Saturday, January 20, 2018
Editorials

Times recommends: Vote 'no' to keep the Lens

A century ago, St. Petersburg secured for future generations acres of waterfront property for public parks that would define the city. A plan for the new St. Petersburg Pier builds on that legacy with a thoughtful design that would seamlessly extend downtown's popular front lawn with an experience over water for residents and visitors. St. Petersburg should build the pier design known as the Lens and reject the Aug. 27 ballot measure that seeks to cancel the architect's contract. The new pier design will move the city forward, and canceling the contract will be a step backward.

Accurate information about the Lens design finally has been digested by voters after months of red herrings and misinformation spread by opponents. Build the Pier, a grass roots group of young professionals in St. Petersburg, has been far more effective than City Hall in explaining the plan's merits. The new pier would offer nearly all of the amenities of the now-closed inverted pyramid except for the tacky tourist shops and a small aquarium that is moving to Madeira Beach. It can be built within the modest budget and for far less than the cost of rehabilitating the current pier. And it would improve Tampa Bay's health by creating a smaller footprint than the current pier.

The Lens would be fully handicapped-accessible, including an electric trolley service. It would feature two restaurants, one over water and one on land; a floating dock marina that would offer nonmotorized boat rentals and could accommodate motorized recreation boats; a 285-seat open-air amphitheater; an ice cream shop; areas for fishing; balconies facing east and west and a pair of escalating walkways more inviting and shorter than the current pier's car-centric approach. Half of the half-mile loop would be under shade.

This ambitious project is the product of years of public input and debate, and of an international design competition that is not likely to be replicated if the ballot measure is approved and the architect's contract is canceled. The $50 million for the project (pre-demolition to construction) was dedicated by Pinellas County and the city eight years ago as part of downtown's tax-increment financing district. Tax-increment financing enables local governments to dedicate the tax dollars derived from rising property values in a geographic district for public projects in that district. And for nearly a decade, engineers and consultants have warned the current pier was disintegrating. Costs to replace it and renovate the inverted pyramid are estimated to be at least $20 million more than the cost to demolish it and build the Lens.

If the ballot measure passes, St. Petersburg faces the possibility of a shuttered inverted pyramid standing silently over downtown for years as vocal factions refuse to compromise. That outcome is far more likely than the odds that a new pier design will be quickly embraced and fit within the current budget.

Grand public projects frequently face initial public opposition — just as William L. Straub and C. Perry Snell did early last century when they quietly acquired acres of waterfront park and presented it to the city as a gift. Critics back then argued the city shouldn't lose the development value of waterfront land, but the City Council considered the future and accepted the gift. That lesson resonates now. There will never be unanimous agreement on what should come next for the pier, and innovative designs for iconic public places are often initially controversial and revered by future generations.

On the Aug. 27 ballot question seeking to cancel the contract with Michael Maltzan to design the new pier, the Tampa Bay Times recommends "no."

For more details on the Lens project, go to www.tampabay.com/opinion

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