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Underwater garden may be dropped from new St. Petersburg Pier plan

ST. PETERSBURG — A key element of the new Pier design will be excluded from an agreement for the $50 million project when it goes before the City Council for approval in a couple of weeks.

Reservations about the proposed underwater garden —- a showcase centered in the tiara-like design of the new Pier and touted as a "habitat for oysters, reef wildlife and sea grasses" —- are behind the decision to omit the design and engineering portions of the concept from the base contract, public works administrator Mike Connors said.

"It would be disappointing if it's not part of the final design," said Will Michaels, chair of the design committee for the Pier Advisory Task Force.

In coming months, though, the Michael Maltzan Architecture design team and city staff will work with Tampa Bay marine science experts to determine the viability of the underwater garden, a process that will be covered in the upcoming contract.

"We really want to consider it closely and make sure it's feasible before we get into spending a whole lot of money designing it,'' said Raul Quintana, the city's architect. "We want to make sure it works."

To Ed Montanari, vice chair of the task force, it's "the key component of the design."

"I don't know of any other idea like that in Tampa Bay,'' he said. "The people that come up with the ideas, they have the details. I'm going to be very interested to see if it works like they say it works.''

Scientists interviewed by the Tampa Bay Times have expressed doubts about plans for the "natural aquarium," which will be built around pilings that support the current Pier. The plan proposed by Tom Leader Studio in California, a member of the Michael Maltzan team, includes planting sea grass that would "attract manatees looking to graze" and sea turtles. Plans for the nearly $900,000 component call for oysters in wire mesh bags to be placed in trays attached to the pilings. The oysters would filter and clarify the murky water.

Scientists are skeptical about several aspects of the underwater garden, from the idea of growing sea grass to possible pollutants in the area that can be toxic to marine life.

"We've had questions about it all along and I think from day one, we've all said, this is something we just don't want to build, we want to make sure it works,'' said Chris Ballestra, the city's managing director of development coordination.

"Granted, it is a unique concept that no other builders have come up with. It does a good job of addressing ways to keep the bay clean. We really want to make sure that we do our homework so that we're not ultimately chasing a project that doesn't make sense.''

Discussions about the garden will be held with the St. Petersburg Ocean Team, a consortium for marine science, oceanographic, and environmental research agencies and institutions, Ballestra said.

"I think that's a go-to group that is worth listening to,'' he said.

Meanwhile, contract negotiations are continuing between the city and Michael Maltzan Architecture for the new Pier, with an agreement set to go before the council May 17. If the underwater garden "is determined to be feasible and financially acceptable," an amendment to the agreement would be sent to the council for approval, Connors said.

The contract will be followed by months of discussions and public input, leading to a final design for the new Pier later this year, Ballestra said.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

Underwater garden may be dropped from new St. Petersburg Pier plan 05/01/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 1, 2012 10:07pm]
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