To fans of St. Petersburg's current Pier, the results of an engineering evaluation of the inverted pyramid's structural integrity sounds like good news. Consultants said the building appears to have suffered limited corrosion and could be brought up to a dramatically tougher building code with significant changes, including likely closing the first floor. But what is possible and what is reasonable are two different things, particularly when talking about a taxpayer-financed project and a 40-year-old facility that never lived up to its potential even after its first floor was expanded. Keeping and renovating the current Pier remains a dubious proposition.
The city released last week the results of a $30,000 engineering report, the most comprehensive examination of what might be required to save the inverted pyramid. One of the building's biggest fans, engineer Frank Carter "Bud" Karins, helped the city write the scope of the report. But three Tampa Bay engineering firms did the work, examining the building's steel structure, including removing concrete in spots to view corrosion and test for saltwater and chloride intrusion. They found the building probably could be rehabilitated, but with significant caveats:
• The engineers noted that any major renovation would require the facility to comply with current building code — which is far more demanding than it was in 1973 when the inverted pyramid was built. Lower levels of the building would have to demonstrate the capacity to carry more than twice the wind load required in 1973. The engineers said a detailed analysis of the building's current wind load would be required, and only then could they suggest what structural modifications might be required.
• The engineers confirmed the building code will likely require the closure of the first floor, which sits too close to sea level. That would lose all the retail space the city added in 1987 in an attempt to inject more life into the attraction, which ultimately proved unsuccessful.
• The report says the facility needs a lightning protection system to reduce the potential for fire and other damage.
So what would this all cost? Unknown. The engineers said they couldn't possibly say without more tests, such as on wind load and whether it would be possible to modify the first floor's elevation.
There is a city estimate for what it might take to rehabilitate the building: $12 million. But that estimate was made last year based solely on square foot costs. And it was an exercise in trying to estimate, after voters rejected the replacement plan known as the Lens, how far the remaining $46 million budget might stretch if no new facility was built. The verdict then was the budget could possibly stretch to replace the badly deteriorating, 90-year-old approach and surround, and rehabilitate the inverted pyramid. But it would be for a modest version of a facility that was struggling to attract visitors when it closed last year: A narrower approach, less space in the building and no new amenities.
Fans of the inverted pyramid may see hope in the engineering report, but what's possible and what is a wise use of taxpayer money are two different things.