With no clear consensus on what St. Petersburg's next Pier should look like or include, the City Council will fine-tune its plans for an international design competition today. The competition offers great promise, but it will be no substitute for leadership from Mayor Bill Foster and council members.
City Council members — despite more than two years of debate — have not firmly committed to a particular vision for the next Pier, only to the demolition of the outdated pyramid in 2013 or beyond. But their competition guidelines, expected to be approved this month, do hew to the broad findings of an earlier citizen task force that studied the issue for 18 months.
The $45 million price cap on structures that will be built over water suggests that the inverted pyramid will be replaced with something that would include much less indoor space and be reached by a potentially narrower and/or shorter bridge. The council is looking for a Pier that is more about water access, recreation and community gatherings than a diverse retail outlet. That's good. Retail has struggled for years on the Pier, forcing higher taxpayer subsidies.
Yet the council has declined to be more prescriptive on programming, telling the design applicants it values flexibility. That has frustrated some in the community, as subsidy costs drove the debate on whether the aging inverted pyramid was salvageable. The city should stress to competitors — and the jury of experts judging the designs — that the winner must be a design that will not require similarly outsized taxpayer subsidies for so little return.
The three design firms chosen to compete will also submit a comprehensive development plan for the land between Tampa Bay and Bayshore Drive. Yet the council has identified no money for implementing that portion of a winning design or suggested how much it might be willing to spend. That is unfortunate, as designers with a budget are far more likely to produce realistic plans rather than pie-in-the-sky ones.
The lack of a bigger, long-term financial plan has raised valid concerns by council Chairman Jim Kennedy that the city may replace the pyramid but never commit to improving the Pier's relationship with Bayshore Drive — a key part of making any pier a success. Council members should start talking now about how the city could ultimately pay for those on-land improvements or risk building another Pier that attracts too few visitors.
City Hall is betting an international design competition will produce a clear vision for the Pier that two years of community discussion has not. But ultimately this project's success will require strong political leadership invested in helping define the city's landscape for the next half-century. Foster and the council members will take a back seat for the next few months, but ultimately the project is theirs to choose and build.