The St. Petersburg City Council's acquiescence on Thursday to opponents of a proposed new pier may have a silver lining. A workshop later this month could dispel much of the misinformation opponents are spreading and build public awareness about this exciting project. The challenge for the council will be to provide answers to reasonable technical questions without falling for the opponents' delaying tactics. The decision to build the new pier and embrace its innovative design remains the right one for St. Petersburg.
Council chairman Karl Nurse — who has signed the petition for the Stop the Lens group — proposed the workshop. He succeeded after a contentious debate when three council members who support the project, Charlie Gerdes, Bill Dudley and Jim Kennedy, joined Nurse and Wengay Newton in agreeing to hold the workshop. But it is unclear exactly how it will unfold. Council member Steve Kornell succeeded in requiring anyone challenging the technical expertise of city staff or consultants to have professional credentials — which will hopefully quell the unhelpful and vague criticisms of some opponents. And it will be up to Nurse to keep the discussion on technical issues, which Gerdes, Dudley and Kennedy should be especially prepared to reinforce.
The timing is awkward in a design process that is still evolving. Michael Maltzan, the Los Angeles architect who won the city's international competition to design the new pier, is scheduled to deliver updated plans on May 2 in anticipation of the council taking a final vote to approve funding for the final phase of planning. That would seem a more reasonable time to consider technical questions.
Nonetheless, Gerdes is right that this project should benefit from more informed public debate. In recent months, the thoughtful considerations the city has made over the past five years concerning the future pier have been overshadowed by the well-funded opposition of a vocal group who readily acknowledge they have no desire to actually improve the plan — only to kill it because they don't like its aesthetics or its function. Never mind that this design hews closely to one of the options put forth by a citizen task force that held more than 60 meetings seeking public input.
Finally, the council should also be leery of Nurse's request that members discuss the timing of a potential Stop the Lens referendum at the workshop. As Kornell noted, negotiating ballot dates before a referendum is officially required sets a bad precedent. No local government can function if every big decision is postponed because opponents start gathering signatures and demanding referendums. Derailing years of a thoughtful and thorough public process just because Stop the Lens leaders have threatened to force an expensive, unnecessary special election is no way to lead Florida's fourth-largest city.