reversal follows three years of Foster emphatically stating that the building would become rubble this fall.

As recently as April, when council member Wengay Newton wanted to postpone the closing of the Pier because a public vote on the Lens was likely, the mayor had this to say:

No matter what happens with efforts to stop the Lens, "I'll still be the mayor" in August, Foster said. "The Stop the Lens question will not save the inverted pyramid."

On Wednesday, however, Foster said he didn't know if the city would be able to get the needed permits, even though they are working to get them.

"Separating the design from demolition could be problematic," he said. "It's all about that."

Then he went on to say that he wouldn't want to push his new 8/28 Alliance — a task force of local leaders designed to help get the Lens built or come up with an alternative — into a corner.

"I don't want to paint this task force into a box," he said.

Foster's comments came after a news conference he held at City Hall to unveil the alliance, which includes both supporters and critics of the Lens.

When discussing the alliance's goal, Foster said the group has two months to form a plan to start a new process in case voters reject the Lens.

With demolition and construction permits for the $50 million Lens linked, both the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Southwest Florida Water Management District must approve them.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently asked for details about pile driving and fishing, but the city has not supplied details, the agency said.

Thomas Gibson, the city's director of engineering and capital improvements, repeatedly declined to say whether the city was waiting for the results of the Aug. 27 referendum before submitting the information.

He did say the permits were "a problem. The city needs to preserve its right to build a pier for the next 100 years."

Council Chairman Karl Nurse said getting the permit could be a problem if voters reject the Lens because the "corps want it all together . . . they prefer it all in one piece."

A Swiftmud spokeswoman said Wednesday a decision on whether the city can build the Lens would not impact its ability to demolish the Pier. The agency will rule by July 14.

Foster has insisted that the Pier would be demolished regardless of whether the Lens is built. The city, he said, couldn't afford the $1.5 million annual subsidy to keep the building open nor could it afford costly repairs needed.

The inverted pyramid closed May 31, at which time the mayor said the city was "going forward with the construction of a new pier."

It had been a consistent message that started in August 2010 after the council endorsed Foster's demolition plan. During the many discussions that followed, Foster told City Council members and residents that "the train has left that station" and "it's too late to save the Pier."

Asked Wednesday to say whether he's softened his stance on demolishing the Pier, he said: "My personal view is we need to start with a clean slate."

Meanwhile, controversy continues to swirl around the Pier and the Lens. Many residents are upset the city didn't let them vote to keep the building open. And the Lens has become the hottest topic on the campaign trail among candidates seeking the mayor's job and four council seats.

Council member Leslie Curran said she isn't surprised that Foster now seems willing to consider saving the Pier.

"Does the mayor ever take a position and stand with it from start to finish?" she asked. "The answer is no. Once again he is flip-flopping. It's an election.

Times staff writer Waveney Ann Moore contributed to this report.

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