Editorial: New St. Petersburg Pier spot for Echelman art better, not perfect

Artist Janet Echelman says she will adjust the proposed sculpture for the new location.
Artist Janet Echelman says she will adjust the proposed sculpture for the new location.
Published August 6 2018
Updated August 7 2018

The St. Petersburg City Council has listened to the concerns of constituents and forged a compromise on where to install a signature public art piece in the new Pier District. Plans had called for an imposing aerial net sculpture to soar above Spa Beach, conflicting with the city’s longstanding commitment to preserving open space and views on the downtown waterfront. The new location, in a more interactive part of the Pier, is not ideal but better adheres to that tradition.

Artist Janet Echelman is a Tampa native whose distinctive, billowing sculptures are a focal point in cities around the world. Mayor Rick Kriseman made it a goal to secure one of her commissions for the reimagined Pier, which is scheduled to open late next year and will feature restaurants, a fishing deck, a playground, kayaking and walkable gardens. The sculpture, at a total cost of $2.8 million, is being financed with public funds and private donations. The city’s share is $1.3 million to pay for supporting infrastructure. But money was never the primary problem with this project, nor was the nature of the artwork. The proposed Spa Beach location was, drawing objections from many residents as well as the city’s influential Waterfront Parks Foundation.

St. Petersburg’s 7-mile waterfront stretching from Coffee Pot Bayou to Lassing Park is a treasured public asset that needs no adorning. For more than a century, preservation has been the guiding principle for how the city manages those green spaces that even a prized work of art should not supersede. The claim from City Hall that Spa Beach is under-utilized and the Echelman sculpture would draw more people to it missed the point entirely and ignored that principle.

It was unfortunate that the issue became one pitting the arts against open parks, which should not be competing values. In a surprising 4-3 vote last month, the council rejected a contract that would have cleared the way for the Echelman piece on Spa Beach and directed city staff to explore alternative sites. That led to a proposal to construct the sculpture above an area where a family park and gardens are planned. Echelman is on board with the new location, which also won support from arts supporters and parks advocates. Council member Ed Montanari deserves credit for remaining the only vote against the new location. While Montanari cited the public cost, he also has been unyielding in his protection of public green space and fight against over-development along the waterfront.

The 26-acre, $76 million Pier is scheduled to open late next year. In a perfect world, the Echelman sculpture would not be jammed into the Pier project, and a more suitable location in the city would have been found. But the new location is an improvement over Spa Beach, and it indicates the voices for the city’s long-held protections of waterfront parks were heard at City Hall. As construction continues, residents should remain engaged in ensuring that this landmark, which will adorn the waterfront for generations, enhances the city without cheapening St. Petersburg’s most beautiful asset.