ST. PETERSBURG — Five months after entering the mayor's race, Rick Kriseman announced Thursday that he is opposed to the Lens, the $50 million project slated to replace the Pier.
"I'm encouraging people to vote yes to stop the Lens," Kriseman said at the Museum of History in downtown St. Petersburg. "The citizens have spoken loudly."
Triggered by a citizen initiative, residents will cast ballots Aug. 27 to decide whether to end the contract with Lens designer Michael Maltzan Architecture, effectively killing the project.
In what is shaping up to be one of the hot-button issues in the race, Kriseman vowed to appoint a task force to develop a new pier concept after his victory in November. He promised to have a new pier built by the end of 2015.
When asked about his plans if voters reject the Lens, Mayor Bill Foster said he has been working for the past few weeks to create what he's calling the 8/28 Alliance. The divulgence, he said, was not a response to Kriseman's announcement.
Foster said he is recruiting 12 to 15 residents — business, academic and civic leaders — to join a committee to either get the Lens built or develop a new project. He said he has contacted people from both sides of the debate to participate.
The committee's working name, which Foster said is a draft, signifies the importance of the Aug. 27 vote. He will have a mandate to follow.
"On 8/28, we're either going to build the Lens or have a decision and selection process to move forward," said Foster, 50. "We have to have something in place."
Candidate Kathleen Ford, 55, believes voters should decide whether the 40-year-old Pier should be saved, a stance that is helping her gain traction among voters. She unsuccessfully sued the city to force such a vote, and is now appealing the judge's ruling.
Kriseman, a former City Council member and state lawmaker, has said he favors allowing residents to vote on the Lens, but Thursday was the first time he took sides.
"The referendum to stop the Lens is not the end," he said. "It's the beginning. The hard work starts the day after the election."
He blamed Foster for the mess, saying: "If you're the mayor, your job is to lead. We have not seen that on this issue."
The mayor scoffed.
"He's running for office," Foster said. "Up to this point, he hasn't had an opinion."
Ford, also a former council member, agreed, adding: "I've said since 2009 that citizens should have a vote. My position has not changed."
Kriseman, 50, said his task force would complete its work by April 2014, ensuring that a new design would be in place by September 2014, adding: "It's an ambitious, but necessary timeline."
The purpose of Foster's group will be to "build consensus for the construction and programming of the Lens" and "provide recommendations" to design and select a new pier, records show.
Meetings will occur in July and August and be subject to Florida's Sunshine Laws. The public will be able to address the committee.
Foster is willing to let council members on the committee, but he said it's difficult to get five of the eight to agree on anything.
As the debate heats up prior to the primary, Foster and Kriseman agree that the inverted pyramid, which closed May 31, is too costly to repair. Both said they would not spend taxpayer money to repair or refurbish the building, including the $1.5 million annual subsidy it has taken to keep it open in recent years.
Even with the clock ticking toward the Pier's demolition in September, Ford said she doesn't think the building is failing.
"The citizens of St. Petersburg love their waterfront," she said. "I believe they want the right to vote on the direction. There's still an opportunity to address the inverted pyramid."
Mark Puente can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.