Progress or stagnation. That is the stark choice St. Petersburg voters face in Tuesday's election to decide the fate of the Lens, the city's impressive design for a new pier. Voters should vote against the referendum question that would cancel the architect's contract and trigger another round of fighting over artistic taste. A "no" vote will ensure the pier is built within two years and provide enhanced recreational opportunities for decades.
The Lens would be a natural extension of the city's popular waterfront parks. It's elegant escalating walkways and bike paths would link two restaurants, one over water and one on land. A floating dock marina would offer nonmotorized boat rentals and could accommodate motorized recreation boats. There would be a 285-seat open-air amphitheater, an ice cream shop, areas for fishing, and balconies facing east and west. Half of the half-mile loop would be under shade, and an electric trolley would transport those who preferred or needed to ride.
What the Lens would not have is struggling retail shops with taxpayer-subsidized rents or an aquarium that was already moving to Madeira Beach. Also gone would be about half of the $1.4 million operating subsidy that city taxpayers have spent on the inverted pyramid each year. The new design also would cast a significantly smaller shadow on the water.
Opponents of the Lens have spent months denigrating the project, spreading misinformation and raising one red herring after another. They either don't understand the way the project would be paid for or are intentionally confusing voters. The bottom line: The Lens is financed by the well-established practice of tax increment financing. Property tax money generated from rising property values within the redevelopment district that includes the Pier would pay for the project. The money cannot be spent on other city government programs, and it cannot be spent outside that redevelopment district.
If voters reject the Lens, starting over and designing an alternative will take time and trigger more fighting over what is essentially public art. Opponents of the Lens include those who refuse to accept reality that the inverted pyramid is not worth saving. Even if an agreement is reached on building something new, designing such a complex project takes months, if not years. And that could begin only after officials agreed to a new concept, which could spawn another round of opposition and referendums.
St. Petersburg has spent years reinventing a downtown waterfront that is now the envy of the state. That won't last if the city spends years with a padlocked, derelict inverted pyramid at the end of a deteriorating pier. The Lens will be an asset for both residents and tourists, and the project should move forward.