Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Completing our gorgeous waterfront

T here are always those who stand against change and can't see the value in the new. Gustave Eiffel suffered withering criticism of his tower design for the 1889 Paris Exposition. It was dismissed as a "monstrosity" and "the odious column of bolted metal."

St. Petersburg is not Paris. It is a small city with limited resources. But through a combination of planning, community input, talent and ambition it has its own bold vision on the drawing board for a new public amenity that combines public art with public spaces. As long as a group of determined, misguided opponents don't scuttle it, St. Petersburg will be home to a new waterfront pier that reimagines the classic pier design into a sweep of curves and loops that beckon the city-dweller to its multistory promenades.

The city of green benches is about to get hipper.

Critics charge that there's not enough "to do" on the new pier. They want to hang on to the old inverted pyramid with its poorly patronized mix of tourist shops and restaurants. (At an estimated cost of $74 million compared with $50 million for the new pier.)

But what "to do" on the new pier is not the point. Being there is. The new pier design, known as the Lens, puts people out over glorious, ever-changing Tampa Bay on a sculptural platform designed to encourage meandering and placid enjoyment.

A livable city is one that offers public spaces that are not overly scripted or commercialized. This might sound esoteric but it is a proven commodity. Think Stanley Park in Vancouver, Hyde Park in London and Central Park in New York City. These unique, free-range parks add immeasurably to the quality of life simply by providing walkways through passive space, and it can work in small scale, too.

St. Petersburg's new pier design draws on these principles. With no barriers to entry like an admission fee, the pier represents the democracy of leisure; a new public park erected on land snatched from where there is none. Outside of special happenings, it will draw people with what it has to offer: a one-of-its-kind stroll over a spectacular, protean waterfront with breathtaking big sky and cityscape views. Described as "a loupe focused on the water," the experience will be enjoyed with no cars zooming by to destroy the tranquility — unlike the current pier.

Revolutionary urban planner Jane Jacobs would be pleased at the car's banishment (except for a public tram). She saw cities as teeming ecosystems that flourished when high density combines with public spaces. Opportunities for casual public contact were essential to Jacobs as a way for people to connect with their city and each other. To that end, Jacobs loved sidewalks and despised the car, once saying, "not TV or illegal drugs but the automobile has been the chief destroyer of American communities."

Now St. Petersburg is planning an uber-sidewalk like no other and being condemned by some for the structure's lack of specific function. I urge the naysayers to take a stroll along Manhattan's High Line park. Constructed on an abandoned elevated rail freight trestle, it draws throngs of people in all seasons to climb its entrance stairs. When I was there I saw people enjoying a lunchtime picnic, others sitting with a book or just contemplating the city from bird's-eye heights. But most of us were walking for the pure joy of experiencing this unique urban space with others. As famous urbanist William H. Whyte observed, "what attracts people most, it would appear, is other people."

Forget roller coasters, aquariums, souvenir shops or restaurants. That's not going to make a new pier successful. What will is people connecting with other people in a well-designed public space. St. Petersburg already has a splendid waterfront. The new pier would make it more accessible and alluring while adding a signature, landmark element to the city's skyline. Those who object now will be remembered as unable to see what a gift this is.


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