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A Times Editorial

On pier, function then form

The jury's recommendation of who should design St. Petersburg's next pier should come down not so much to aesthetics as function. The designs formally presented to the city Friday by three international competitors each have a distinctive look but also a distinctive vision of what people want in a pier and how they will use it. That vision is more important at this point in the design process than particular architectural features, as those can be adapted after a designer is selected. The real question before the five-member competition jury — and ultimately the City Council — should be which vision best reflects the pier that St. Petersburg needs in the coming century.

Friday's presentations by each of the design teams underscored the dramatically different interpretations of how St. Petersburg and its tourists would use a new pier. One seems a reinvention and improved model of the inverted pyramid; another a grand extension of the city's vibrant waterfront parks; and the third, an exotic reimagining of the much-beloved Million Dollar Pier.

That's not surprising, given the entire reason City Council members authorized the competition was because neither they nor a citizen task force was able to build a clear consensus on a specific purpose for the pier.

The jury's job now is to rank, at a Jan. 20 meeting, the three designers in a recommendation to the City Council. After Friday's presentation, the last-place finish seems almost certain to go to the mushroom-looking proposal called the Eye. But now the jury must weigh which of the other two, the Wave and the Lens, has the best shot at exciting St. Petersburg's residents and tourists to visit and spurring the City Council to find a way to pay for it. A look at the functions offered by all three proposals:

The Wave This idea, despite its glass-and-concrete appearance, is actually the most conservative because it aims at improving on the current pier's function. The plan calls for replacing the car-centric, straight pier with a "wave walk" that would allow pedestrians to step to the water's edge, swim in a protected area, launch water scooters and kayaks, and dock boats. There would be access for a trolley but not private vehicles. The final destination would be a slightly smaller, made-to-order icon. The Wave structure would also offer interior space for programming and an outside observation deck up top. The design has far better water access than the status quo, but the team on Friday still struggled to address the same problem the current inverted pyramid has: What kind of programming would fill the 90-foot-tall structure that could be commercially viable and not require costly taxpayer subsidies?

The Lens This design seeks to wed the over-water experience of the pier with the city's signature parks. It is the most unconventional design, recasting the pier's historically static lines into a collection of elegant and escalating shaded promenades that lead to the signature "tiara" wall at the pier's end. The wall would offer pedestrians and bicyclists vistas at various elevations and look back on the city and a protected area where boats can dock and other water activities can launch. There's also a plaza at the water's edge in the wall's shade. The team envisions a gelato shop there, but almost all other commercial enterprises would be located on the uplands. They would include a large outdoor amphitheater, a water park and other commercial amenities in a welcome recasting of the entire area east of Bay Shore Drive — something the pier task force staunchly recommended. But the first phase of the project, which the city has $50 million in hand for, would cover little of the upland improvements. If this is the vision the jury selects and the City Council embraces, it would also require — more than the others — more money to be fully realized.

The Eye Despite its appearance — many have called it a mushroom — this structure is actually rooted in the past, reflecting the function of the Million Dollar Pier that for years defined St. Petersburg. The top floor, with its arched openings, evokes shaded verandas where people can gather and pass the time. A lower level could be enclosed partially or completely for commercial uses, and the ground floor would be a an open-air public gathering spot. But public opinion is running against it so far, and adding a beach at the structure's base is foolish. There are other problems. Rather than linking this structure to the downtown, the team seemed intent on separating it by proposing that the upland to the west be transformed into an urban preserve. There's already enough problems getting people to the pier without allowing a forest between Bay Shore and downtown.

On pier, function then form 12/16/11 [Last modified: Friday, December 16, 2011 7:41pm]
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