Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Opinion

Forget nostalgia and aesthetics in Pier debate; it's about St. Petersburg's future

Forget about petitions for a moment.

Forget about subsidies and restaurants, docks and water gardens, referendums and city charters. Forget about all the details that make up St. Petersburg's ongoing Pier potpourri. Focus instead on the larger picture.

Where is this city heading?

Figure that one out, and the rest of the questions get easier.

Because as much as we've talked about design, this story feels like it has more to do with direction. Is St. Petersburg content with today, or is it buzzing about tomorrow?

That's really the crux of the argument. Everything else is details.

If this city has ambitions beyond a handful of chic restaurants and funky bars, then it needs to move forward on a new Pier project. If you happen to like the status of your quo, then by all means argue for a more conservative approach.

Once you look at it from that perspective, the entire debate starts to feel vaguely familiar.

For wasn't this the same argument we heard when the Rays brought up the idea of a waterfront stadium in 2007? And isn't it similar to the outcry about protecting Albert Whitted Airport a few years earlier? What about the Pier Park waterfront entertainment complex that was shot down in 1984, and the convention center before that?

What we have seen, time and again, is citizens rising up in St. Petersburg to fight any idea that might substantially change the complexion of the city's waterfront.

And there's nothing wrong with that. In many ways, it is admirable.

But it's important that we all understand St. Petersburg will never substantially grow if it is not willing to take a risk on major changes.

Ah, but you point out, what about the thriving nightlife in downtown St. Pete? Hasn't the city remade its image with late-night crowds and a growing arts scene? Isn't downtown St. Pete more vibrant than downtown Tampa on nights and weekends?

That's absolutely a viable argument, but don't get carried away with it.

The biggest corporations still reside in Tampa's high-rises. You might also have noticed the Republican National Convention barely made its way across the bridge, and the national television networks tend to treat the entire market as one giant Tampa suburb.

In other words, St. Pete's identity still feels more charming than bustling.

For many of us, that's a good thing. Particularly those who grew up around here and recall Webb's City, the Rat's Hole, Wolfie's deli and the Plaza Twin theaters.

And if the majority of St. Pete residents feel that way, then slowing down the new Pier project is probably the correct move for the City Council today.

My concern is that we all understand what we are arguing about.

It shouldn't be about saving the current Pier, because the place has been losing money and falling apart for years. And it shouldn't be about the aesthetics of the Lens, because it is impossible to get everyone to agree on what's an attractive design.

This argument is about our vision of the waterfront.

So let's try putting our individual tastes, memories, desires and property values aside. This issue is larger than that. This is not about the last generation, but the next.

This is about the future of St. Petersburg.

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