Monday, December 18, 2017
News Roundup

Voters won't have a say on fate of Pier, St. Petersburg leaders decide

ST. PETERSBURG — Voters will not have a chance to save St. Petersburg's Pier.

There will be no question on the Nov. 6 ballot about whether the city should keep its iconic inverted pyramid. Nothing about whether to replace it with the winning design from an international competition. And no suggestion that the city simply start from scratch, again.

In a 6-2 vote Thursday, the St. Petersburg City Council decided not to hold a public vote on the Pier after listening to pleas from both sides. It had been something of a cliffhanger as council members vacillated over the issue in recent weeks, eventually deciding to put it to a vote and then getting mired in what the ballot question — or questions — should be.

Council members Wengay Newton and Karl Nurse were the only ones who wanted residents to weigh in on whether to save the ailing Pier.

Before Thursday's meeting, Charlie Gerdes, Steve Kornell and Bill Dudley also supported the referendum while Jeff Danner, Leslie Curran and Jim Kennedy wanted to move forward with the new Lens design.

A petition drive launched almost two years ago was the catalyst for the proposed referendum. Voteonthepier.com amassed more than 20,000 signatures from people seeking to save the city's 1973 Pier. City Attorney John Wolfe repeatedly said that the city had no legal obligation to create a referendum based on the petitions.

On Thursday, Kornell was the first to indicate he was switching sides.

"There has to be some clarity," he said. "You can't keep discussing things over and over . . . a referendum is not going to bring any clarity. I've listened, I've thought about it carefully. I cannot support a referendum."

Dudley said he hardly slept the night before, just like nights before he would coach a big game. Ultimately, he too decided not to support a public vote.

"I am very eager to move on, to move forward," he said. "I know people don't like change. . . . People didn't like computers. They didn't like cell phones."

Newton, who aggressively campaigned for a vote, was visibly upset.

"In 16 months, the mayor and half of the council will be up for a vote," he said, reassuring those who fought for a referendum that ultimately they will be heard.

In 2014, Mayor Bill Foster, Kennedy and Nurse will be up for re-election. Danner and Curran's terms also expire in 2014, but they won't be eligible to run again because of term limits.

Tom Lambdon, the Safety Harbor man who led the petition drive, did not return calls for comment Thursday.

This response was posted Thursday on the group's Facebook page: "The political process in St. Petersburg has been BROKEN .... NEVER, in my life, have I seen such disdain for the will of the people that elected these to office. It's a sad day for democracy in St. Petersburg."

Many hours and thousands of dollars went into the referendum effort.

Bud Risser of Risser Oil Corp., who does not want the city to borrow money for the $50 million Pier, gave $9,595 to the petition drive.

In the days leading up to Thursday's meeting, Risser sent out an email blast to rally support.

"I can tell you that most of our Council members are terribly conflicted," he wrote. "We risk that they may decide Thursday that they can change our waterfront without a referendum, and commit us and our children to an $80 million bond issue to build something three-quarters of us don't want."

Thursday afternoon, he pledged to continue the fight.

"My mission has been and continues to be to stop the Lens and find a solution that has broad community support," he said.

Thursday's public hearing drew St. Petersburg natives and business people, young professionals and retirees, environmentalists and local politicos.

Hal Freedman, a downtown resident, sees the Pier every day. He urged the council Thursday to move forward with plans for a new one.

"There's a lot of misinformation out there," he said. "It's easy to sign a petition if you have no idea what it's going to cost you."

Before the council's vote, Foster maintained his position that the successful petition drive should be rewarded. "I think that this group earned something on the ballot," he said.

Even as the controversy raged, plans for the new Pier designed by Los Angeles-based Michael Maltzan Architecture continued. A city committee has recommended that Skanska USA Building, which has an office in Tampa, manage construction. A contract already has been signed with Maltzan, though exit clauses exist.

In recent days, the Maltzan design team offered the first refinements to the original concept in response to public feedback. Designers also said they will work with experts to come up with a replacement plan for a pristine underwater garden, which marine scientists concluded would be impossible in Tampa Bay's murky waters.

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

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