ST. PETERSBURG — The Lens is not a fan favorite for the city's next Pier. That much has been known for some time.
But lest those who favor saving the inverted pyramid turn to gloating, the news for their cause is also discouraging.
A Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9 and WUSF Radio poll suggests many St. Petersburg residents want to send city officials back to the drawing board to find another plan that would carry on the tradition of a public pier.
Emotions are running high in the pro-Lens and anti-Lens camps.
"This Lens is garbage. It is just plain ugly," said Tim Ahern, 58, a former bouncer who wants to see the inverted pyramid refurbished. "Why put something out there that looks like it came out of a science fiction movie?"
Melissa McCall, 44, holds equally unflattering opinions about the inverted pyramid. "I hate the old Pier. I think it is the ugliest thing in the world," she said.
On Aug. 27, residents will go to the ballot box to decide what should be done.
The new poll found that 55 percent of potential voters want the city to cancel the $50 million contract to build the Lens. Another 37 percent want to continue with the project, while 7 percent were unsure about what they wanted. One percent did not answer.
Those in favor of canceling the Lens contract were asked whether they want to restore the shuttered inverted pyramid at a city-projected cost of $70 million. Only 37 percent said they were in favor. A majority, 54 percent, want an alternative to both the beleaguered Lens and the inverted pyramid.
The poll, conducted by Braun Research of New Jersey, surveyed 810 registered definite voters in St. Petersburg. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.4 percentage points. A majority, 77 percent, of those interviewed have lived in the city for more than 10 years.
Council member Leslie Curran, who sat on the Pier Advisory Task Force whose report led to the Lens and was chairwoman of the jury that selected the design, is undaunted by the poll results.
"Obviously, the gap is closing and I believe that once people understand what the Lens is all about, you will see that number increasing," said Curran, who recently organized an informational session about the project.
Council Chairman Karl Nurse blames the narrower margin supporting the anti-Lens camp on the ballot wording.
"Vote yes to stop the Lens causes a bit of confusion," he said. Nonetheless, Nurse, who opposes the project, smells victory. "I think the message is pretty clear that the voters are going to vote to cancel the Lens contract," he said.
Mayor Bill Foster, who recently put together a committee designed to make sure a pier is developed whatever happens on Aug. 27, could not be reached for comment.
Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, the group that forced the referendum it hopes will cancel the Lens contract with Los Angeles-based Michael Maltzan Architecture, is now putting its effort into getting out the vote, president Bill Ballard said.
The 55 percent figure in favor of canceling the Maltzan contract is "consistent with what we have felt that the public response to the Lens has been since we began this journey last summer," Ballard said.
He said the purported $70 million cost to restore the inverted pyramid drove down the percentage of those in favor of saving the 1973 structure.
"That number is really subject to controversy. It's hard to nail down a number like that," he said. "The question of rebuilding the existing Pier, that should stay on the table in the public conversation that will follow (the referendum) and I am sure that it will."
Margaret Ayler, 64, who lives downtown, is one poll respondent who is convinced city officials can fix the inverted pyramid "if they wanted to."
"It's fine the way it is," said Curtis Wood, 43. "It didn't seem like it was in disrepair to me. Disrepair is just because they want to spend millions of dollars. Kind of reminds me of the fake contractor that knocks on your door and says you need a roof."
Lens supporters, meanwhile, recently have formed a new group to push the project. Citizens for the St. Pete Pier may be getting a late start, but according to Steve Westphal, owner of Parkshore Grill, 400 Beach Seafood & Tap House and the Hangar Restaurant and Flight Lounge, it is rapidly raising money to get its message across.
"I sure hope they can pull this off," he said. "My only concern is about all the misinformation that is being passed around. Ours is a positive information campaign. There are many fear tactics put out there by the opposition."
Lens opponents have criticized the proposed Pier with its dual bridges and sweeping canopy as "a sidewalk to nowhere" and raised questions about its accessibility to the elderly and handicapped.
"It was one of the first things that I looked at," said Stephen Urgo, 60, a retired social worker and a quadriplegic. "Anything built today has to be ADA accessible. I think it is far more accessible than the old Pier.''
David Cohen, 74, who lives in Yacht Club Estates and owns a shipping franchise, believes the city has been tardy in selling the Lens' attributes.
"I like something that is unique and appealing," he said. "I really think if the information had been explained better and the changes had been suggested before this all came out, I think there is a possibility there wouldn't have been so much negativity."
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.