Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Politics

Arguing and division mark St. Petersburg's efforts to find new pier strategy

ST. PETERSBURG — On Thursday, the City Council publicly discussed the Pier's future for the first time since voters rejected the Lens design last month, and — in what should come as a surprise to no one familiar with politics here — the debate was acrimonious.

Based on recommendations made by the 8/28 Alliance, a group tasked with developing plans on how to move forward with the contentious project, Mayor Bill Foster explained the basics of his strategy.

"First," he said, "we will engage a pretty detailed survey of real people, large samplings."

Officials would then solicit design ideas from architects and use the public feedback to help determine which one a jury ultimately chooses. The mayor also recommended "built-in holding patterns" — scheduled times throughout the process in which the public was resurveyed.

Council member Leslie Curran, chairwoman of the jury that selected the Lens design, seemed disgusted. After saying St. Petersburg had "watched an opportunity evaporate," she asked the mayor how long it would take for a new Pier to be constructed.

"I have no idea as we sit here today as far as putting a time frame on it," Foster said.

He estimated the combined cost for the first two phases to be less than $50,000.

Soon after, Shirley O'Sullivan, a member of the 8/28 Alliance, approached a lectern.

"My biggest fear with this whole process is that we're going to have a Pier sitting out there and deteriorating for some time to come," she told the council. "I just can't help but feel that there's going to be more turmoil and dissension."

And with that — as five TV cameras and two newspaper reporters looked on — came more turmoil and dissension.

Council member Wengay Newton proposed restoring the shuttered inverted pyramid, and he implied that last month's vote was a sign that people supported the idea, which he's expressed dozens of times before.

Council member Bill Dudley corrected Newton, noting that the vote was against the Lens, not in favor of the Pier.

He then questioned the mayor's plan.

"Are we going to just keep voting until we get one that everybody likes?" he asked. "Good luck with that."

Dudley told the council that he's heard the aging Pier might remain untouched for another five years.

"That is not true," Foster said.

Council member Jeff Danner suggested that, if the goal is to build consensus around one design, the result will simply be something that "nobody hates."

Council member Charlie Gerdes supported surveying the community, but recommended a different opening question: "Should we save and refurbish the pyramid within the existing budget — yes or no?"

Foster didn't seem to like that idea. He thought it could be misleading because a renovated Pier would be far different than the old Pier.

Council member Steve Kornell followed with his "major concern" over the proposed process, which he said too closely resembled the one that just failed.

Chairman Karl Nurse said he understood that people were frustrated.

"It's been a long odyssey," he said, "and it didn't work."

But the arguments continued.

Curran spoke again, then Foster and Newton and Kennedy, and on they went until, quietly, a TV camera shut off and its operator slipped out the back door. Others followed and, within moments, the council recessed for a five-minute break and the latest Pier debate ended.

John Woodrow Cox can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8472.

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