St. Petersburg's $1-million Pier playground to be 'one of a kind'

The dock area features water and sand play and a docked Benoist plane ("Ben") which has been re-imagined as a dynamic play sculpture. Images by Earthscape
The dock area features water and sand play and a docked Benoist plane ("Ben") which has been re-imagined as a dynamic play sculpture. Images by Earthscape
Published Aug. 27, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — The city will spend $1 million for what officials are calling an out-of-this-world playground for the $76 million Pier District.

The more than 12,000-square-foot amenity will feature wood and other natural materials and children will clamber onto make-believe aquatic animals and a whimsical interpretation of the Benoist airboat flown by legendary pilot Tony Jannus.

It'll all be set amid a colorful expanse meant to mimic ocean and seashore.

"This is a state-of-the-art playground with all kinds of unique concepts and it is something that families and children are going to want to come to on a regular basis," promised Alan DeLisle, the city's development administrator.

The play area will be in keeping with the city's goal of creating destination-worthy elements for the 26-acre Pier District, including a Janet Echelman floating sculpture, restaurants and marketplace, DeLisle said. It's part of "making sure (St. Petersburg) is one of the best destinations in the country," he added.

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City Council member Gina Driscoll spoke of the playground's importance in the city's flourishing downtown.

There are more families in downtown, she said, mentioning strollers to illustrate her point. A few years ago, a person pushing a stroller often had a dog in it, Driscoll said, but these days, it's more often a baby.

"Now, not only are we providing a playground experience for residents and visitors, but it is going to be enjoyed by children of all abilities," she said.

Steve Urgo spoke in support of the Pier feature during a public hearing for an ordinance to allow the playground, a large plaza with pavilion and snack shack, kayak and paddleboard rentals and a vessel docking facility at charter-protected Spa Beach Park.

"This playground is going to be very popular" and a "big draw" to the Pier, he said.

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The custom playground is being designed and built by Ontario-based firm Earthscape, which has created one at Starkey Ranch, in Pasco County. Chris Ballestra, the city's managing director of development coordination, said he and city architect Raul Quintana visited the playground as part of their research for the Pier feature.

At the Pier, the playground equipment will cost $700,000, with another $300,000 being budgeted for installation and surfacing material.

Nathan Schleicher, a playground designer with Earthscape, said the firm creates 50 to 60 playgrounds a year in Canada and the United States. City officials wanted something that "very much says St. Petersburg, that is only going to exist there, that is going to be custom and very exciting for residents and visitors to the city," he said.

"Their emphasis is on natural play and natural materials and was a perfect fit for what we do. I really do think that it is going to be a one-of-a- kind destination playground."

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The Earthscape concept centers on the idea of a shoreline and tidal pool and "really fun" sea creatures such as turtles, a larger-than-life starfish and a giant magenta octopus, Schleicher said. There will also be a 23-foot-tall tower, sand, boardwalk, water pump and lots of trees, he said.

Most of the playground equipment will be carved from wood. It's "where playground design has been going now," Ballestra said, adding that Earthscape's use of wood "works very well year-round because of the high heat in Florida."

The Canadian company uses robinia — which Schleicher described as an extremely hard wood that is highly resistant to pest and rot — accoya and meranti.

"We really are the wood guys. That is something that has stayed alive in Europe. Metal and plastic structures have really dominated in the U.S.," he said, adding that wood stays cool in the sun in a way that metal and plastic do not. "I see it as a great benefit for a place like the St. Petersburg Pier. And it lends itself to being sculptural and worked with in unique ways."

He said the ground surface will be of material similar to synthetic turf and that the play area will also feature rocks, crushed sea shells and "a massive amount of trees."

The playground is being planned for children from 2 to 12, though Schleicher believes that older children will "have a blast," as well. Even adults will be enchanted with the space, he said.

Ballestra said the city's Committee to Advocate for Persons with Impairments, or CAPI, will continue to be consulted on the playground design and on other areas of the Pier.

"There are routes throughout the space into the play structures if you are in a wheel chair or other mobility device. We are also thinking of children with sight impairment, on the autism spectrum. We are certainly doing our best to make sure all of our spaces are inviting for people of all abilities,'' Schleicher said.

"We're actually trying to consider the whole family. It's going to be totally inviting for all ages."

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