From the beginning, the international competition to design St. Petersburg's next Pier was a gamble. The mayor and City Council hoped world-class designers could find an answer for the city's treasured waterfront that had eluded them despite years of public hearings, a task force and consultants. Now, less than a week after three provocative and exotic designs were revealed by the competition's finalists, the predictable debate over aesthetics has begun. But what also needs to happen is a debate on practicality. Will this new pier serve St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay? Residents and officials owe it to themselves to learn more about the three ideas before deciding a path forward.
The chance for that starts today, when additional materials and models related to all three designs — dubbed the Lens, the Wave and the Eye — will be made available at the St. Petersburg Museum of History for most of the month of December. Even a cursory look at backup materials suggests there is much more to understand about each design. None of the images released last week come close to revealing their intricacies. The public can attend formal presentations to the five-member competition jury on Dec. 16 at the Coliseum, 535 Fourth Ave. N. The jury is scheduled to make a final ranking Jan. 20.
The jury's decision, however, won't mean much unless the City Council also gets on board and faces fiscal and political reality. Many decisionmakers in St. Petersburg have been unwilling to define what they want in the next pier or discuss any additional financial commitment beyond the $50 million available through county sources. That's a major problem: Each of these three designs, as St. Petersburg Times reporter Waveney Ann Moore detailed Saturday, is going to require millions more to complete the entire scheme stretching from Beach Drive to the pier's end.
Taxpayer cost: The inverted pyramid no longer attracts enough visitors to support private businesses, resulting in heavier taxpayer subsidies for maintenance and operating costs. How do these new designs mitigate subsidies? Can the city afford any of them long-term?
Connection to downtown/visitor appeal: The task force identified that one of the Pier's major problems stemmed from its lack of pedestrian connection to downtown. Visitors on foot had to traverse a long distance on a shadeless approach and they often complained there was not much reason to be there once they arrived. The designers embraced the task force recommendation to increase programming such as retail, restaurants and parks on the land at the base of the pier to entice visitors closer. Without such improvements — which will increase costs — will any of these designs do a better job of connecting to downtown? Will they provide enough shade?
Environmental permitting: The task force concluded it would be all but impossible for the city to get the permits required to turn the pier approach into a causeway. Do plans for a beach at the end of the approach — as proposed in two plans — have any chance either? And what about other environmental assumptions; are they reasonable or just wishful?
It's natural for initial debate over public projects to center on aesthetics. After all, what does St. Petersburg want as its next icon? But before that question is answered, the jury, the public and ultimately the City Council also need to make sure a winning design is grounded in reality.