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Urban design expert likes St. Petersburg Pier proposals

ST. PETERSBURG — As debate about the competing Pier designs reaches a crescendo, some of the loudest voices would like to dismiss the lot from consideration as the new waterfront icon.

Sammie Bond, for example, wouldn't mind returning to the 1920s-era, Mediterranean-style Million Dollar Pier.

"I grew up here; born in St. Pete in 1946 and enjoyed 'the old Pier,' which had terra-cotta barrel tiled roof, Spanish architecture and the bottom floor was open air with music playing,'' Bond declared in an email. "You could walk around after church on Sunday and eat a five-cent ice cream cone.''

Urban specialist Vikas Mehta, 45, understands the nostalgia but thinks there's no going back.

"If you think of the inverted pyramid and the Mediterranean structure that preceded it, they were all icons of their time. Today, they seem extremely dated. We are in a time when we are able to reflect our own culture through current, contemporary style,'' said Mehta, an assistant professor of urban design and architecture at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

"Rather than borrowing from a past style, to me it's important that any building or urban design for the Pier be contemporary, but more important, that it be a true public space and establish a symbiotic relationship with the land and water and with the species and humans."

He praised the competing concepts for the $50 million project, the Eye from West 8 Urban Design in New York, the Wave from BIG of Denmark and New York City, and the Lens from Michael Maltzan Architecture of Los Angeles.

"They are of our time, but they raise some very interesting questions about asking ourselves to sort of reconsider the role and definition of the icon,'' he said.

"You look at the images and they all have done a very good job of icon-making.''

From his viewpoint, the designs are urbane, dynamic, contemporary and forward-thinking.

That many residents are passionate about the city's waterfront and what ends up there was evident from the outcry that met the Tampa Bay Rays' proposal for a waterfront stadium. The city in 2010 marked the centennial of its downtown waterfront parks, running 23 blocks from Albert Whitted Airport north to Coffee Pot Bayou.

Far from being discordant with a waterfront punctuated by old-world structures, the contemporary Pier designs have their place, Mehta said, and he praised them for their attention to the ecology and ecosystem.

"The issues of ecology and environment and especially the education of those become extremely important as a part of experiencing the space,'' he said. "I think that is paramount in the design of the new Pier."

Mehta had good things to say about each of the three designs. He complimented the Eye by West 8 —modeled on a sea urchin and the subject of public derision — for the grace of its shape and form.

"It's a very, very believable man-made object that appears like a marine species,'' he said.

Mehta also liked the idea of West 8's shoal, the man-made beach surrounding the Eye, and the openness and flexibility of its interior space. He was less impressed by West 8's concept for the Pier approach, which he described as "extremely monotonous" and a "missed opportunity."

BIG, which produced the Wave, is known for innovative ideas, he said. While the firm's Pier design is dynamic, it's "extremely introverted," he said, adding that it's the least engaged with the water around it.

Besides, he said, "it's a very, very cold country imagery. It seems to be in a Scandinavian country or the North.''

The Lens, with its looping bridge, by Michael Maltzan Architecture, is his favorite.

"They have thought of it not only as an iconic object but as an iconic space. And oftentimes, when design firms do that, they lose one or the other. … This proposal creates a multitude of spaces and experiences.''

He called the design fluid, three-dimensional and "refreshingly nonlinear."

"I've always thought of the St. Petersburg waterfront as a series of coves that could be eventually developed and conceptualized with distinct identities. Interestingly, the Lens and the space contained by the loop could be read as another cove out in the water," Mehta said.

"The development along the waterfront is a work in progress, and with the Pier project, the Lens is something that will further activate it. I think it's very interesting that it actively looks back at the city and engages it.''

A panel of five jurors will rank the three designs Jan. 20 and then make a recommendation to the City Council.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.

Urban design expert likes St. Petersburg Pier proposals 01/02/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 3, 2012 4:21pm]
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