For nearly four decades, the Pier has been St. Petersburg's trademark, the icon on tourist brochures, the reference point for downtown views. But like the Million Dollar Pier it replaced, the inverted pyramid is deteriorating and has outlived its usefulness. Shabby and bleeding money, the outdated building sits at the end of a deteriorating approach that would cost nearly $50 million to repair — without any renovations to the building itself.
On Tuesday, a citizen task force will hold its final public hearing before it forwards recommendations next month to the City Council. Many of the proposed options are still largely conceptual. Yet it is clear that spending $50 million to rebuild the approach to an obsolete building is not the answer.
Retailers at the pyramid struggle in a space that wasn't designed for such enterprises. Most customers must walk more than 700 feet in the sun or take a trolley. Elevators, air conditioning and plumbing all need to be replaced. And the overall atmosphere is depressing despite city taxpayers spending $1.5 million a year because tenants' rents don't cover operating costs. The city spends another $300,000 to $500,000 on capital costs.
That's not sustainable in an era of shrinking city revenues, including a $14 million city deficit anticipated next year. Yet the task force, in response to significant nostalgia from residents, is expected to include options to save the pyramid — from replacing the approach to narrowing or widening it.
A narrower approach would not cut costs significantly. A wider, more expensive approach would allow for other activities along the way to the pyramid, such as marine science displays, in hopes of persuading more pedestrians to make the trip. But those are just variations on a failed scheme.
The task force is considering some worthy ideas. One intriguing task force plan would significantly shorten the pier's approach and feature a new structure over water. A consultant's study suggests the pier's 1,443 feet could be shortened by 600 feet or more without compromising waterside views of the city's skyline. A less appealing proposal is to build a new, undefined structure on land and add a pedestrian-only pier behind it.
But the group's struggle to develop an exciting proposal reflects St. Petersburg's split personality. Residents want an engaging, attractive waterfront, but they have long resisted dynamic options such as retail development or amusement parks that have made piers in other cities successful.
The closest thing to a potential vision is a collection of ideas for the land at the start of the pier offered by the task force's consultant. They are aimed at generating recreational traffic that might ultimately make a pier self-sustaining. What if the city built a splash fountain similar to those in Atlanta and Portland, Ore., that attract families? How about a small merry-go-round, fitness routes, a garden or waterside cafes?
Another provocative proposal would build a pedestrian-only swing bridge to connect Vinoy Park, the southernmost of the North Shore parks, to the northern edge of the land on which the pier begins. That would create a circular path around the Vinoy basin for walkers, skaters and bicyclists and provide additional pedestrian access to the pier.
There is also discussion of turning Vinoy basin into a harbor for mega-yachts and day boat trippers, potentially drawing more tourists downtown, or building public slips along the southern side of the land at the pier's base.
Task force chairman and architect Randy Wedding has suggested the pier approach might be turned into a causeway, expanding the options for parkland or programming while reducing long-term maintenance costs. Such a plan raises significant environmental and permitting questions, but it should be explored.
The Pier task force has plowed a lot of ground, and it should keep brainstorming. When the City Council receives the task force's report, it should give the work careful consideration without rushing to a conclusion. But taking the path of least resistance, rebuilding the pier's approach to the pyramid, would be the wrong direction. It's time consider more options.