Nothing about replacing St. Petersburg's aging Pier and its inverted pyramid has been easy. Even as the City Council today considers signing a contract with the winning architect from the city's international design competition, critics continue to carp about everything from tearing down the existing outdated structure to lobbying for a grander, pricier replacement. But St. Petersburg's elected leaders have arrived at this moment after years of public input, expert opinion and due diligence. It's time to sign a contract, further refine the vision and move this exciting project forward.
Significant momentum has been lost in the four months since Michael Maltzan Architecture of Los Angeles won the competition with its Lens design and earned the confidence of the City Council. Yet months of contract negotiations appear to have an upside: a thoughtful agreement that anticipates various contingencies. That flexibility is important given that the Lens is still more concept than blueprint and that the final plan will evolve in coming months as the public is invited to weigh in on specifics.
Everything from the width of the design's escalating walkways to the purpose of the on-land structure known as the Hub remains fluid. It's not even clear exactly how much money will be available for construction. That will depend on the cost of demolishing the current Pier and pyramid.
The contract eliminates, for now, Maltzan's plan for a sea garden, dismissed by some scientists as unworkable. Its resurrection would require a contract addition. And Maltzan's fees are capped at just under $4.7 million, to be paid over five phases of work. The city would immediately hire a consultant — known as a construction manager at risk — who would provide independent cost estimates for demolition and the new structure. That should help ensure that the entire project stays within the $50 million set aside for the project.
This is a project born in austerity and committed to remaining financially defensible. Some critics contend that the strength of the Lens design — an elegant over-water extension of the city's signature waterfront parks — won't be an attraction that draws tourists. Yet they fail to suggest exactly how the city would raise the additional tens of millions of dollars needed for something more ambitious or to consider whether a major tourist attraction is necessary considering the evolution of downtown.
Others are sentimentalists who want to save the pyramid — including those circulating a petition hoping to force a voter referendum on the Pier's fate. But it would take the entire $50 million just to replace the extraordinarily wide, car-friendly Pier approach that leads to the building. And the city still would be stuck with an aging structure plagued by tenant vacancies that cost city taxpayers up to $2 million annually in operating subsidies. (The Lens, by contrast, will be cheaper to build as it has a smaller over-water footprint that will accommodate minimal vehicular traffic.)
Doing nothing is not an option. By 2014, engineers have warned, the city will need to erect a fence at the Pier approach's base because it won't be safe enough to carry vehicles.
It's clear St. Petersburg residents want to continue to have a pier to enjoy Tampa Bay and provide a signature snapshot. But just as the city had to let go of the Million Dollar Pier decades ago, it's time to retire the inverted pyramid. The council should move ahead, let the architect get to work and offer residents more opportunities to help iron out the details.