It's the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, and in Chicago it's Millennium Park with the reflective sculpture nicknamed "the Bean.'' Seattle has the Space Needle, Atlanta has Centennial Olympic Park with its Fountain of Rings, and New York has High Line park.
These are signature public places, bold statements that help establish the identity, values and vision of the city. Some were built with private money, some with public money, and some with a combination. Most included some sort of design competition, and there often were initial controversies and public disagreements over financing or artistic taste.
Now St. Petersburg has a unique opportunity to create an iconic destination on its downtown waterfront. The Lens would be a natural extension of the city's front lawn, gracefully linking the waterfront parks and bay. A dramatic looping promenade would sweep over the water, offer dozens of activities from dining to kayaking, and provide dramatic views of the city. It's not Pier Park, the commercial marketplace rejected nearly three decades ago, and it's not a sidewalk to nowhere as critics claim.
The concept has evolved following years of work by a citizen task force, dozens of public meetings, revisions from city officials and brainstorms in an international design competition. A contract with Los Angeles architect Michael Maltzan has been signed, a construction management contract is being drafted, and more refinements are on the way with even more public input.
Yet the project may be derailed this week by a skittish St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and a wobbly City Council. They have been cowed by a petition drive to save the deteriorating pier approach and the dilapidated inverted pyramid. Never mind that it would cost perhaps $80 million to repair the obsolete pier and the city only has $50 million to build the Lens. A divided council will try to write referendum questions this week and vote on whether to put them on the November ballot. It is an impossible task to write one question to cover all of the issues. A referendum now disrespects the open process used to design the new pier and the many residents who participated. It succumbs to the loud voices of a misinformed minority of residents, and it once again suggests a parochialism that undermines St. Petersburg's aspirations for something more.
Signature landmarks and public places that define cities are not designed by voter referendums. They are often criticized at the outset by those who dislike the design, cost or location. The Gateway Arch, Millennium Park, the Space Needle — all were controversial but looked toward the future and created exciting public spaces that will be enjoyed for generations.
St. Petersburg has embarked on a similar effort that reflects its ambition to be distinctive, artistic and accessible. There is more work to be done and time for more adjustments to the vision. The Lens likely even will have a new name. But it would be a mistake to give in to those who fear change, long for the past or cling to the unsustainable status quo. It's time for Mayor Bill Foster and the City Council to lead rather than follow, to confidently continue along the path they established rather than retreat — and to embrace a compelling vision for the future that offers endless possibilities.