Friday's unanimous jury endorsement of an intriguing concept for St. Petersburg's next pier is another positive step toward creating a new signature landmark for the downtown waterfront. The Lens, with its sweeping, escalating walkways, is a design for the 21st century that fits well with fiscal realities. But its flexibility also provides extraordinary opportunity going forward for more suggestions from the public. Getting to this point has taken more than five years and involved countless ideas from public officials and private residents. The challenge for the City Council is to keep the momentum going.
After seven weeks of public vetting of the three submissions in the city's international design competition, the five-member jury's decision was strikingly quick and unanimous by both elected members — St. Petersburg City Council member Leslie Curran and Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch — and three design and architectural professionals. They emphasized they were not ranking an ironclad blueprint for construction, but picking the best concept to be fine-tuned for technical, fiscal, aesthetic and practical needs.
While most of the jury expressed enthusiasm for the Wave's aesthetic — a big, bold loop that would instantly re-brand the city waterfront — it was ranked second in part because of uncertainty over whether its interior space was commercially viable given the trouble filling the current inverted pyramid. Never seriously considered by the jury or the public was the Eye — a mushroom-shaped structure that lacked imagination.
The strength of the Lens' design is its focus on the journey over water, not in a destination building. Its looping boardwalks — one of which would have room for a motorized tram — are shorter in distance than the current structure's walkways and will be shaded in parts. Most significantly, the long-term plan calls for putting almost all commercial enterprise on the land at the base of the pier, which would make it closer to Beach Drive and less expensive to build.
Reflecting the continued ambivalence by some in the community, Welch expressed reservations about the council moving directly ahead with negotiations with the Lens team, Michael Maltzan Architecture of Los Angeles. He urged council members to continue to consider other options. But that would be a mistake.
St. Petersburg has been considering this question more than half a decade, ever since it became clear that the pier's roadway was reaching the end of its lifespan. A citizens task force spent more than a year with the help of consultants and experts vetting all possible scenarios, including salvaging the pyramid. All of that work ultimately led to Friday's decision and should inform the path forward.
Innovative public projects are almost always controversial. But progress depends on leaders making the tough decision. The council already demonstrated its willingness to lead in voting to demolish the existing pier. Now it should vote Feb. 2 to begin negotiations on a contract to more fully develop the Lens concept and let the future take shape.