Proponents of the Lens, including St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and most City Council members, claim that the Lens is the result of a process that began in March 2009 with the formation of the Pier Advisory Task Force. The truth is that the process that led to the Lens proposal began July 19, 2011, when the city, having rejected the work of the task force, announced the St. Petersburg Pier International Design Competition.
Two documents plus a time line tell the story. They are: the Pier Advisory Task Force Final Report of June 2010, and the Competition Design Principles — Stage II of September 2011. The 20 citizen members of the task force knew our city, its environment and its character. The task force, through 60-plus meetings with multiple opportunities for public input, accomplished the visioning and programming tasks expected in the development of a municipal facility.
In the words of the task force final report: "The Pier program selected focuses on restaurants and other food service programming. This approach was found to be most successful in pier case studies reviewed and affords waterfront views and gathering spots for the community."
The "program" or "architect's brief" is a short statement of the use for the facility to be constructed and of the users' needs which will dictate its size, if size is not specified.
The task force's final report provided the City Council with three alternative conceptual designs for a new pier, all of which were based on the new pier having as its primary attraction, aside from the on-the-water experience any pier offers, a building to house 26,000 square feet of restaurant and banquet facilities plus 5,000 square feet each for retail and public use. The task force recommended an international design competition to select the architect to flesh out the alternative selected by the council.
The City Council rejected all of the task force's alternatives. It rejected the restaurant-focused program recommended by the task force. It turned the pier design contest into an open-ended process in which famous architects would be invited, in the words of a city engineer, to "tell us what we can do to enhance our waterfront." On Page 1 of the design principles document, the contestants were told that the selected design teams would "help define the brief and envision a solution. Then, once the final design team is selected, the process for obtaining community input to further refine the winning concept can begin."
This statement shows that the city intended to ignore the usual rule of project development that form follows function; the result was the Lens — a project featuring an art object which will consume most of the budget — if it is built.
The city's design principles document told contestants that the task force effort had been "well-intentioned but shortsighted" and that the effort to define what the new pier should be and do "stifled the imagination." The contestants were supplied the task force's final report, but that could only have been for use as a data source as the contestants had been clearly warned off from the substance of the report.
The design principles document identified the five-person contest jury that would include council member Leslie Curran and three architecture and planning professors from San Francisco, Boston and Tampa. The jury would select the architects who would compete in the conceptual design submission phase and would choose the three designs to be submitted to City Council. The public would be permitted to express a preference, but "none of the above" was not offered as an option.
The final step in this six-month process was the City Council vote on Feb. 2 to approve the Lens concept. Our city leaders own every minute and every decision made in the short process that led to the Lens. Their attempt to stand on the broad shoulders of those who preceded them fails.
William Ballard is a retired St. Petersburg construction and banking lawyer.