Some fear Spa Beach billowing net sculpture could catch birds and storms

Published Jan. 16, 2018


Times Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — International artist Janet Echelman may have fulfilled her $75,000 feasibility contract with the city and previewed her billowing, parasol-inspired sculpture for Spa Beach, but for some, key questions remain unanswered about the $3 million piece.

One concern: How will Echelman's net sculpture withstand fierce storms? The near miss of a Category 4 hurricane is still a recent memory.

"Which Caribbean island do you have one of these things that has been run over by a major hurricane and it's still there?" asked F. Carter "Bud" Karins, a St. Petersburg engineer.

Echelman provided answers in an email. Her engineers from the firm Arup, with headquarters in London, have a system "designed to withstand hurricanes and all weather conditions for the region," she said. A schematic design of the St. Petersburg sculpture showed it could stand up to winds of 150 mph or more, she said.

Karins, who worked with the group Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg to push the 2013 referendum that scuttled the last pier project, wants proof.

"If you haven't demonstrated that it has survived a Category 3 hurricane somewhere, it is a waste of taxpayers' money," he said. "Otherwise, you're asking the citizens of St. Petersburg to underwrite a massive experiment for which we have no evidence that there's going to be a successful outcome."

When installed, Echelman's Spa Beach sculpture will be approximately 320 feet by 190 feet, with the highest pylon at 60 to 70 feet. So far, there are no plans to dismantle the work for severe weather.

All of her permanent commissions, with the exception of one in Greensboro, N.C., remain up year-round, Echelman said. The Greensboro work, designed for an area prone to ice storms, has "an embedded winch system" that allows it to be lowered in the winter and raised in the spring. The Tampa-born artist said it creates "a special seasonal ritual that the city celebrates."

The net sculpture will be made of "highly engineered fibers," including one described by Echelman as "15 times stronger than steel by weight, and is the same material NASA used to tether the Mars Rover."

Her artwork has been promoted by Mayor Rick Kriseman as an international draw to the $76 million, 26-acre Pier District, expected to open in 2019. The $3 million project will be funded with $1.3 million in tax increment financing (TIF) dollars, which will pay for the infrastructure, including engineering, soil testing, pylons, electrical work and lighting. Kriseman has raised $650,000 from undisclosed donors, and the city's Public Arts Commission plans to contribute another $250,000. Plans call for $600,000 more in private fundraising.

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Critics, including those worried about the sculpture's effect on wildlife, say the city should spend money elsewhere, perhaps on its deteriorated sewer system.

"If this goes on, we are going to have to arrange a protest," said Barbara Walker with the Clearwater Audubon Society, who believes the sculpture will add clutter to the natural environment. "It's going to be an attractant to ospreys," she said. "I don't think this artwork is a good fit for the community. Is an osprey going to build a nest on top of that and is that going to be okay? We see ospreys building their nests on top of cranes."

Walker has other concerns: How would birds be rescued if they get caught in the net sculpture?

"I wonder whether it would confuse migratory birds," she said. "They have a different vision than you and I do, and it could cause them to collide with the sculpture."

Echelman has defended her work, saying unequivocally that no wildlife has been injured in her sculptures.

"No bird or creature has ever been harmed from one of my artworks, and I've had major public sculptures out in the environment on multiple continents since 2004, including waterfront and beach areas similar to the Spa Beach site," she said.

"We have letters from various cities who own the sculptures confirming this. .?.?. We consulted a bio-engineering firm that explained to us how the physical qualities of our nets don't meet the criteria that would endanger birds and other wildlife."

Walker is unconvinced. Gabe Vargo, professor emeritus at the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida and a 30-year volunteer at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve with birds of prey, said no one has a good answer about the potential effect of the sculpture on birds.

"But it is a net, basically," he said. "Even though the spaces might be large, it still has the possibility of trapping birds."

For the first part of her two-phase feasibility study, Echelman turned to several experts. One was Beth Forys, professor of biology and environmental science at Eckerd College. Forys offered two primary concerns and recommendations "to reduce the risk and disruption to coastal birds that inhabit Spa Beach," according to the June report.

"The moving and billowing of the net sculpture is expected to repel birds similarly to flags and kites, thus minimizing risk of collision," Forys observed. She advised reducing the length of taut ropes and ensuring that they are visible to local birds. Echelman said the rope lengths have been reduced.

But Forys now says she's concerned about the size of the proposed sculpture. "They went with a really large footprint," she said.

"If they are going to have it be as big as they are planning, I would like to see them have some monitoring in place and have a way to get birds out that doesn't rely on local volunteers. .?.?. I'm not comfortable saying that it is fine."

Not everyone finds the sculpture problematic. A letter dated May 31, 2017, written by Katheryn Harris, then a Southwest Regional Shorebird biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said she foresaw no potential impacts with the proposed sculpture. "The art installation's movement, color, wide net mesh openings, and thick guide lines should suffice in reducing the risk of entanglements," she wrote.

But Lorraine Margeson, who works as a certified bird monitor for an environmental firm that monitors contractors for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is upset about the plan.

"Nothing like this needs to be on the waterfront," she said.

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.