St. Petersburg voters rejected the Lens as the city's next pier by approving a referendum initiative Tuesday to halt the project. While the message is clear, what comes next is entirely uncertain and residents remain divided. With the election for mayor and half of the City Council 10 weeks away, the city should take a breath. The best time to move forward will be when the city's future leadership is set and tempers have cooled so a citywide discussion can start fresh.
While the Lens has been rejected, the next vision for the Pier should at least meet the failed project's baseline. Like the Lens, the next proposal should fit within the same $37 million construction budget and have the same expected lifespan of more than 50 years. Any plans for restaurants at the facility should require agreements with an established restaurateur to operate them, as the Lens had with the well-regarded Columbia Restaurant group for two venues. A new plan should also at least match the Lens' boat access, areas for fishing and gathering space. And it should significantly reduce the city's annual $1.4 million operating subsidy, which the Lens promised to do by half.
Some opponents of the Lens would like to reopen and renovate the dilapidated inverted pyramid — including replacing the crumbling, 90-year-old pier bridge and the concrete surrounding the inverted pyramid. But that would cost at least $20 million more than the $50 million the city has budgeted for the entire project, and only roughly $46 million remains. Some have suggested the new bridge could be done less expensively by reducing the use by cars and making it significantly narrower. But it makes little sense to throw additional tax dollars at a facility that never realized its full potential in 40 years, required high taxpayer subsidies and now needs dramatically more investment.
Others have suggested the city wait to decide on a new pier until after the completion of a new waterfront master plan in January 2015. But that is far too long. The city needs to move forward, and it will be up to future city leadership to do it — particularly the next mayor. A group brought together by Mayor Bill Foster, 828 Alliance, has suggested that the city embark on a broad public listening tour to gather input on what residents want in a pier — not unlike what then-Mayor Rick Baker initiated four years ago under a process that led to the Lens design.
That's a good idea. This time, however, there needs to be stronger leadership from City Hall. It will be up to the mayor and City Council to own the next proposal and convince the public it is the correct course. The answer is not to put such a decision to a voter referendum. Public projects of this scale rarely enjoy initial public support, and that approach would risk years of stagnation on a new pier.
Tuesday's vote means St. Petersburg will be without a pier for at least a few more years. But it offers a fresh opportunity to design a more traditional pier that more residents can embrace — and for City Hall to lead the way.