ST. PETERSBURG — Opponents of the Lens design for St. Petersburg's Pier knock it as a "sidewalk to nowhere," a functionless structure lacking important amenities of the retired inverted pyramid. Take, for instance, the ability to eat food above water in cool air.
"Folks, there is no air-conditioned restaurant at the Lens," mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford declared at Tuesday's Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9 mayoral forum. "Let me just clear that up for you. … There is no planned air-conditioned restaurant out on the Lens."
Ford and others have argued against the Lens for a host of reasons, including the lack of a restaurant. Voters get to decide to cancel the project or not on Aug. 27.
The inverted pyramid Pier, which closed May 31 but has not been demolished, had a few restaurants, including the Columbia Restaurant. The new plan for the Pier, with its looping, futuristic, open-air design, does not allocate nearly the same amount of space for restaurants as before.
Instead of a full-size restaurant topping the water, Lens designers opted for a new restaurant strategy, in part to cut the taxpayer subsidy for the Pier. They planned a small, open-air cafe run by the Columbia Restaurant on the Lens structure's "promontory," which overlooks the water.
Meanwhile, a new Columbia Restaurant would anchor a waterfront location at the approach to the Pier known as the "Hub," which is currently the Pelican parking lot. Columbia owners say it will have about 8,000 square feet of air-conditioned space as well as outdoor and rooftop seating.
Richard Gonzmart of the Columbia Restaurant Group said the Lens cafe would be different from traditional fare at the Columbia, featuring a fusion of Japanese and Peruvian seafood and an open bar.
Would it have air conditioning? It's hard to say, as final planning stages have not yet begun.
Enclosing the cafe space would take away from the intended experience, he said, adding he sees himself enjoying a glass of sauvignon blanc at the water's edge in casual Florida wear with his German shepherd Rusty. His company is testing out a fan misting system at its cafe location at the Tampa Bay History Center in Tampa, he said.
Still, the looming referendum makes brainstorming ideas for either location with the California-based architects very difficult, he said. Much is left to be determined, and the City Council has not yet approved a lease with his restaurant for either space.
"We'll have to come up with a way to cool it down," Gonzmart said. "I will investigate what we can do to make it comfortable."
City architect Raul Quintana said the nitty-gritty of the design will only be worked out if the project survives the public vote.
"There's no 'yes or no' answer," Quintana said. "Could (the cafe) be air-conditioned? Absolutely, if that's what Gonzmart wants."
Two more parts of the promontory — a small ice cream parlor and bathroom facilities — will be air-conditioned, said Lisa Wannemacher, the associate local architect for the project.
Lens opponents, including president of Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg William Ballard, have criticized the design for not including 26,000 square feet for a restaurant, one of the recommendations of the 2010 Pier Advisory Task Force report.
Wannemacher said there was not enough money to meet all of the task force's recommendations and a land-based restaurant helps reduce ongoing costs.
Two leaders of the task force also defended the plan for the upland restaurant and promontory cafe, saying while it's not exactly what the group had in mind, "It does substantially address the task force's identification of a restaurant-based program as a focus."
So Ford's specific wording — "There is no planned air-conditioned restaurant out on the Lens" — is technically accurate. But it ignores the fact that there are two places to get food on the Lens campus: An air-conditioned, waterfront restaurant on the approach and an open-air cafe at the structure's endpoint.
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