The closer a new St. Petersburg pier comes to reality, the louder the critics have become. But the voices of a vocal minority shouldn't derail a plan that remains an innovative and exciting solution for replacing an aging and outdated city asset. St. Petersburg has taken four thoughtful years and gathered input from thousands of citizens to reach this point. The City Council should vote Thursday to move forward and further refine the design by architect Michael Maltzan.
Tuesday's council workshop reaffirmed that the project initially known as the Lens continues to evolve and that Maltzan's contract should be extended. Public feedback combined with fiscal and physical realities have led to a revised design that is shorter in height and length but maintains its iconic tiara-like silhouette and its potential as a community destination for the 21st century. The council will vote Thursday on spending another $5.4 million to finalize the design and pay for preconstruction services.
The architects have added more shade, fishing spots and seating to the looping, escalating walkways. They have included infrastructure for restaurants over water and on land. And initial estimates of the city's annual operating subsidy are below that of the current, commercially failing inverted pyramid with a deteriorating approach.
Some fans of the design will be disappointed in the changes, and the changes also have provided fodder for critics. Access to the marina inside the pier's looping walkways will now be limited to human-powered watercraft such as kayaks and paddleboats after continuing concerns that attempts to mitigate waves from motorized boats wouldn't work or would be too costly. Gone is any expectation of the so-called crystal-clear "underwater garden" derided by boaters and some marine scientists because of Tampa Bay's murkiness.
The tiara-like canopy has also had a change in materials. Instead of concrete, the design team anticipates using a treated steel wrapped with thick, coated aluminium panels. Both come with substantial warranties — even in saltwater conditions — that suggest the design team has been mindful of the city's need for a durable structure at a reasonable cost.
Council members Wengay Newton and Karl Nurse, who are expected to vote against the new contract, on Tuesday criticized the plan because some of it — such as the restaurants — will require private partners. But as Mayor Bill Foster and council member Steve Kornell noted, that makes sense. The city's last two taxpayer-funded restaurant ventures — at Albert Whitted Field and the renovated Manhattan Casino — took years to find tenants.
Contrary to the Stop the Lens group's claims, the changes reflect the pragmatism of taking a design from concept to reality. It was just in January that Maltzan won the international design competition. The past 11 months has been spent refining that concept within the $50 million budget.
Many opponents acknowledge that much of their criticism involves subjective aesthetics. But the city will never be able to satisfy some longtime residents who would prefer a more familiar Mediterranean-style building with parking. This is about looking toward the future, not reliving the past, and enhancing the pedestrian-friendly waterfront that represents St. Petersburg's charm. The new pier project has evolved and will continue to be refined, and the City Council should move ahead on Thursday.